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California Tuskegee Airmen Head to Inauguration

Arthur Hicks.JPG

(Oakland, California)

“Welcome to the Obama Express!” said the flight attendant, as most of the plane erupted in laughter. When asked for a show of hands on who was going to the Inaugural, most of the passengers on Jet Blue Fight 318 raised their hands. The flight was the nonstop “red eye” from Oakland to Washington Dulles Airport.

It was an interesting mix of people on board, including one member of a famed military unit. It was also among the most ridiculed units in its day. They were “The Tuskegee Airmen” and are a dying breed from the World War II generation, with perhaps only 200 or 300 left.

“We think this (Obama’s election) is one of the greatest things that could happen to the world,” said Arthur Hicks, 86, an Airman who now lives in Lompoc, California. He was at the Oakland Airport with his wife, daughter and son-in-law, getting ready to fly to the Obama Inauguration.

Excited? Historic? “To say no, would be to say there has not been much progress,” Hicks said. But there has been much progress. The Tuskegee Airmen group was formed in the days of the segregated military.

Here’s a bit of the history, according to Wikipedia.org: “Prior to the Tuskegee Airmen, no U.S. military pilots had been black. A series of legislative moves by the United States Congress in 1941 forced the Army Air Corps to form an all-black combat unit, despite the War Department's reluctance. In an effort to eliminate the unit before it could begin, the War Department set up a system to accept only those with a level of flight experience or higher education that they expected would be hard to fill. This policy backfired when the Air Corps received an abundance of applications from men who qualified even under these restrictive specifications, many of whom had already participated in the Civilian Pilot Training Program, which the Tuskegee Institute had participated in since 1939.”

“It was thought that blacks were incapable of learning to fly and to do complex things in an aircraft,” said Hicks, who went on to become a pilot and worked on the Titan II missile project at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

“The Tuskegee Airmen are an indication of what can be done,” Hicks said, “That the impossible can be done.”

Also from Wikipedia.org: “By the end of the war, the Tuskegee Airmen were credited with 109 Luftwaffe aircraft shot down, the German-operated Italian destroyer TA-23 sunk by machine-gun fire, and destruction of numerous fuel dumps, trucks and trains. The squadrons of the 332nd FG flew more than 15,000 sorties on 1,500 missions. The unit received recognition through official channels and was awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation for a mission flown March 24, 1945, escorting B-17s to bomb the Daimler-Benz tank factory at Berlin, Germany.”

Obama invited all living Tuskegee Airmen to the Inaugural. Hicks is going with his wife Edith (pictured above). They’ve been married 62 years. They have three children- one is an attorney; one is in high-tech and the other is a graphic artist. They have seven grandchildren- two of whom are in law school- one at Harvard and one at UC Berkeley. So much for blacks being incapable of difficult tasks.

“I volunteered for the Cadet Corps and became a pilot in the Army Air Corps,” said Hicks.

After leaving the military, Hicks was a school teacher for thirteen years, and then served on the school board another twelve years.

“We (blacks) worked diligently in politics,” he said, “We have been impossible Democrats,” he said with a laugh.

“At last we have reached a pinnacle in the political world, getting Barack Obama to the Presidency,” Hicks said. “And to think we (the Tuskegee Airmen) had a part in this is one of the greatest feelings one could possibly have.”

You never know who you will meet along the political trail. I will have more stories from Washington, DC this week. Check in at www.MarkCurtisMedia.com.

America Has a New Hero from Danville, California

Chesley Sullenberger.jpg

(Danville, California)

With all the excitement and fanfare surrounding the Inauguration in Washington, DC, you could not imagine that another story would come along and completely overshadow it. But that’s exactly what happened, thanks to a man named Chesley Sullenberger from Danville, Califronia. Who?-- you would have said a week ago. Today “Sully” is a household name!

Capt. Sullenberger is the U.S. Airways pilot who successfully landed his crippled jetliner on the Hudson River in New York on Thursday, saving the lives of all 155 people on board.

Sullenberger and I, coincidentally, live in the same town. I have known his wife Lorrie for a number of years, from some community activities. I have never met “Sully,” but can’t wait for the opportunity to shake his sure and steady hand.

I was at there home for a brief visit today and met Sullenberger’s daughters Katie and Kelly. Lorrie and I spoke for a few minutes, off-the-record, so I can’t quote her here. But let me just say she and the girls are very happy, proud and excited. They are doing well despite the onslaught of media outside the family home. Danville is a very neighborly place and they are getting great support from the community.

“This man is an American hero, and the town will honor him as such,” Mayor Newell Arnerich told me Friday night from Washington, DC, where the Mayor was attending the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

This is a story America needs right now. We are hungry for heroes. We want genuine leadership, whether it’s in Congress, the corporate boardroom, or on our local PTA. While we tend to put so much hope on our politicians, and are often disappointed, the real heroes usually come from Main Street and not Pennsylvania Avenue. Heroism always comes from a service-above-self attitude; it comes when someone reaches into their heart, soul and gut to go the extra mile; it comes from surviving despite all odds.

Ironically, this is not the first time a man from our area made headlines from an aviation incident near New York City. Tom Burnett of San Ramon, the community that adjoins Danville, died a hero on September 11, 2001. Tom was one of the passengers who led the revolt against the terrorists on United Flight 93, bound from Newark to San Francisco. Tom and the other brave passengers fought with the terrorists, and the plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. Experts are convinced that had they not done so, Flight 93 would have been intentionally crashed into the U.S. Capitol or White House.

So, once again, our community has a national hero we can all embrace. My friend Faran Shojaie added this post on Facebook today: "Seems like Danville is the city of Heroes... Tom Burnett who was the leader of the group that brought the plane down on September 11th was also from Danville...."

I laughed today when Lorrie Sullenberger recalled the first time that she and I worked together. I was emcee for the “Christmas Tree Lighting” in neighboring Alamo, Califronia. Lorrie was Mrs. Santa Claus. At the eleventh hour our “Santa Claus” either got sick or quit, but we had a last minute substitution who was at none of the rehearsals. We had to shepherd the most befuddled and reluctant “St. Nick” you’ve ever seen onto the stage, but he was a trooper and the kids loved it. We thought we had really “saved the day” and were “heroes” to the kids.

Today Lorrie and I laughed at that fun memory, knowing full well, it was nothing by comparison to what her brave, heroic husband did this week.

God Bless Chesley Sullenberger. We need more heroes just like him! Our prayers and thanks go out to all the other crew members, brave passengers and rescuers who made this “America’s Story!” at a time when we really need it!

I am headed to Washington, DC Saturday night and will be on the ground with Inaugural blogging by Sunday. Please check back at www.MarkCurtisMedia.com.

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