They were officially known as the 332nd Fighter group and the 477th Bombardment group, but the world remembers them as the Tuskegee Airmen.
The memory of the first black military pilots is being honored throughout the region this week. On Thursday a new semi-permanent display honoring the corps was unveiled at Pittsburgh International Airport by county executive Rich Fitzgerald.
“We need to recognize these heroes,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s truly what they are, is heroes, and it's long past due that this community does recognize the heroic work that they did to provide freedom for all of us.”
The display covers three walls of an alcove in Concourse A of the airside terminal. Tuskegee Airmen Memorial Project Coordinator Rich Dieter said the first two panels feature pictures and information about the group’s efforts during the war, and the third looks at the members' lives after returning home.
“There is one plaque that specifically talks about the double 'V,'" Dieter said. "Victory at home against racism and victory abroad against the Nazis, and that was a campaign that was started by the Pittsburgh Courier."
While the Pittsburgh Courier was known as the nation’s black newspaper of record, it had a good reason as a Pittsburgh-based newspaper to focus on the Tuskegee Airmen. No one has a single comprehensive list all of the men and women who served in the corps, but it is widely believed there were about 1,400 pilots and support crew.
Through recent research by Regis D. Bobonis Jr., it has been learned that about 100 of them were from western Pennsylvania.
“Nobody has ever determined why that happened,” Dieter said. “I don’t know what the appeal was, but for some reason, African American men and women from western Pennsylvania felt it was their duty to serve their country.”
The unveiling of the display at the airport was just the first event in a four-day celebration of the Tuskegee Airmen. It will continue with a free concert Friday by Josh White Jr. at the Edgeworth Club and then the New York cast of the long-running off Broadway play “Black Angels over Tuskegee” will perform Saturday at the Byham Theater.
Writer and Director Layon Gray said when he looked at the tour schedule he was most excited about this show given the high percentage of individuals from the region who signed up to be part of the experiment that would become know as the Tuskegee Airmen.
Gray’s story follows the lives of six airmen and their families from their decision to sign up through their time overseas and then into their lives stateside.
“They had to stick together in order for this experiment to succeed, because it was not supposed to succeed” Gray said. “Everyone thought it would fail; no one thought that it would go on to do the incredible things that it did.”
Gray said he was compelled to write the play after learning about the men and women because their stories are not told in history classes.
“I always tell people this is not just African American History, it's American history,” he said.
The six characters in the play are amalgams of the men Gray interviewed while writing the play.
The play has been running for four years in New York to audiences of all ages and races, but Gray said he is most excited when he takes the show to schools and when former Tuskegee Airmen come to the theater.
“One gentleman came up (after the show), and he told me, ‘Layon, out of all the stories that people have told about us, you go it right,’" Gray said. "The play has received great reviews from the New York Times and other papers, but nothing will ever compare to what the Tuskegee Airman told me.”
The four days of events in the Pittsburgh area will culminate in the ribbon cutting of a Tuskegee Airmen memorial at the Sewickley Cemetery.
The memorial will include two granite slabs celebrating all the members of the fighter and bomber groups, and then two slabs listing the names of the nearly 100 members that have been identified as hailing from the region.
Dieter said alongside each name will be a QR code that can be read by a smart phone to link to more information.
“The QR codes will include some history," he said "As much as we can gather from family members. We’ll put on pictures and biographies of the airmen."
The goal is to have those codes populated by Veteran’s Day.
“We’re sure there are several airmen from western Pennsylvania that we are yet to identify,” said Dieter, who will add new names to the memorial if needed.
None of the Tuskegee Airmen are buried in the Sewickley Cemetery, but Dieter said space behind the memorial will be set aside for any veterans who choose to be buried there in the future.