Students at Gardiner Manor Elementary School in Bay Shore crowded around the man who was presenting them with the opportunity to try on an authentic World War II field jacket and helmet.
As the relics were passed around, Paul Berger explained that the Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-Americans allowed to fly planes with the U.S. military, paving the way for generations to come.
“Men of color at that time could carry a rifle but weren’t allowed to fly a plane,” said Berger, a volunteer with Tuskegee Airmen Inc.’s Tri-State Chapter, a group that educates the public about the Airmen. “Everyone wanted to learn to fly, but they weren’t allowed. They said, ‘No, you’re not smart enough.’”
“Just because they were black?” asked fifth-grader Faith deCoteau, who is African-American and said her father is in the military.
“That’s right,” Berger responded. “That [her father being in the military] never would have happened had the Tuskegee Airmen not been around.”
Berger was one of a handful of Tuskegee Airmen Inc. members to speak with the children Thursday as part of the school’s “Salute to Black History Month” event.
Principal Carlton Brown said the event, in which African-Americans of different professions talk to the students about their education and careers, has gone on for nearly 20 years, but this is the first time Tuskegee Airmen Inc. has participated.
Reynard Burns, another chapter member, said the group stresses to children the importance of education. He said the Tuskegee Airmen are perfect examples because pilot opportunities were only presented to those who were college-educated.
He said that of the 15,000 Tuskegee Airmen who fought in World War II, only about 300 are still living.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” Brown said. “In the next 10 years, most of the Tuskegee Airmen will pass.”
Along with volunteers, Audley Coulthurst, a surviving Tuskegee Airman, participated.
Coulthurst, 88, of Jamaica, Queens, served in the U.S. Army Air Corps between 1942 and 1946. He was a radio operator on the Airmen’s B-25 Bomber planes.
He said he enjoys speaking with children because it inspires him as much as he hopes he inspires them.
“They need to be inspired,” he said. “They need to know you have to set a goal for yourself and keep trying even when it’s difficult, which is how I could be a Tuskegee Airman.”
Burns said it’s important for Tuskegee Airmen Inc., which is also made up of people working to continue their legacy, to reach out to young generations to teach them about their accomplishments.
“Because there are so few of them left,” he said, “we make sure this generation doesn’t miss out on them. They need to know that anybody can become anything they’d like to be.”