The American Airpower Museum in Farmingdale hosted a forum on Saturday to celebrate the history of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen.  Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Amelia Montgomery held up the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor that her husband earned as a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, the Black military pilots and ground support crews who fought in World War II, protecting bomber planes against the Nazis as they broke through America's color barrier in the military.

The medal, she said, brings back proud memories, and a bit of sadness as well, because it took 62 years to finally award it to him and all of the original airmen.

"There were so many indignities they had to endure," said Montgomery, 81, of Harlem, as she spoke Saturday during a forum on the airmen at The American Airpower Museum in Farmingdale.

Montgomery was among several speakers during the event, and as they spoke — surrounded by the military aircraft of that period in an old hangar that once produced military aircraft — the place filled with a sense of history.

The Tuskegee Airmen were America's first Black military pilots. They flew P-51 Mustangs on missions to protect B-17 bombers against Messerschmitts of the German Luftwaffe.

Before the creation of their ranks, the military had deemed Black service members inferior to whites and they were relegated to support roles in the war.

But the need to produce more pilots, along with pressure from civil rights advocates, helped create the fighting unit in 1941. They were trained at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

Montgomery's husband, Dabney Montgomery, who served as a ground crewman in Italy, died in 2016. He helped run the food and clothing warehouse, and drove prisoners to where they were held.

"The German prisoners were treated better than the Black soldiers," she said. "They endured it. They were very tough guys."

When the war ended, these soldiers came home to a segregated America, with many people indifferent to their dedication and sacrifice. Montgomery recalled that her husband was discharged out of Atlanta.

"When he went to the front door of a train station, a police officer told him, 'You can't go through there, boy,' " she said.

Dabney Montgomery, she said, told the officer: "I just fought in the war, for your life."

"I don't care," the officer responded. "You have to go around back."

Reynard Burns, spokesman for the Claude B. Govan Tri-State Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, said there were 16,000 soldiers who were part of the now-famous group. It has dwindled to a few living members.

Burns said that early in the war, "The U.S. was way behind. We didn't have the aircraft. We did not have the pilots, and we were up against planes that were faster, with better armament. … The bombers were being annihilated."

That changed with the advent of the P-51s, which could reach speeds over 400 mph and climb to over 40,000 feet. The Tuskegee Airmen were among those pilots that protected the bombers as they flew missions, including the bombing of Berlin, he said.

Marc Whiten, whose father and uncle served in the unit, said that bombing run into Berlin sent a powerful message to the folks on the homefront.

"It said we're going to the heart of the Nazi empire," said Whiten, 68, of the Bronx. "We were hitting them where they live."

Those who spoke lamented that many young people do not know about the difference that the Tuskegee Airmen made, helping to spur integration of the military.

Jordan Samuels, 17, of North Babylon, said that about a decade ago, as gang violence grew in the Brentwood area, the Civil Air Patrol's Spirit of Tuskegee Squadron was created, which helps steer young people in a positive direction.

"It's really important to learn about the history of the Tuskegee Airmen, what they did for this country — and so their legacy endures," said Samuels, a member of the group.

Oak Beach Osprey nest … New tax breaks for struggling Port Washington development … Paralympic gold medalist Credit: Newsday

Primary: Voters take to the polls ... Nassau homebuying event ... Hampton Bays man drowns ... Paralympic gold medalist

Oak Beach Osprey nest … New tax breaks for struggling Port Washington development … Paralympic gold medalist Credit: Newsday

Primary: Voters take to the polls ... Nassau homebuying event ... Hampton Bays man drowns ... Paralympic gold medalist

Latest Videos

SUBSCRIBE

Unlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months

ACT NOWSALE ENDS SOON | CANCEL ANYTIME