Kevin Tamai with Hargrove Inc. works Jan. 20 on the Tuskegee Airmen float prepared for the 57th Presidential Inaugural Parade in Washington. (Alex Brandon / The Associated Press)
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WASHINGTON — They sat in wheelchairs as honored guests at President Obama's second inaugural, attended to almost minute-by-minute by active duty members of the military. For these Tuskegee Airmen, members of the famed all-black unit of World War II and several years beyond, the tables surely turned.
From the terrace of the Capitol, they watched an African-American president being sworn in for his second term. And they were cared for reverently by many whites in uniform, who more than six decades ago would have had no contact with these two dozen veterans now sitting with green Army blankets across their laps. Several of them said they were at Obama's first inaugural but were just as excited to attend his second.
The tables certainly were turned for Homer Hogues, 85, who marched with his segregated unit in President Harry Truman's inaugural parade in 1949.
The black troops were quartered in a hangar with little heat, while the white military marchers were in a barracks.
"We couldn't do a lot of protesting at the time," said Hogues, a Dallas resident who was a mechanic with his unit working on P-47 Thunderbolt fighters. What would he have told Truman, the president who integrated the armed forces? "I would have asked him, ‘Why did he put us in those hangars," said Hogues.
As a civilian, Hogues tried to get a job as an airline mechanic but was told he only could work cleaning planes. He went to work instead in the metalworking industry. He looked forward to seeing Obama again at the Commander In Chief's inaugural ball.
Clayton Lawrence, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, was among some 100 black troops disciplined in Indiana in 1945, during a protest when black officers attempted to enter an all-white officers' club. A trainer of B-25 bomber pilots, the 89-year-old former New York City employee received a written reprimand and three officers faced courts-martial.
Transposing that day with the inauguration of the nation's first African-American president, Lawrence said, "I never thought I would live to see it."
Ezra Hill, 82, of Hampton, Va., who was an engineer with the unit, said the Tuskegee Airmen "never gave up" the hope that the military would be integrated. So many times, while he was in uniform, Hill said he was told, "We don't have colored boys here."
Grant Williams, also of Hampton, who had an administrative job with the unit from 1941-45, said the airmen suffered more discrimination in the United States then when they were deployed during World War II.
"We got much better treatment overseas than at home," the 92-year-old said.