George Boyd travels across the country — to air shows, high schools and universities — telling stories about his days as a Tuskegee Airman and delivering a message: Americans should never stop fighting for their rights.
He estimates that he’s told more than 80,000 people that message so far, and he’ll keep doing so this weekend at Fair St. Louis.
Boyd, 87, of Kansas City, will be one of the honorary grand marshals at the Veiled Prophet parade today, along with another airman, Lt. Col. George Hardy from Philadelphia. This year’s air show features multiple World War II-era aircraft, including a red-tailed P-51 Mustang associated with the famous Tuskegee pilots.
“I don’t talk about the ills we’ve had in our country because there isn’t a person alive that doesn’t know what they are,” Boyd said. “I talk about the good things and why they’re worth protecting.”
The Tuskegee Airmen were black military pilots, navigators, bombardiers and support staff, and were featured in the 2012 movie “Red Tails.” The program began in 1941 at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. The program trained almost 1,000 black pilots, many of whom escorted bombers overseas in World War II.
The Red Tail Squadron boasts one of only four Mustangs that can still fly. The squadron is part of the nonprofit Commemorative Air Force, which maintains vintage aircraft and performs in air shows across the country.
The federal sequestration budget cuts grounded official military performers such as the Blue Angels. To keep the appeal of military planes, the air show reached out to groups such as the Red Tail Squadron and acrobatic pilots of other World War II-era aircraft, such as the AT-6 training aircraft, the “whistling death” F4U Corsair and a B-17 bomber.
The Mustang will be flown by Bill Shepard, a black pilot from Canada. He became a Tuskegee history buff when he realized how few black pilots perform in WWII-era planes. His favorite part of the job is seeing the expression on kids’ faces when they learn about the airmen.
“They don’t often see someone that looks like them doing some of the things they want to do or they dream about,” Shepard said.
The air show also features an exhibit called “Rise Above.” The exhibit is housed in a refurbished semi trailer and travels with the Red Tail Squadron. The main attraction is a short film about the airmen’s principles, and it encourages children to follow their dreams.
The exhibit had more than 500 visitors earlier this week at the Mathews-Dickey Boys’ & Girls’ Club. At the fair this weekend, volunteers, including Boyd, will be on hand to answer questions.
Yolandea Wood, president of the Hugh J. White chapter of Tuskegee Airmen in St. Louis, said the veterans are powerful role models for young people. She mentioned Granville Coggs, who became a radiologist after serving in the Army Air Corps, and Wendell O. Pruitt, who helped disable a German warship with machine gun fire.
“You put someone like that in front of your high school student or junior high student who says ‘I can’t do anything,’ ” said Wood, a retired Air Force major.
One area surviving airman, Everett Bratcher, 99, lives at the St. Louis Veterans Home. He doesn’t like to be called “Tuskegee Airman” or even “hero.”
“Wars were things where I found out that every citizen had an obligation of serving if they were able, and that’s what I did,” Bratcher said.
Boyd says he shares his experiences to demonstrate the advantages he was given as an American citizen, despite facing discrimination when he was in the military.
In 1944, Boyd was stationed at Keesler Field in Biloxi, Miss., where he was assigned to guard a beach he otherwise wasn’t allowed to set foot on. When he asked his superior why, he said, he was told: “You took an oath of office to protect the U.S. and that’s just part of it. When we win this war all of this will go away.”
He traveled to Mississippi in 2001 as part of his work with the Civil Air Patrol. On that visit, he realized that promise was true — he could now go anywhere he wanted.
“We had an opportunity to see what the changes in this country really mean,” he said.