BY SAMUEL DE KORTE - On 16 July 2023, a monument was unveiled for the Tuskegee Airmen. Accompanying this event, a mural was unveiled, a presentation was given about the many local army air force bases, and a documentary was shown about the Tuskegee Airmen. All these events were to honor and celebrate the Tuskegee Airmen.
An unidentified Tuskegee airman sitting on a P-5/D, "Creamer's Dream" airplane, Ramitelli, Italy, March 1945. Source: Library of Congress
The Tuskegee Airmen
Tuskegee Airmen were Black American pilots trained during the Second World War by the US Army Air Force. Due to racial prejudice, Black Americans were barred from serving in the Air Force. They mostly served in support units. It was only after pressure from the Black community, and a little help from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, that segregated squadrons were being established, the 99th Fighter Squadron at first, later joined by the 100th, 301st, and 302nd Fighter Squadrons. The 332nd Fighter Group constituted of these four squadrons and served with distinction in the Mediterranean theatre. The pilots are most well-known for escorting Allied bombers and the name Tuskegee Airmen is derived from the Tuskegee Institute, Alabama, where the pilots initially trained. Back in the United States, the 477th Bombardment Group was activated, staffed with only Black Americans. However, due to mismanagement and racism, the unit never served in combat.
Tuskegee airman Edward C. Gleed, Lawrence, KS, Class 42-K, with an unidentified crewman adjusting an external seventy-five gallon drop tank on the wing of a P-5D, "Creamer's Dream." Ramitelli, Italy, March 1945. Source: Library of Congress Tuskegee airmen exiting the parachute room, Ramitelli, Italy, March 1945. Source: Library of Congress
How it all started
In 2021, the idea to honor Tuskegee Airmen with a monument came when Perry Guinn, a Master Sergeant in the USAF and at that time stationed in Italy, met with local expert Enzo Cupaioli. Guinn was aware that the Tuskegee Airmen were stationed somewhere in Italy and he wanted to visit that place: “while I was a leader in the African American Heritage Committee, I spoke with my fellow council members about finding and visiting the Air Base famous for the Tuskegee Airmen. I was dumbfounded to question why I hadn't noticed in my three years in Italy that it wasn't any commemoration celebrating these American Airmen who sacrificed so much. The harsh reality made me do some deep soul searching and take action on this oversight. I began looking into the location of Ramitelli Air Field.” Through research online, he met Cupaioli, who lives in the area and knows a lot about the Ramitelli Airfield. Cupaioli’s interest came from his father, a barber, whose clientele included the Tuskegee Airmen. After the war, he told stories about these events to his son.
The first meeting proved to be quite challenging since Cupaioli doesn’t speak English well and Guinn doesn’t speak Italian well. They toured the area, visiting the headquarters buildings of the 332nd Fighter Group, which is in disrepair, and a nearby bar that the Tuskegee Airmen frequently visited, which was run by the aunt of Cupaioli. This visit lay the foundation for the monument. After this visits, there were many more, with local representatives and with government officials. Funds needed to be secured and many people were eager to help. It resulted not only in the monument, but also in the mural and other celebrations that were held on 16 July 2023.
On 16 July the ceremony at the monument opened by quoting Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, which was told in Italian and in English. Afterwards, a priest spoke in Italian and blessed the monument. The anthem of Italy and then the US anthem were played. The honor guard advanced and stood in front of the monument, presenting several flags, including one of the US Air Force. Afterwards, the honor guard left and the mayor of Campomarino removed the cloth covering the monument. Several other people spoke, including two historians about the history of the region and the airfields, and Jeffrey Burton, the National President of Tuskegee Airmen Inc, which “focuses on honoring the accomplishments and perpetuating the history of African Americans who participated in air crew, ground crew and operations support training in the Army Air Corps during WWII”.
The top of the monument shows the symbol of the 332nd Fighter Group, “Spit Fire”, underneath it are the different symbols of the four squadrons that formed this fighter group, the 99th, 100th, 301st, and 302nd. The plaque shows two fighters in profile, the P-47 Thunderbolt and the P-51 Mustang, with the 332nd Fighter Group symbol between them.
Below this are the words:
“332nd FIGHTER GROUP
99th, 100th, 301st, 302nd FIGHTER SQUADRON
U.S. Army Air Forces
May 28, 1944 – May 4, 1945
Honoring the Tuskegee Airmen who served
Dedicated July 16, 2023
At the bottom of the plaque is the symbol of the US Army Air Corps (as it was then known) and the 15th Air Force. A red panel on each site is reminiscent of the ‘Red Tails’ of the 332nd Fighter Group. Two banners stand on the flanks of the monument and tell of the history of the Tuskegee Airmen and tell about several prominent pilots. These two banners were handed over to the local library after the ceremony. Behind the banners were two flag poles, one with the American and one with the Italian flag.
Later that day, there was a trip to where the airfield used to be. The former headquarter building, which has fallen in disrepair and is on private property, for which entrance must be granted. Standing near the fields and watching the old photos, one can really imagine what the place must have looked like.
Also, a special room in the local library was opened, dedicated to the Tuskegee Airmen. Here the history of the Tuskegee Airmen is taught and several objects related to the men are displayed. In another room, a laptop loops through a collection of photographs, while significant events are displayed and explained on the wall.
A mural of Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.
In the evening a large mural was presented. The mural is a painting of Benjamin O. Davis Jr., the commander of the 332nd Fighter Group. Behind him are several P-51s, easily recognized by their red tails and noses.
As a closing of the day, the documentary The Tuskegee Airmen: Return to Ramitelli
was shown. It chronicles the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen and features the ruins of their operations building in Ramitelli, Italy. In the documentary, the daughter of a Tuskegee Airmen goes to Ramitelli to discover more about her father, while local and US historians explain about the airfield and the service of the Tuskegee Airmen. The highlight of the movie are, of course, the interviews that have been conducted with surviving Tuskegee Airmen and their service. The day has been a fitting tribute to the men and the service they rendered.