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May 8th, 2009
12:13 PM ET

Honoring Our Flyboys

 

This week is the anniversary of the first American flyboys to officially win the distinction "First Top Guns. " Move over, Tom "Maverick" Cruise.

Despite what we all remember seeing in the 1986 movie "Top Gun," I was reminded this week by historian and "Heroes at War, Heroes at Home" author Zelli Orr that the original Top Guns were Tuskegee Airmen.

Here's the story: on May 2, 1949 members of the first black fighter wing of the U.S. Army Air Corp won the USAF Fighter Gunnery contest at Las Vegas AFB, Nevada.

Congrats to the Top Guns and all others inspired to follow their extraordinary path in the skies and on the ground.

So, that now brings me to this. It's been nearly four months since the Tuskegee Airmen attended the swearing-in of the 44th president of the United States.

And it's been nearly ten months since the Beijing Olympic Games. And what is striking is that during the telling of those recent historic moments, our CNN audience got to know a man very special to me and inspirational to a host of others: my 84-year-old dad, Mal Whitfield.

Almost weekly, (not an exaggeration at all) I get a friendly reminder of how my televised profiles of my dad - a five-time Olympian of the 1948 and '52 games and a Tuskegee Airman gunner beginning in 1943 - touched someone. This is what I hear from perfect strangers who have approached me in the grocery store, at professional seminars and awards events, even one time while working out at my gym: "I loved that story about your dad" or "what an inspiration" and "did your dad see old friends?" and my favorite, which came earlier this week, "seeing that story inspired me to plan a trip with my father."

The backstory as to why I profiled my dad last year leading up to the Olympic Games and during, is this; I wanted my dad to see his Olympic buddies on the 60th anniversary of his first medal wins. After he assured me he physically felt strong enough for the 19-hour journey, without dad's knowing, I contacted his buddies spread out across the country from California to Pennsylvania. Yes, they had plans to be in Beijing. Perfect, I could plan my dad\'s excursion without him knowing his buds would be there. Unaware a beautiful surprise would await, he was just thrilled at the notion of celebrating his Olympic anniversary in a country he last visited as a career American diplomat two decades prior. I had planned only to videotape our journey for our family's viewing.

But colleagues and friends urged me to share it with the world. So, what viewers got to learn along with me, is that octogenarians like dad, gold medalist diver Sammy Lee, gold sprinter and hurdler Harrison Dillard and bronze long jumper Herb Douglas shared a brotherhood and comaraderie that is enviable and everlasting. Together, they individually and collectively proved their muster in the face of so much adversity and resistence. Similar champion characteristics were the ingredients of another cadre of fighters; fighters who were members of that first African-American fighting wing of the U.S. Army Air Corp - the Tuskegee Airmen –which I mentioned at the top.

For the first time, 60 years after their service as pilots and crew in World War ll, approximately 200 airmen all now in their 80s and 90s, were invited special guests at the swearing-in of America's new Commander in Chief, Barack Obama. So, dad was determined to be there, despite threats of below freezing temps. He allowed me, as his escort, to be as inventive as possible to assure his warmth.

Not at all embarrassed that my scheme meant turning my dad into one hot dog, I enveloped him in a down sleeping bag. Only his face would feel exposure. He was warm, happy and proud - proud to witness firsthand a historic turnaround after serving in a segregated U.S. military.

These heroes like Olympians Mal Whitfield, Sammy Lee, Harrison Dillard, Herb Douglas, airmen Hillard Pouncy, Lee Archer and Ray Williams set the bar for all generations to follow. And it's comforting to know that across all races, gender and ages these heroes are awe-inspiring, appreciated and unforgotten. If there was one thing I was hoping the stories of dad, his fellow Olympians and Airmen would do, it was that it would encourage people to ask their moms, dads, grandparents and any other elders in their lives about the experiences which shaped their lives. If you haven't yet discovered, you'll be pleasantly surprised how their paths will end up shaping yours.


Filed under: Fredricka Whitfield
soundoff (4 Responses)
  1. Gary Davis

    Great little story about some HUGE men!

    May 7, 2009 at 2:07 pm |
  2. Ron the Spiderman Metzger

    I HAVE had a hard time passing on ths news to you.
    Ihave worked for the american red cross for 15 yrs.
    have gone to 23 major disasters in the us.during that time
    i have seen people loading sand bags to control flood waters.
    at 4 disasters i have seen a new way of controling flood waters.
    there is a company called water structors.com aqua dams
    used to stop and control water.they are 100 ft long 6 ft high.
    they fill up in 30 min.can be stacked up for higher. when flood waters go down you drain the water structors. roll them up and use again.
    they have many other uses. store water,used as a bridge,remove
    haz mat.they work realy well. every year a town uses them
    every year,for the river comes right down town. they put
    up the water structors down the middle of town and have no more
    damage. roll them up and use again.they are used by army corps
    for bulding bridges.they have been around for over 10 years.
    i have seen them place them around a home and there is flood
    waters on the out side and green grass inside.no damage.
    i do not understand why they still use sand bags,you have to
    pay for the sand,the bags,law suits for back problems,then clean up.
    with water structures they come in many sizes.25ft to 100ft adding
    as long as needed. you can also buy used ones.
    water controling water. there #707-768-3439
    but go to the web site and click on flooding. SPIDERMAN

    May 10, 2009 at 5:00 pm |
  3. KattyBlackyard

    The article is usefull for me. I’ll be coming back to your blog.

    June 14, 2009 at 8:28 pm |
  4. klaw

    Fredricka, I love you. I am a fan of your dad and that whole Jesse Owen's era. They went through so much, and knowing that your dad was also a Tuskegee Airman makes me appreciate him even more. Marvelous Mal should have a movie made about his life, I'm sure you would agree. I have a question for you, are you and your dad's roots from La.? I am from New Orleans and around the same age as you. I am just curious, you are a beautiful woman and I am a fan of yours on CNN, godbless.

    January 30, 2010 at 1:11 pm |

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