A sad note on the very week a long awaited movie about the exploits of th Tuskegee Airmen is released – Ace Pilot Luke Weathers was interned at Arlington Cemetery. During the War, at least 47 Pilots were awarded Purple Hearts for injuries received on combat missions. While most folks equate he Red Tails with the P-51 Mustang Aircraft, the Tuskegee Airmen also flew the Curtis P-40 in North Africa, the Bell P-39 Air Cobra, and the deadly P-47 Thunderbolt – which actually sank a German Destroyer, and was the first plane to get the distinctive “Red Tail” livery.
On the same day that retired Air Force Lt. Col. Luke Weathers Jr. took his resting place among other war and military heroes, his real-life story as a World War II aviator played out on movie screens across the country.
Weathers was buried Friday at Arlington National Cemetery in a service that began with a flyover of four F-16 jets in the Missing Man formation, a special honor reserved for pilots, by the 113th Wing of the D.C. Capital Guardians, the same unit that guards the airspace over the nation’s capital.
Weathers died Oct. 15 in Tucson, Ariz., of pneumonia at age 90. His burial coincided with the official opening in theaters of “Red Tails,” a George Lucas-produced movie retelling the story of the Tuskegee Airmen who debunked widely held beliefs that black pilots were incapable of fighting in combat.
Shortly after the flyover, in which one of the three jets departed from formation, a caisson pulled by six horses carried Weathers’ body to his burial spot amid hundreds of the stark marble tombstones that cover the grounds of the national cemetery. An Air Force band accompanied the wagon, its drummer thumping a solemn beat as family followed on the chilly, overcast Friday morning. Family members wore red ties and scarves, as they had at Weathers’ Memphis funeral, as a nod to the aviators who painted their aircrafts’ tails red to set themselves apart.
Luke Weathers III, 61, said his father and other black Americans who fought in World War II did so to prove they were men, “and then they wanted their country to love them, but that didn’t happen, either.” Friday’s ceremony, however, finally delivered recognition of his father as a national hero, Weathers said.
This kind of attention to the Tuskegee Airmen is what the elder Weathers wanted throughout his life, said his daughter, Trina Weathers Boyce. Weathers was not vain, but he wanted to share the lessons of the airmen’s courage in war, their struggles for equality and their victory over a wartime enemy and over racism, she said.
“He would talk about his hard trials and tribulations to others, to children, because he never wanted us to feel like this (racism) is a reason we couldn’t make it,” Weathers Boyce said in a telephone interview Thursday. “He would tell us nothing good comes easy. He’d say there are going to be barriers … and you can overcome them.”
Before the Tuskegee Airmen were formed in 1941, black men were forbidden to fly for the U.S. military, even though they could be drafted. After years of struggle, the Army Air Corps began to allow African Americans to train for flight, albeit in still-segregated units.
Many of the Tuskegee airmen, which included navigators, mechanics, medical personnel and others in support roles, trained from 1941 to 1949 at the Tuskegee Institute, which was founded by Booker T. Washington and was already home to an aeronautical engineering program.
More than 900 Tuskegee Airmen were U.S. pilots, said Trent Dudley, an Air Force lieutenant colonel who is president of the East Coast Tuskegee Airmen Inc. chapter. An estimated 250 to 300 Tuskegee airmen are still alive. The exact number is not known because some have not registered with chapters.