The Orlando Science Center on Tuesday broke ground on a new monument to honor the Tuskegee Airmen and the Red Tail squadron that flew combat missions in World War II, the first African Americans to fly combat missions for the United States in war time. Retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Leo Gray sat down with us to talk about his time with the 332nd, one of the first black men to take to the skies to fight the Germans.
"They said we couldn't fly before the war," he said.
The 332nd could fly though, and were overwhelmingly effective in the war. Lt. Col. Gray talked to us about what that combat was like.
"Any time you push that throttle, you don't know whether you are coming back. You all start out together. Sometimes you all come back, sometimes you don't all come back. It's uh, tough," he said. "When you get up there and you see flak, you say ‘Oh Boy, I hope it doesn't hit ya,' or when you see an enemy aircraft, it's either you or him."
Those men who flew and all who trained as Tuskegee Airmen will be honored with a 15 foot monument outside the front gates of the science center, which shows several of the Red Tails in the air. Orlando City Commissioner Robert Stuart fought hard for the project, calling the men real American heroes.
"They accomplished a great deal in terms of breaking the racial barriers, and they were great pilots too," Stuart said. "It's just a great way for us to recognize this corps of people and there are not many left with a great monument."
The monument won't cost taxpayers a dime either, as $40,000 is being donated by Vision of Flight to put the statue in place. As for all of the attention the Red Tails have gotten in the past few years, Gray is honored and humble.
"Well, we like being treated nicely, if eventually," he said with a laugh. "Sometimes it's disproportionate to our role in winning the war."
Construction is expected to be completed before the end of the summer.