Wilmington, DE-- As World War II was breaking out, the United States military was reluctant to allow black pilots to fly.
With studies to bolster their beliefs, the top brass decided blacks didn't have the right stuff. They weren't smart enough. They lacked courage.
The Tuskegee Airmen proved them wrong.
On Monday, one of the nation's groundbreaking black fliers was belatedly honored for his part in the trailblazing effort that paved the way for President Harry Truman's 1948 order that formally desegregated the military and today's diverse, all-volunteer force.
"We wanted to prove that we were equal, if not better, than a lot of people," Fred T. Johnson of Wilmington said following an upbeat ceremony at his alma mater, Howard High School of Technology, where he was given a replica of the Congressional Gold Medal that the Tuskegee Airmen received in 2007.
"We had a lot of indignities in some cases," said Johnson, a 1947 Penn Relays track star who now relies on a walker to get around. "But there were those who came along with us ... We just knew that we were as capable as the next person."
A total of 992 fliers graduated from the segregated pilot training program at Tuskegee Airfield, Ala., from 1941-46. Flying in all-black fighter and bomber squadrons, the airmen by all accounts, fought bravely and successfully in thousands of missions in the European Theater.
Johnson's unit, the 477th Bomber Group, didn't get into combat. He volunteered for the Army Air Corps in 1943, but the war ended before the second lieutenant's flight training was complete.
"He's fond of saying, `Not a hero, but a part of history,'" said retired Brig. Gen. Ernest Talbert, a former C-141 pilot who served 37 years on active duty and with the Delaware Air National Guard.
"And I would respectfully disagree," said Talbert, the state Air Guard's first black general, who donned his dress blues for the occasion. "He is a hero to me. He was part of the 'Greatest Generation.' But more so than that, he's one of those people that put on their backs the progress of our entire race -- knowing that their performance was being looked at under a microscopic eye."
About 16,000 blacks, including administrative and service personnel, are considered part of the Tuskegee Airmen.
Talbert and Johnson met several years ago during a chance encounter at a restaurant. Talbert, a past president of the state chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc., helped Johnson procure his service documents, enabling him to attend President Barack Obama's 2008 inauguration along with other "Tuskegees."
Talbert subsequently learned that Johnson had not received his gold medal, one of the highest civilian honors Congress can bestow. That led to a phone call a month ago to Democratic Sen. Tom Carper, who got the ball rolling.
So at his old high school, where his father, son of a former slave, was principal for 35 years, on a stage where civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. once spoke, surrounded by family, friends, former students, Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity brothers and officials, Johnson had his day. His wife, Margo, was at his side as Carper presented the medal.
"At my age, and being that all my brothers and sisters are gone, the number of Tuskegee Airmen is dwindling also," said the 88-year-old former military flier. "So I feel very fortunate to be here. And this is a great honor. A great honor."
Johnson could have remained in the Army Air Corps, but it would have required a four-year commitment. He wanted to get back to his studies at Indiana University, which he had interrupted in 1943 to enter the service.
"Had I (already) finished school, I probably would have stayed in," he said. "I had a lot of friends who were navigators in my group that stayed in the service and became generals."
Instead, Maj. Gen. Frank Vavala of the state National Guard said in his remarks, Johnson started teaching -- first in Texas and later at William C. Jason High School, the first black high school in Delaware's Sussex County. Several of his former students attended Monday's ceremony.
In 1959, Johnson became the first black faculty member at Wilmington's Warner Junior High School, teaching earth and physical science. He also coached championship track teams. In 1975, he began serving as the science department chair, retiring in 1981.
For those blacks who remained in the military, many battles remained in the fight to truly desegregate the ranks. In addressing Monday's gathering, Rep. John Carney talked about the history of racial integration that often played out on America's streets in bloody fashion, and drew a "straight line" from the Tuskegee Airmen through the civil rights movement to the election of President Obama, the nation's first black president.
"We owe an incredible debt of gratitude to people like Mr. Johnson, who started it all," said Carney, D-Del. "You allowed our country to live up to its ideals -- and face down discrimination and racism while you were defending our freedoms around the world."