Chuck Yeager is honored by Tuskegee Airman

Published Sept. 27, 1997|Updated Oct. 2, 2005

The aging man at the lectern talked of glorious, airborne days gone by and of similarities between himself and another, more famous, flyboy named Chuck Yeager being honored Friday.

But for all the talk of how both Lt. Col. Hiram Mann and Brig. Gen. Yeager rose from poverty to find the clouds, or how each named beloved planes after beloved wives _ Yeager's the Glamorous Glenn and Mann's the Boss Lady _ there remains one difference. And it is that which helped changed history.

Yeager is white, a pilot whose fame found its roots in World War II. Mann is African-American, and he, too, found fame in World War II but instead of individual achievement, his came as part of a group of black pilots called the Tuskegee Airmen, who helped break the color barrier in the nation's armed forces.

"We showed everyone, blacks and whites, that we were as capable as anyone to fly, to fight, and yes, to die for our country," Mann said Friday at a luncheon to honor Yeager.

Yeager, now 74, was named the 1997 recipient of the Tony Jannus Award for his contribution to aviation. On Oct. 14, 1947, Yeager, flying the Glamorous Glenn, became the world's fastest human by flying 700 mph and breaking the sound barrier. Yeager officially received the Jannus Award at a dinner in Tampa on Friday night.

He was immortalized first in the book and then the movie, The Right Stuff.

Mann, 76, now living in Titusville, paid tribute to Yeager and his accomplishments to aviation history. Yet it seemed impossible to tell that story without the context of the crushing racism that existed when both men were finding their wings.

Yeager was accepted into the U.S. Army Air Corps on his first try. It took Mann three tries, the first time he was told flatly there was no room in the nation's Army for a black pilot. Eventually, Mann was sent to Tuskegee, Ala., where he and other Africa-Americans received segregated instruction.

He graduated in 1944 and was shipped out to Italy on a segregated ship to fly in support missions over Europe. In all, he flew 48 combat missions during the war and rose in rank to colonel before retiring in 1972.

"We were the spearhead of integration," Mann told the mostly white audience Friday at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club.

In 1948, President Harry Truman signed the order ending segregation in the armed forces.

Today, the famous Tuskegee Airmen are starting to win the recognition absent for nearly 50 years. In 1995 HBO released a movie about their struggles and triumphs and there even has been a GI Joe doll to honor them.

Still, Mann said the anger and frustration comes flooding back when he reads of the discrimination that continues in the armed forces. "It irks me to no end," he said, about women and gays trying to win their place in the military. "If you are capable of doing it, let them do it."

Earlier Friday, Mann and Yeager met John Byrne, a Seminole High School sophomore, who was the first-place winner of the Tony Jannus Essay Award.

Byrne read his essay at a ceremony at the St. Petersburg Museum of History.