Palm Springs, Calif. - Three living legends were honored at the Palm Springs Air Museum Monday during an unveiling of the site's latest addition of military emblems. Four large statues of Tuskegee Airmen were showcased, which were some of the first African American aviators of the United States Military.
The special ceremony was held at 10 a.m. before the annual Air Fair & Flower Drop ceremony that took place at 1 p.m.
"I was just amazed. I did not expect that," said Tuskegee Airman and WWII veteran, Rusty Burns.
Burns was among the three Tuskegee Airmen attending Monday's event. Several prominent speakers spoke before the crowd, including local Congressman Rep. Raul Ruiz and the son of the original Tuskegee Airman, Chauncey Spencer.
"Seventy years later it's like ancient history. I’ve found that in talking with young groups nowadays, it for a while it would escape me, but I started realizing this is 3 generations later. These kids don’t even know what I’m talking about. I’ve got to give them a little history before I start talking to them," said Tuskegee Airman, Jerry T. Hodges.
Hodges, who is now in his 90s, trained in a segregated Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama before flying B-25 aircraft in WWII. In 1946 Hodges made the decision to join civilian life, but upon arriving home there wasn't always a warm welcome in that era.
"Back when we were in the service and during that period, we were fighting for 2 victories; The first victory abroad and then victory at home. At first when we came back home, we found that we had failed the victory at home, but over the years with the changes in the political arena, we have experienced considerable change, still not as it should be but we’re working toward it and we have a lot of confidence that it is going to happen," said Hodges.
A speech made by Rep. Ruiz also highlighted the challenges for the Tuskegee Airmen, who "fought for people who believed they were inferior to them."
"These men, in worst of times with discrimination in the 40s that were much more blatant and in the open, risked their lives to fight for this country- did it well, came home to even more vitriol and kept their heads up. They're here, they’re happy, they have stories to tell and that’s something for all of us to recognize that together working with dignity, we can accomplish great things and you do change the hearts and minds of people. History will not be forgotten," said Rep. Ruiz.
The statues became the first of their kind in the state of California, which now sit in the heart of the Coachella Valley.
The ceremony was later followed by a flyover of war planes and a flower dropping ceremony, with each flower symbolizing a faller service member. For many guests in attendance, like Palm Springs resident Herbert Lienau, the Memorial Day ceremony was personal.
"Just to kind of remember my uncle’s service during WWII. He was shot down over Germany and killed 20 years to the day I was born," said Lienau.
The annual event was spread over two days in an effort to mitigate large crowds, said Palm Springs Air Museum Vice Chairman, Fred Bell.
It was the first major event to take place after a 15-month hiatus due to the pandemic.