MONTGOMERY (AP) — At a ceremony kicking off a nationwide fundraising drive for a memorial to the Tuskegee Airmen, a member of the elite group of all-black fighter pilots said more research is needed to determine the truth of the historic claim that enemy planes never shot down a bomber the unit was escorting.
"Research is still ongoing. We want the truth to be out there," said retired Air Force Col. and Tuskegee Airman Charles McGee. "We want to know where these planes were when certain things happened."
Two historians have said that research shows the Airmen did lose some planes to enemy fire while escorting bombers to their targets in Europe during World War II. One former bomber co-pilot said his plane was shot down while being escorted by the Tuskegee Airmen.
McGee of Bethesda, Md., made his comments during a ceremony at the Alabama Capitol honoring the Airmen and launching a national campaign to raise funds to build a monument to the Airmen at Moton Field in Tuskegee, where the elite group of black fighter pilots trained during World War II.
Congress has approved funding to create a federal historical site at Moton Field.
Alabama Gov. Bob Riley and Congressmen Artur Davis, D-Birmingham, and Mike Rogers, R-Anniston, praised the Airmen during Mondayís ceremony.
"They embody all the principles that make us the greatest country in the world," Riley said.
Some of the Airmen have questioned the research showing that Tuskegee Airmen did lose at least of few of the planes they escorted to fire from enemy planes, but Davis said the Airmen are still heroes regardless of whether they lost any bombers or not.
"No way does it diminish their achievement. It adds a new element of sacrifice to what they did," said Davis, Alabamaís only black congressman. He said the Tuskegee Airmen served at a time when much of the country was segregated.
"These individuals served their country that was not good enough to give them full status in the military," Davis said. "They didnít care. They said beating Hitler was much more important than what you think of us."
McGee and seven other Airmen participated in Mondayís ceremony in the rotunda of the Alabama Capitol. Afterward the Airmen posed for pictures on the steps of the Capitol and at one point stood at attention and saluted in unison.
One of the Airmen, 87-year-old Cicero Satterfield, said he didnít know anything about the research into the record of the Airmen until he read recent news accounts.
"I didnít believe it. I didnít know of a single plane that was shot down," said Satterfield, who was a mechanic on the P-51 fighters flown by the Airmen.
Rogers said the national historical site at Tuskegee will give visitors a chance to see what life was like for the Airmen as they were training for World War II.
"It will be a park for people who want to see what their barracks was like, what their uniforms were like," said Rogers, whose congressional district includes Tuskegee.
William F. Holton, historian for the Tuskegee Airmen, and Daniel Haulman of the Air Force Historical Research Agency at Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base in Montgomery, have said Air Force records show the legend of the all-black fighter pilots never losing a bomber to enemy fighters is incorrect.
Holton said his research matches the story of Warren Ludlum of Old Tappan, N.J., who said his B-24 bomber was shot down over Linz, Austria, on July 25, 1944, while on a mission to bomb the Herman Goering Tank Works. He said he knew his plane was being escorted by the Airmen, because one of the Tuskegee fighter pilots, Starling Penn, was shot down at the same time and ended up in the same prison camp.