Towson Fourth of July grand marshals

Lemuel Lewis Jr., left, and Dr. Cyril Byron Sr. pose for a portrait at Lewis' home in Windsor Mill. The two are Tuskegee Airmen who will be co-grand marshals in the Towson Fourth of July Parade. The Tuskegee Airmen were the first black military airmen, and served during World War II. (Staff photo by Sarah Pastrana / June 17, 2012)

Since the cinematic release early this year of the movie "Red Tails,"about the all-black Tuskegee Airmen who fought in World War II, Baltimore County's two "DOTA" – Documented Original Tuskegee Airmen – have been in high demand.

Cyril Byron, of Rockdale, and Lemuel Lewie, of Windsor Mill — both 92 — saw the movie for the first time at the White House with President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle, and have been honored by scores of politicians and organizations since.

On our nation's birthday, the veterans will add another honor to their illustrious resumes when they serve as grand marshals of the Towson Fourth of July Parade.

"We like to honor servicemen," said parade Chairwoman Maryann Albaugh, "and I thought it would be wonderful to honor them."

The pair, who live a few streets away from each other in northwestern Baltimore County, represent a unique dichotomy of the struggles Tuskegee Airmen faced.

"We were fighting the war on this side, and he was fighting the war on the other side," Lewie said. "We were fighting segregation and prejudice here, and he was fighting the enemy (abroad)."

Lewie never left the United States during his service. He applied for flight training in his home state of South Carolina, but the state sat on his application until the statute of limitations ran out and he was drafted into service.

At Fort Jackson, just outside of Columbia, S.C., he was told he could put in his application for flight training again, and for three weeks, he waited as a man named Samuel Lewis was paged over the loudspeaker.

He finally asked someone if they meant Lemuel Lewie? They had: Lewie had missed his shipment to officer's training school for chemical warfare.

Instead, he was sent to Jefferson Barracks in Missouri for basic training, then went to Tuskegee — and ultimately was top of his class at the Air Force Administration School at Atlanta University.

Eventually, he received an order to go to Biloxi, Miss., for aviation cadet basic training, and then Midland Army Air Field in Texas for bombardier and navigation school.

"There were 150 of us in that class," he said. "Fifty of us were black. They sent us to different buildings … we didn't even sleep in the same building. We were trained separately.

"After we had finished, we had pictures taken there. They took the pictures of the blacks first, then we all came together," he recalled. "But while we were there in training, the black officers couldn't go to the black officer's club, couldn't eat in the same mess hall. Everything was just separate."

From Midland, he went to Kentucky, then back to Tuskegee for flight training — just in time for the war to end.

He returned to Fort Bragg for separation into the reserves, and the separating officer told him he'd never seen a case like his before: "Just about all of my records were lost," Lewie said.

He was supposed to be a captain by that point, but there was no paperwork.

The officer recommended he writePresident Harry S. Truman.

He did, and got an answer: a certificate signed by the president himself ... promoting Lewie to first lieutenant.

Byron, on the other hand, finished his sophomore year at Morgan State when he received a letter and held it up to the sunlight to see if it contained money.

"The letter said 'Greetings ... ,' and I knew what that was," Byron recalled. "Uncle Sam was inviting me to join his army. That's something you just don't refuse."