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."
He encountered segregation in America as well.
For instance, while training at Tuskegee, black soldiers had to use the fire escape to get to the movie theater balcony if they wanted to watch a film, and couldn't go into town unless they were with a group.
Byron trained to be a ground crewman for the fighter planes — "We kept 'em flying," he said.
He accompanied the squadron as they joined the British to chase German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, a.k.a. "The Desert Fox," across North Africa.
From there, it was on to Italy. Byron recalled that Italian children would follow the soldiers around asking for candy — and he said they would check for tails they were told all black soldiers had.
"Every time we met an Italian, or even a British (soldier), they'd ask, 'Why are you over here fighting for freedoms you don't even have?' " he said. "We'd say, 'Maybe one day it will change.' "
Today, as they prepare to celebrate Independence Day, both men believe prejudice still exists in America, though not on the scale it did during World War II.
And though recognition for all they did to smash through prejudice has come late in their lives, Byron said they're enjoying it.
"That month of February — woo!" Byron said. "We thought it might cool down, but it's not. We're just happy to be here.
"At our age, we're happy to be anywhere," he quipped.
As for his first foray as a parade grand marshal, Byron has a hope that's probably shared by parade organizers and attendees alike:
"As long as it doesn't rain," he said, "it's fine."
From the Towson Fourth of July Parade Committee ...
The Towson Fourth of July Parade Committee is honored to have Baltimore County residents Dr. Cyril Byron and Lemuel Lewie, who both served as Tuskegee Airmen, as grand marshals of this year's parade.
The U.S. ArmyAir Force 99th Fighter Squadron was the first, and at that time, the only black Air Force unit. The unit received training at the Tuskegee Air Base in Alabama and was transferred to Casablanca, North Africa in April 1943.
As a means of identification, the unit had the planes' tails and noses painted red and became known as the Red Tails. They flew more than 250 bomber escort missions into Germany without losing a single bomber to enemy aircraft.
Dr. Cyril Byron Sr. has a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Morgan State College, a masters from New York University and a doctorate of science education from Temple University. He has served on many civic and education boards and commissions in Baltimore City and Baltimore County.
Lemuel Lewie Jr. served in the U.S. Army Air Force with the 477th Bomber Group. He is president of Lewie Consolidated Enterprises, and is a retired educator who taught science, math, and textile design for 28 years at then-Carver Vocational Technical High School.
He is a horticulturist, civic activist, traveler and family man, and shares his interests and skills with civic organizations and community groups including Phi Betas Sigma Fraternity, Beautiful Baltimore Inc., Epworth United Methodist Chapel, the Carver Alumni Association and the For-Win-Ash Garden Club.