The image that comes to mind when thinking of the Tuskegee Airmen is of a black World War II fighter pilot diving out of the clouds, the tail of his aircraft painted bright red, coming to save the day for American bomber crews.
While those roughly 900 pilots made history by proving during a time of strict racial segregation in America that African-Americans could hold their own in the skies over Europe, they could not have done their job without the thousands of people supporting them on the ground.
Those men and women, civilian and military, also hold the title of Documented Original Tuskegee Airman, or DOTA.
The pilots were trained at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama, and more than 14,000 people supported them and their aircraft at Tuskegee and bases across the U.S. and around the world.
Two of those DOTAs, one support staffer and one pilot, visited Harford County Thursday afternoon to speak to an audience of about 100 people gathered at the Richlin Ballroom in Edgewood.
The event was hosted by the Susquehanna Chapter of the Military Officers Association of America.
Patricia Talbert Smith, a heritage member of the East Coast Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc., introduced the two men, her father Edward J. Talbert Jr., 91 and a retired Air Force Reserve major who was a cargo checker in Europe during World War II, and William T. Fauntroy Jr., 87, who was an aviation cadet, training to be a pilot when the war ended in 1945.
Both men reside in the Washington, D.C., area.
Smith said she found out her father was a Tuskegee Airman while she was serving as the Lower School head at St. Andrew's Episcopal School in Montgomery County.
She told the audience Thursday she learned it when a parent, who had been talking to her father during a veteran's event at the school, introduced him to the children as a Tuskegee Airman.
"My dad was one of those 14,000 men and women in bases throughout the United States, all over the world, supporting those 900-some pilots," she said.
Smith said she asked her father later why he had not said anything before.
"He said, 'We just did what we had to do,' " she recalled.
Fauntroy spoke about his childhood in Washington, D.C., including learning about the 1941 Japanese attack on the U.S. Navy base in Pearl Harbor, which drew America into World War II, while leaving a sporting event.
He also talked about the famous pilots and unit commanders he met and who trained him and his fellow cadets.
"We were fortunate to have men who came back from overseas to teach us," he said.
Talbert, who was born in Philadelphia and grew up in Washington, talked about his experiences as a cargo checker and an Air Force supply officer after the war.
He said he "wanted to fly so bad," but was proud of his contributions to the war effort.
"I did something that I think people were proud of... that's the way I looked at life, and I did my best and so be it," he said.
The men signed autographs for members of the audience after the event.
Staff Sgt. John Jeter, a supply noncommissioned officer with the 29th Infantry Division of the Maryland Army National Guard, who works with helicopters based at the Edgewood Area of APG, attended with his fellow NCOs.
He said his operations sergeant, Master Sgt. Jen Combs, purchased a table for Thursday's event in order to provide a mentoring experience for her charges and "to expose us to early aviation by bringing us out here."
"Just being here, and hearing their story and knowing what they went through during that time, and aviation history is very big to me and my fellow co-workers who were here and were crew chiefs on aircraft," Jeter said.
One audience member, Milton Leigh, a World War II veteran who was a member of the 9th Ordnance Training Battalion at Aberdeen Proving Ground, made a surprise contribution of funds left over from his unit's organization, which is now defunct.
Leigh, who lives in Aberdeen, contributed funds to the East Coast Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen and to the Buffalo Soldiers, members of Army cavalry units who served during the Vietnam War.
Bill Beddow of Street, who served in Vietnam, accepted the funds on behalf of the Buffalo Soldiers.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun