For the students in the crowd, it was as if the 11 graying old men had stepped from the pages of history - the last few members of the now-legendary corps of Tuskegee Airmen whose World War II exploits flew in the face of widespread military belief that African-American soldiers could not or should not fly.
Yesterday, the men were guests at an Armed Forces Week "Honoring Those Who Serve" luncheon at Fort Meade. More than 400 gathered under a shiny white tent and met some of the nation's first black military pilots.
"It's amazing they're still living and got through it," said Meade High School junior Jerrel Johnson, 17, whose history class attended the event. "It's a real achievement that they accomplished what they did."
With reverence, the audience listened as the men retold how the racial segregation of the World War II era resulted in the 996 black military aviators being trained at an isolated complex near the town of Tuskegee, Ala., and in town at the historically black college, now Tuskegee University, founded by Booker T. Washington.
Although President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the U.S. Army Air Corps to create an all-Negro flying unit in 1940, few believed then that African-Americans could become capable pilots."'Let's wait for them to fail.' That was the general mentality," said Charles Herbert Flowers II, 82, former flight instructor for the 99th Pursuit Squadron (later designated as Fighter Squadron), the first African-American unit of the Tuskegee training program formed by the War Department in 1941. "We were determined that that was just not going to happen."
"We went in with the hope that light would prevail, that folks would see that color and ethnic origin were not disabilities," said retired Army Col. Charles E. McGee, a Tuskegee Airman of the 302nd Fighter Squadron. He is national president of Tuskegee Airmen Inc., an organization that encourages minority students to pursue careers in aviation and aerospace.
Under the command of Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., who was to become the first black lieutenant general in the Air Force, 450 African-American fighter pilots engaged in aerial combat over North Africa, Sicily, Italy and southern France, flying P-39 Aerocobras, P-40 Warhawks, P-47 Thunderbolts and P-51 Mustangs.
The pilots flew 15,553 sorties and completed 1,578 combat missions while assigned to the Army's tactical and strategic air forces.
By the end of the war, 66 Tuskegee pilots had been killed in aerial combat and another 32 shot down and captured - all fighting an enemy abroad, and in a subtle way against color barriers that denied them equality at home.
Amid the crowd of students, civilians and military personnel yesterday was Maria Blackstone, 77, carrying a worn, black-and-white photograph of her husband - a Tuskegee crewman who died in 1992. She searched the small gathering of aging airmen for one who could tell her stories about her husband, Master Sgt. James "Jimmy" Blackstone - their head mechanic.
The photo - a 1945 family portrait of the Blackstones and their year-old daughter - is one of the few items spared by a house fire that destroyed most of her Tuskegee mementos.
"Did you know my husband, James Blackstone?" she asked Flowers, placing the photograph in his hand.
"Yeah, I remember Jimmy," came the reply.
Blackstone could hardly contain her joy.
"I wanted them to tell me what they thought of Jimmy as a human being and as the chief mechanic who kept their planes flying," said Blackstone, who had been a Signal Corps worker at Tuskegee, in a crew that supplied such items as gloves, headsets and parachutes for the airmen.
"Someone remembered," she said.
Many of the remaining Tuskegee Airmen - now in their late 70s and early 80s - said they hope younger generations will not forget the struggles they endured and paths they forged.
"You have to will it within yourself to be everything that you can be," William F. Holton, national historian for Tuskegee Airmen Inc., told the crowd. "That's the legacy the Tuskegee Airmen would like to leave with you."