WASHINGTON -- The Tuskegee Airmen were called racist and hurtful names as they became the nation's first black military pilots during World War II.
Yesterday, they were called heroes.
About 300 airmen, widows and relatives sat in the Capitol Rotunda as the Tuskegee Airmen received the Congressional Gold Medal - the nation's highest civilian honor - and a salute from President Bush.
The award is recognition of the airmen's role in fighting two wars: one against America's enemies abroad and another against ignorance and racial intolerance at home.
"The Tuskegee Airmen helped win a war, and you helped change our nation," Bush said. "And the medal that we confer today means that we're doing a small part to ensure that your story will be told and honored for generations to come."
The award isn't enough to atone for the "unforgivable indignities" and the unreturned salutes the airmen endured from white servicemen, Bush said.
Putting his hand to his head, he told them, "On behalf of the office I hold and a country that honors you, I salute you for the service to the United States of America."
Several airmen, some of whom entered the Rotunda with the aid of canes or wheelchairs, stood and returned the salute.
Marylanders receiving medals yesterday included LeRoy A. Battle, a resident of Harwood in Anne Arundel County who flew bombing missions in Europe as a second lieutenant and navigator.
"It was a bittersweet thing because it took 60 years to do it," said Battle, 85, who was one of 100 black officer trainees arrested in April 1945 at Freeman Field in Indiana during a civil rights confrontation over the use of the officers' club.
"We stuck together," he said. "We banded together."
Battle, a New York City native who has lived in Maryland since 1950 and taught school in Prince George's County, said he plans to display the medal on his coffee table for his three grandchildren to see.
The youngsters - ages 9, 8, 5 - are learning about the history of the aviators, he said. The oldest told his teacher that he wanted to portray a Tuskegee Airman during a Black History Month event this year.
"It's hitting home," Battle said. The airmen join George Washington, Rosa Parks, Jonas Salk, Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Charles Lindbergh and the Little Rock Nine as Congressional Gold Medal recipients.
Another recipient, former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, attended yesterday's ceremony and thanked the airmen, saying, "You caused America to look in the mirror of its soul, and you showed America that there was nothing a black person couldn't do."
"We are so overjoyed at the reception of the Congressional Gold Medal," Roscoe Brown, an airman from New York City, said on behalf of the group.
"Because of our great record and our persistence, we inspired revolutionary reform in the armed forces that led to integration in the armed forces ... and provided a symbol to America that all people can contribute to this country and be treated fairly."
The Army Air Forces began training black pilots at Alabama's Tuskegee University in 1941 under orders of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Army officials were skeptical of the skills of black pilots, largely basing their assumptions on a 1925 military study that concluded that black people lacked the courage and technical aptitude to be counted on in combat.
Nearly 1,000 black pilots earned their pilot's wings in the Tuskegee program from 1942 to 1946. They flew more than 15,000 sorties over North Africa and Europe during World War II, destroyed more than 250 enemy aircraft on the ground and 150 in the air, and were so proficient at protecting American and Allied bombers that squadrons requested that the pilots escort them.
Though their exploits were chronicled by the black press at the time, the Tuskegee Airmen's contributions weren't widely known. Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, and Rep. Charles B. Rangel, a New York Democrat, pushed legislation through the House of Representatives and Senate to give the airmen the medal.
The airmen were greeted as heroes as they arrived at the Capitol for the ceremony. Tourists applauded and stopped the airmen, who were wearing red or blue jackets, to pose for pictures with them.
"It's wonderful, and I do mean wonderful," said Clayo Rice, an 83-year-old airman from Wilmington, Del. "I have nothing sarcastic to say about the time, how long this took or anything."
Few of the airmen were able to parlay their wartime flying into postwar work because commercial airlines wouldn't hire black pilots. Several current black airline pilots attended the ceremony to pay their respects to the Tuskegee Airmen.
Sun reporter David Nitkin contributed to this article.