Local Tuskegee Airman receives highest civilian honor Published March 29, 2007 By Kimberly Champagne 20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. -- Growing up in Sumter county, South Carolina, young Leroy Bowman dreamed of flying planes. Little did he know just where that dream would someday take him. On March 29, it took him all the way to the U.S. Capitol where President George Bush presented the Congressional Gold Medal to him and his fellow Tuskegee Airmen. Nearly 400 members and family crowded into the Capitol Rotunda when President Bush thanked them for their service and shook every hand. Tuskegee Airmen were an all-African American military air unit assigned to escort bombers during World War II. The Congressional Gold Medal is awarded to individuals or groups who perform an outstanding deed or act of service to the security, prosperity and national interest of the United States. Leroy Bowman, a Sumter, S.C. native had a dream to fly for the service at a young age. Unfortunately, at that time, the Army Air Corp was reluctant to train black pilots. "There was a rumor going around if you volunteered for the Army, you would be selected more quickly for the corps, so that's what I did," Mr. Bowman said. In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt overruled his top generals and ordered the creation of an all Black flight training program. In 1942, Mr. Bowman got his chance to be airborne. He was one of the students chosen for the Army Air Corps "military experiment" to train black pilots and support staff. "The entire program was designed to prove black men were not able to fly. After trying it, they discovered the opposite was true," he said. The Airmen became known as trailblazers for desegregation and equality in the military. In an earlier interview Mr. Bowman said, "We had to set the example. If we had failed, it may have been at least another 50 years to get where we are today." During World War II, Mr. Bowman flew the P-40, P47 and P-51. He said his main duty was to do dive-bombing. Later, he escorted bombers. He was assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group, the largest in the corps. The group flew missions over Italy and North Africa. Escorting American bombers, they were credited with shooting down more than 100 enemy aircraft. Mr. Bowman, is now a member of the Columbia, S.C., Spann Watson chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen. There are 46 chapters in America, where former Tuskegee Airmen meet monthly to plan events to raise awareness about equality. The Tuskegee Airmen join the ranks of other esteemed recipients such as President George Washington, Pope John Paul II and Sir Winston Churchill. The Tuskegee Airmen's Congressional Gold Medal will be housed at the Smithsonian Institution.