By Barbara Liston
ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - A handful of the few surviving Red Tail military pilots, considered the elite of the Tuskegee Airmen who overcame racism and fought in World War Two, journeyed to Orlando, Florida on Monday to witness the unveiling of the first U.S. monument in their honor.
Only 33 of the original 356 Red Tail pilots survive, and six of them, mostly in their 90s, attended the Veteran's Day ceremony.
The Red Tails, or Red Tail Angels, from the 332nd fighter group, got their name from white combat pilots after the black airmen painted the tails of their aircraft crimson. Their job was to escort the combat pilots on bombing missions from bases in Europe.
The group, trained in Tuskegee, Alabama, was sent to Italy in February 1944 under the command of a black officer, Colonel Benjamin O. Davis Jr., said Lieutenant Colonel Leo Gray, one of the youngest surviving Red Tails at age 89.
"We were good. We were the only ones (all-black fighting group) over there," Gray said.
The group's trials and exploits were recalled in "Red Tails," a movie released in 2012 with a cast that included Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Bryan Cranston and Gerald McRaney.
Lieutenant Colonel Hiram Mann, now 92 and retired in Titusville, Florida, recalls following orders to run low-flying strafing missions "to protect the neophyte combat pilots."
Mann said he applied three times before he was accepted into military pilot training in 1943 with the 27th class of African-American recruits.
'DOING OUR JOBS'
His first application was rejected because of his color, Mann said. His second application, after the color bar was dropped, was denied because he had completed only one of two required years of college, and because he was married.
His third attempt succeeded, he said, because by then, the standards had been lowered to require only the ability to pass strenuous mental and physical tests.
Mann said he was oblivious at the time to the fact that they were making history.
"I wanted to fly for the love of flying. The good we did, it's really astounding and pleasing," Mann said.
Gray, now retired near Fort Lauderdale, Florida, recognized that he and his colleagues literally flew in the face of academic notions at the time that blacks were inferior to whites and lacked the intelligence to handle complex machinery and the bravery to fight.
"We were busy doing our jobs. We knew we were creating history but we didn't know the magnitude," Gray said.
Gray called the Red Tails "one of the greatest groups of young men our nation has produced."
"I was proud. I wasn't in the Navy as a steward. I wasn't in the Army digging ditches. I was a pilot," Gray said.
Planning for the monument began in 2011 when the Red Tails held their first reunion in 66 years at a resort in Orlando.
Gray asked local flying enthusiast Mike McKenzie, who leads a nonprofit dedicated to inspiring aviation careers, particularly for minority youth, to help create an appropriate honor for the group.
The monument depicts a "missing man" flying formation, used to commemorate a fallen pilot, held aloft by intertwined aircraft exhaust plumes.
About 300 people attended the unveiling, which included a flyover by a model of the P-51 Mustang aircraft flown by the Red Tails.
(Editing by Kevin Gray and Eric Walsh)