St. Petersburg City officials gathered in Williams Park this Veterans Day morning to honor Willie Rogers, of the famed Tuskegee Airmen.
Rogers, who achieved the rank of Master Sergeant during his military career, was presented with the city’s 2015 Honored Veteran Award. The accompanying ceremony featured a Presentation of Colors by the St. Petersburg Police Honor Guard, songs from the Gibbs High School choir, and speeches from U.S. Rep. David Jolly and St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman, among others.
“You overcame resistance from enemies abroad and ignorance at home,” Kriseman said. “And you’ve made your country and our city of St. Petersburg a much better place.”
The Tuskegee Airmen were the first all-black military aviation units in the U.S armed forces. They were made up of two groups of fighter and bomber pilots who fought in World War II. Formally, they formed the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the U.S. Army Air Forces.
The Tuskegee Airmen were subjected to racial discrimination, within and outside the Army. During World War II, black Americans in many states were still subject to Jim Crow laws, while the American military was still racially segregated, as was much of the federal government.
By 1944, though, Rogers had more on his plate than just discrimination. He’d already served tours in the Mediterranean by that point. He’d already also been shot in both the stomach and leg.
“I didn’t think I was going to make it,” Rogers is quoted as recently saying of his experience in World War II.
But make it he did — and then some. Just some of his honors include receiving the key to the city earlier this year, having his likeness portrayed in a mural by Veterans Art Center of Tampa Bay, and – along with the rest of the Tuskegee Airman – being awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest ranking honor that can be bestowed upon an individual by Congress.
Some fellow Congressional Gold Medal recipients include Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, George Washington, Jackie Robinson, Mother Teresa, Rosa Parks, Pope John Paul II, Winston Churchill and the Native American Code Talkers.
Not bad company.
Other city and county officials attending Rogers’ honored veteran ceremony were St. Petersburg City Councilmembers Amy Foster, Wengay Newton, Bill Dudley, and Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch. Former Gov. Charlie Crist also attended.
Rogers, who sat with his family during the ceremony, received a commemorative statue and American flag that had flown over the U.S. Capitol, as part of the ceremony.
Politicians, citizens and fellow veterans gathered around Rogers after the speeches and presentation to shake his hand and thank him for his service. He’s one of only 200 Tuskegee Airmen still alive today.