BREMERTON — “My father never lost his love of flying, and during the best years of his life, he rented airtime on aircraft and he would take it up and fly and buzz the city, just to maintain his skills,” said Robert Perkins, of his father Roscoe.
Roscoe C. Perkins Jr. was a Tuskegee Airman pilot, logging nearly 400 hours of flight during his years of service between Jan. 31, 1944 and Feb. 10, 1946. He flew P-47s and B-25s for the U.S. Air Force in the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group.
“The Tuskegee Airmen were the first men of color to serve as military aviators in the U.S. armed forces … (and were) subject to racial discrimination both at home and abroad,” Robert Perkins said. “The highly publicized success of the Tuskegee Airmen helped pave the way for racial integration of the U.S. armed forces.”
In 2006, President George W. Bush granted the Tuskegee Airmen a Congressional Gold Medal, which, along with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, are the highest civilian awards in the United States. The award was given to each of the 994 men who served in that group. They were first granted to the living members and then presented posthumously to the families of the remaining men. In July 2017, the Perkins family was given theirs to honor Roscoe Perkins, who passed in 1978.
The replica medal (the actual gold medal is in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., Robert said) was presented to Robert and his wife, Carolynn Perkins, on March 11 at the Abundant Life Church in Bremerton. Their pastor, Steve Wexler, a retired Air Force colonel, formally granted it to them.
“I thought about these airmen and what they faced as often men and women do in war — and they faced giants,” Wexler said. “One of the great giants they faced was racism. The fact that they were the first African-American military aviators (in the U.S. military) was a huge giant that they overcame. That was a big deal … The second one was enemy airpower.”
Wexler said that the Tuskegee Airmen, “known affectionately as the Red Tails,” had a significant impact on strategy.
“(The strategy at the time was), the enemy came, you left your bomber and you went to go attack and fend off the aircraft. Unfortunately, that left the bomber vulnerable,” Wexler said. “The Tuskegee Airmen came up with a different strategy. It was so simple: Never leave your bomber.
“Regardless of what’s happening around you. The enemy attacks, stay the course, defend your charge — and that’s exactly what they did. The result of this kind of devotion was absolutely amazing.”
Wexler said that of the hundreds of bombers in the Tuskegee Airmen’s care, only 25 were lost in warfare.
Finally receiving this award a decade after the first medals were presented in 2007 means a lot to the Perkins family.
Carolynn said that the effort began years ago with her mother-in-law, who tried repeatedly to receive her late husband’s medal.
“She ran into a lot of barriers,” Carolynn said. “So many phone calls, nothing really (happened).”
Carolynn said the subject came up on one of her last trips to Washington, D.C., to visit with her mother-in-law.
“She said to me, ‘There’s only one thing I’m really discouraged I didn’t achieve … I never got the medal for you guys,’ ” Carolynn said. “I said, ‘You know, Bob and I will take this up and we will get it.’ I promised her that, and both of us kept pushing forward.”
It still wasn’t an easy road, thanks in part to a 1973 fire that destroyed decades worth of records, but eventually, the journey reached its happy conclusion.
“I just was so appreciative for our family and for our family history that we were able to obtain that,” Carolynn said.
“Our desire is to honor Bob’s father absolutely for his dedication and love for serving our country in World War II,” she said.
“However, it should not stop today. It’s a legacy for our children, our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren, and all those generations that come after us. We should not let these stories fade away. They need to stay alive. Keep alive what they accomplished, not only for themselves but laid the foundation for those who followed.”
Robert said, “I can’t possibly know what my father and those brave men went through in the segregated South, but it made things a lot better for me.
“I have been truly blessed in my lifetime,” he said. “I have been all over the world, all over this country … I have met extraordinary people and I truly had an extraordinary career. (And) my father instilled in me that if you treat people with respect, they will give it back to you.”
Robert spoke of his father and some of the memories they shared.
“My father never lost his love of flying, and during the best years of his life, he rented airtime on aircraft and he would take it up, fly and buzz the city just to maintain his skill,” Robert said. “He would be proud to know that his family still shares that love.”
Robert himself has logged “many flying hours” in fixed-wing aircraft. His grandson is a pilot in the U.S. Air Force, training on F-15s. Robert’s sister was one of the first African-American flight attendants for Transcontinental and Western Air, later known as Trans World Airlines.
“(Roscoe) loved airplanes so much he would pack the kids up and my mother would pack a picnic lunch, and we would go down to the Washington National Airport (now Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport). We used to camp out on the grass right in front of the outer marker, which you can’t do anymore, and we’d have a picnic down there, and we’d watch the airplanes coming.
“Sometimes, we were so close, we could wave at the people.”
Robert said finally receiving the medal on his father’s behalf is “a proud day for us.”
“This is like history,” he said. “This is being passed down through history. We’re recorded in history now, the Perkins family.”
Henry H. Arnold, Commanding General of the Army Air Forces from 1941-1946 wrote in a Certificate of Appreciation for War Serve, given to Roscoe Perkins:
“I cannot meet you personally to thank you for a job well done; nor can I hope to put in written words the great hope I have for your success in future life.
“Together, we built the striking force that swept the Luftwaffe from the skies and broke the German power to resist. The total might of that striking force was then unleashed upon the Japanese. Although you no longer play an active military part, the contribution you made to the Air Forces was essential in making the greatest team in the world.
“The ties that bound us under stress of combat must not be broken in peacetime. Together, we share the responsibility for guarding our country in the air. We who stay will never forget the part you have played while in uniform. We know you will continue to play a comparable role as a civilian.
“As our ways part, let me wish you Godspeed and the best of luck on your road in life. Our gratitude and respect go with you.”