The Tuskegee Airmen Memorial: A historic moment for the residents of Port Huron

The City of Port Huron unveiled a special memorial on Saturday, Aug. 28. The Tuskegee Airmen Memorial Project has created this historic event to honor those who have received little recognition for their service to our country.

Not all heroes wear capes, but these heroes could definitely fly. The special memorial dedication ceremony and monument unveiling took place at the Blue Water Flag Plaza near the Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron. The memorial stands to honor the young pilots of World War II known as the Tuskegee Airmen.  

The history of the Tuskegee Airmen is the history of a group of brave men who fought for a nation that didn’t oftentimes fight for them. World War II, one of the world's most destructive and terrifying wars, began in 1939. At this time in the United States, racism was still very much prevalent, so much so that the United States would not allow African Americans to become pilots.

Eventually, in 1941, there was a project set in place, formed by the U.S. War Department, that would allow the training of African American pilots at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Tuskegee, Alabama. These were young men between the ages of 18 and 26 years old, young men who would be trusted with escorting supplies and equipment for the U.S. Army Air Corp. — which would became to be known as the United States Air Force today. Although the project was expected to be a failure, it was a notable success and a monumental moment in history.

The Tuskegee Airmen memorial, first unveiled on Saturday, Aug. 28, in Port Huron. (Photo: Harold Powell)Flying their P-39 and P-40 single engine planes, the Tuskegee Airmen became known as “The Red Tails” or “Red-Tailed Angels,” due to the red markings on the tail of the aircraft they piloted. The pilots shot down 409 German aircraft, sank a destroyer — a naval warship — using only their machine guns, destroyed 950 ground transportation units, and, of all their heroics, perhaps the most notable is the fact that during 2,000 escort missions, the Tuskegee Airmen never lost a bomber to enemy attacks.

With such a great history behind this branch of servicemen, imagine the surprise when one of the aircraft of these legendary pilots was discovered here in Lake Huron, not far from where the memorial now stands. In 2014, a volunteer diver, David Lewinsky, made a historic discovery that no one expected to find. Lewinsky found the wreckage of a Bell P-39 Airacobra fighter plane piloted by 2nd Lieutenant Frank Herman Moody of the Tuskegee Airmen. Since then, the remains or four other Tuskegee Airmen planes have been discovered. One of which has been identified as belonging to that of Flight Officer Nathaniel P. Rayburg, whose plane crashed in the St. Clair River near Algonac in 1943. Both were pilots of the 553rd Unit and went down during training exercises.

In 2018, divers from the non-profit organization Diving With A Purpose (DWP), who have been heavily involved in the uncovering and mapping of submerged wreckage, then reached out to the City Council of Port Huron, proposing the idea of erecting a monument in the city to honor these heroes.

Being that the city of Port Huron has no committee for such a project, the role was taken on by Anita Ashford, City Council Member. Ashford began taking the necessary steps to make their request a reality. 

“I had to step outside of myself as a council person, and I took on the role of Lead Coordinator to work directly with the DWP. I formed a committee and the rest is history. We started working on making sure (the event on) August the 28th happens for us to erect this monument,” says Ashford. 

There were many obstacles faced in putting together such a monumental task, but with the help of several organizations — such as the Community Foundation of St. Clair County, DWP, Blue Water Chamber of Commerce, and others — it all became a reality.

“The funding was slow in 2019, which was the planned time for the dedication, so we moved it up to 2020. The pandemic put a damper on things, but we still kept doing the best we could. Near the end of 2020, we received over $50,000 from the state of Alabama. [They] are also being recognized on the monument for their role in making this project possible,” says Ashford.

The memorial ceremony was the finale of a three day-scheduled event. The first portion of the event began on Thursday, and was a private engagement held at the Port Huron Museum, where artifacts of the wreckage has been on display since 2018. On Friday, there was a public welcome reception held at the Blue Water Convention Center to welcome the many out-of-town guests that came to the area. Many were from Alabama, but there were people from all over the country to experience this historic event.

Jay Haigler, Board Member/Instructor for DWP, has worked extensively since the project’s inception in 2015. He searched for as much of the wreckage of the submerged aircraft as possible. 

“One thing that you should note is that it was found on April 11, 2014 — 70 years to the day that the plane crashed back in 1944! I am honored to tell the story of 2nd Lieutenant Frank Herman Moody. This is what I call modern history — probably near the top of all the discoveries I've been a part of, probably number one or number two,” says Haigler. 

Another contributor to the project is Eric Denson, Electrical Chief Engineer at NASA Kennedy Space Center and Lead Instructor with DWP. Involved since the inception of the organization DWP in 2005, Denson is well trained and highly skilled to handle the delicate task of mapping and removing the remaining wreckage, which is still in progress. 

“I've been participating the last three weeks, and the day before yesterday we actually brought up four of the .50 caliber machine guns. There's lots of armament littered everywhere. We’ve found the tail section, the propeller, and, even though we have found a nice amount of the wreckage, there is still a good amount of it still down there,” says Denson.  

Through the combined efforts of the State of Alabama, the City of Port Huron, and all of the pieces in between, that which started out as a surprise discovery has now become a historical monument in honor of the oft forgotten, but highly skilled and well respected, Tuskegee Airmen.
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