Friday, December 4, 2015

COMMENTARY >> Local Air Force legend lost

By Senior Airman Harry Brexel
19th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

Before there was a U.S. Air Force, modern civil rights movement or an African-American president, there were the trailblazing Tuskegee Airmen.
Milton Pitts Crenchaw was one of those historic Airmen. Crenchaw served his country while simultaneously breaking down barriers by training hundreds of African-American pilots and cadets throughout his life. 

Born in 1919 as the grandson of a slave in Little Rock, Crenchaw overcame extreme adversity to become a renowned American aviator. 

The well-known Arkansan recently passed away Nov. 17 at the age of 96. During his lifetime, he visited Little Rock Air Force Base several times and spoke with Airmen, sharing his exceptional story. 

I never had the chance to meet Crenchaw or hear him speak, but his journey inspires me regardless. 

Not only was Crenchaw the first Arkansan who was successfully trained by the federal government as a civilian licensed pilot, he served his country during World War II as a flight instructor who trained hundreds of cadet pilots.

His accomplishments are even more remarkable when you take into account that less than 75 years ago, the military was segregated. African Americans were not allowed to perform jobs that whites felt they weren’t good enough for, such as a pilot. 

For that reason, an African-American pilot was a rarity during the 1940s. But Crenchaw went on to become much more than a black pilot. He became a pilot training officer at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute. More than 900 African Americans completed training and qualified as pilots at Tuskegee Institute. A vast number of them fought overseas during World War II. The tenacious men were dubbed the Tuskegee Airmen. 

Crenchaw’s work also contributed to the creation of the first successful flight program at Philander Smith College in Little Rock from 1947 to 1953. 

His groundbreaking federal service record lasted more than 40 years from 1941 to 1983 with the U.S. Army Air Corps which transitioned to the U.S. Air Force. Toward the end of his career, Crenchaw worked as an equal opportunity officer in the Department of Defense and as a race relations officer at Fort Stewart, Georgia. 

For his achievements, Crenchaw and fellow Tuskegee Airmen trailblazers were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor bestowed by Congress. Crenchaw was also inducted into the Arkansas Aviation Hall of Fame and the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.

Crenchaw made routine visits to the 314th Airlift Wing, the Air Force’s home of C-130 training, at Little Rock AFB. His visits inspired today’s generation Airmen. He spoke locally and nationally. Crenchaw’s memoir of how a boy from Arkansas learned to fly is a touching call to action. 

There is a lot to be learned from Crenchaw. His life exemplifies the importance of being resilient, attaining your goals and service before self, among many other lessons. Though Crenchaw’s narrative is unlike most, it’s important to remember that his story is one of many.

It reminds me of all the veterans who have served our country — of the extraordinary stories that have yet to be told. Though I will never hear Crenchaw tell his story, his passing compels me to learn from other veterans like him that selflessly served our country and changed history.  

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