Former Tuskegee airman Ret. Col. Ernest Craigwell Jr.

recounted stories of his time as a flyer and discussed his distinguished service to the nation in a special visit to the Bill Nichols State Veterans Home in Alexander City on Monday.

“We’re thrilled to have him here with us today,” said Betty Burley, activities coordinator at the Veterans Home. “It’s really an honor to hear him speak.”

Approximately 40 people were on hand at the event, which was open to the public.

Craigwell, 81, served in the armed forces from 1945 until his retirement in 1973. When he first enlisted he was assigned to the elite 332nd fighter group of the U.S. Army Air Corps, the so-called Tuskegee Airmen.

In the cockpit Craigwell fought in the Korean and Vietnam wars, flying 400 missions and earning a total of 26 medals of valor.

“During peacetime, us soldiers fed at the public trough. When war came, I wanted to be the first one there and the last one back … I felt that I owed that much at least,” Craigwell said.

In addition to his military decorations, Craigwell is also a recipient of a Congressional Gold Medal along with the rest of the Tuskegee airmen. This award, given to the airmen by President Bush in March of this year, is the highest civilian award given by Congress.

Despite these accomplishments, Craigwell said his goal was never to earn awards, get promotions or win prestige.

“When I was flying, I didn’t care about rank – I was having too much fun,” he said. “Monday was the best day of the week for me because it meant I had four more days of flying.”

During his speech, Craigwell also described some of the difficulties faced by African Americans receiving recognition for the work they did and sacrifices they made during Word War II.

He said the country has made significant strides in honoring African American servicemen in the last 60 years but that there is still much work to be done.

“For every one of us, there were plenty of mechanics, truck drivers, cooks, factory workers that deserve to be honored,” Craigwell said.

Craigwell said he felt it was important to honor those who made contributions in all sectors of the war effort because if those individuals are not honored, they and their contributions may be forgotten.

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