POLK CITY, Fla. — Several Polk County and Tampa area students in elementary through high school gathered on Friday, March 25 at Fantasy of Flight to receive awards from true aviation heroes of World War II, the Tuskegee Airmen.
Last month, in honor of National Black History month and in tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen, fourth through twelfth grade students were invited to participate in an essay contest conducted by Fantasy of Flight. Students were asked to write essays that focused on leadership, excellence, advocacy and determination, and how these virtues helped the Tuskegee Airmen achieve success or how they could be used to help students achieve their own goals.
Six students were chosen for their essays and received cash prizes directly from Fantasy of Flight founder, Kermit Weeks.
- First Place, Jimmy Liason, Lake Wales Sr. High, Lake Wales, Fla.,
- Second Place, David Wilhite, Summerlin Academy , Winter Haven, Fla.;
- First Place, Dylan Skroskznik, Stewart Middle Magnet, Tampa, Fla.,
- Second Place, Altorian Salary, Stewart Middle Magnet, Tampa, Fla.,
- Third Place, Christopher P. Clark, Calvary School, Lutz, Fla.;
- First Place, Madison Autry, St. Lukes Lutheran School, Chuluota, Fla.
First place winners received $100, second place winners took home $75 and third place winners were given $50.
The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African Americans to be trained as WWII military pilots. Fantasy of Flight’s permanent multi-media Tuskegee Airmen exhibit and vintage aircraft collection, including the P-51C Mustang, provided the perfect backdrop for the students to meet the brave men who fought America’s enemies abroad while enduring racism at home.
The Airmen in attendance at today’s presentation and essay contest awards included:
- Hiram E. Mann (Titusville, Fla.) – Mann entered the Army Air Corps as a Pre-Aviation Student in 1942. He became an Aviation Cadet and completed Single-Engine Combat Pilot Training at Tuskegee Army Air Field (TAAF). Mann flew combat missions around the world before retiring after 21 years of service. He now lives in Titusville. Florida.
- George E. Hardy (Sarasota, Fla.) – Hardy started Aviation Cadet Training at Tuskegee Army Air Field, Alabama, in December 1943, and graduated as a pilot in September 1944. He has flown in combat missions around the world including: Italy, Germany, Guam, and Korea. Hardy retired in November 1971 with the rank of Lt. Colonel.
- Leo R. Gray (Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.) – Gray, after completing the College Training Detachment Program at Tuskegee Institute, he entered aviation cadet training to become a pilot. He graduated from the Tuskegee Army Air Filed Flying School as a 2nd Lieutenant Single Engine Pilot in Class 44-G (SE). Gray was stationed in Italy as a fighter pilot with the 100th Fighter Squadron, 332nd Fighter Group. He flew 15 combat missions over Europe before separating from active duty in 1946. During his 41 years of military service, Lt. Col. Gray was awarded the Air Medal with one oak leaf cluster, a Presidential Unit Citation, and the Mediterranean Theatre of Operation ribbon with three battle stars.
Five distinguished Tuskegee Airmen were featured in February’s Fantasy of Flight “Legends & Legacies Symposium Series” entitled “They Dared to Fly,” to share their recollections of wartime military service during segregated America.