Image: Tuskegee Airmen
Dave Martin  /  AP
Retired Lt. Col. Floyd J. Carter, of New York, right, talks with Jim Dale, of San Antonio, Texas, after signing his name on the tail of a TU-43 airplane at the opening of the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site in Tuskegee, Ala., on Oct. 10.
updated 12/11/2008 10:04:37 AM ET 2008-12-11T15:04:37

The Tuskegee Airmen made history during World War II as the first black military pilots in the United States, only to return home to discrimination and exclusion from victory parades. Survivors of the elite unit have been invited to Barack Obama's inauguration as the country's first black president.

"I want to come hopping, skipping and jumping!" said 92-year-old Spann Watson, an airman from New York. "We had a part in changing these United States."

John L. Harrison Jr., an original airman now in his 80s, also said he plans to be in the inauguration audience on Jan. 20.

"It makes us very very proud," said Harrison, who lives in Philadelphia, Pa. "It sort of compensates for a lot of the things that we had to endure in the early days."

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein sent the invitation Tuesday to Tuskegee Airmen Inc., an organization in suburban Arlington, Virginia. It represents the 330 survivors of the original pilots, who during the war numbered more than 1,000.

'Enormous racial barriers'
"We believe that it is appropriate to honor these members of the greatest generation who overcame enormous racial barriers to serve their nation," Feinstein said in a statement.

The Tuskegee Airmen were recruited into an Army Air Corps program that trained black pilots to fly and maintain combat aircraft. They trained as a segregated unit at an air base in Tuskegee, Alabama.

After fighting the Nazis and molding a sterling combat record, largely as fighter escorts bombers, they returned home to face discrimination. Watson, the New York airman, said blacks were not allowed to participate in victory parades with other troops returning from Europe during World War II.

"We were excluded out of everything and hidden from everything," he said. "Now this time is our time. And to have a black man as the elected president, this is indeed a turn in history."

Each member will receive two tickets to the Jan. 20 inauguration, and they have 10 days to decide whether they will attend.

Carole Florman, a spokeswoman for the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, said the airmen's seating assignment has not been decided, but it will be within the ticketed viewing area around the U.S. Capitol.

Robert Rose, first vice president of Tuskegee Airmen, said he believes the last time the airmen were officially invited to an inauguration as a group was in 1949, for President Harry S. Truman's swearing-in.

Rose, speaking from his home in Nebraska, said his local chapters are contacting airmen. Most are in their late 80s and early 90s, which makes travel difficult. The logistics involved, such as finding increasingly expensive and scarce hotel rooms, also may prevent some from showing up.

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