Tomorrow, President Bush will honor the surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen with a Congressional Gold Medal, in national recognition for fighting a double war -- one against the Nazis abroad, the other against racial segregation at home.
The 99th Fighter Squadron was set up after the army reluctantly agreed to train a group of black pilots at a remote air school in Tuskegee, Alabama, keeping them separate from the rest of the army in line with its policy of segregation.
In all, about 1,000 pilots were trained, and also ground crew. Fewer than a third of the pilots are still alive to receive the medal.
"We had the feeling that the program was designed to fail," said one of the pilots, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Charles Dryden, who graduated from the school in 1942.
"Our mantra was that we dared not fail because if we did, the doors of future aviation would be closed to black people forever," he said in an interview at his home in Atlanta.
Dryden, 86, who stayed in the Air Force after World War Two, recalled the "horrible discrimination" he faced and said he decided to stay away from whites in Alabama as far as possible to avoid breaking the racial mores of the south.
He was particularly incensed to see that German prisoners of war were given access to whites-only facilities at a base in South Carolina that were off-limits to him.
But his memories focus on how his own character was forged in the crucible of combat and racial injustice.
"I had a deep feeling of fear," he said of his first combat encounter. "It wasn't about the enemy, it was about myself ... But the first time I saw the enemy I ran (flew) toward him and I knew that I was a tiger and not a pussy cat."
On graduating from the flying school, he rode the train back to New York wearing his uniform.
"As I was proudly preening my way through the terminal a little white lady said: 'Here Boy. Carry my bags."' The remark angered him but taught him a lesson. "It humbled me. It taught me: It's not the uniform that counts, it's what's inside."
I think it's amazing how far America has come in sixty years.