Southern California -- this just in

« Previous Post | L.A. NOW Home | Next Post »

Tuskegee Airman on returning from inauguration: 'We did it all'

January 22, 2009 | 11:43 am

Uspoliticsinaugura131f0f_2 As 87-year-old Robert Searcy of Van Nuys returned to Los Angeles from President Obama’s inauguration with other Tuskegee Airmen late Wednesday night, two boys stopped him in the LAX terminal. They had heard he was an airman, and wanted to hear about planes and World War II.

It was nearly 10:30 p.m., and Searcy had just completed a whirlwind four-day trip that included stops in Washington, New Orleans and Hattiesburg, Miss. He had walked for miles and slept fitfully. But the veteran could not resist the chance to tell his story. He took a seat and began telling the boys about his days serving with some of the country’s first black pilots, who fought segregation in the ranks back when “things were not too cool.” Searcy also told the boys about the inauguration, where he sat with scores of other Tuskegee Airmen way up front, near the Capitol steps, with the likes of Jay-Z and Beyonce.

“We did it all,” he said.

The trip was a morale boost for Searcy, a retired widower who served during the war as a clerk, not a pilot, and had shied away from claiming awards or sharing his story, even with his grandchildren. He left Los Angeles on Sunday with two fellow airmen, retired former pilots whom he had never met before: Reginald Ballard, 84, of Banning, and Robert Higginbotham, 82, of Rancho Mirage, who brought his wife, Margaret, 83.

The group flew commercially to New Orleans, then joined Dr. Lynn McMahan on his private jet to Hattiesburg, Miss., where they spent the night at the ophthalmologist’s lavish home, dining on barbecue ribs, baked beans and pecan pie.

“I could get used to this,” Searcy said.

The next morning, the group attended a Martin Luther King Jr. prayer breakfast at the Hattiesburg convention hall, where they were beset by fans requesting photographs, autographs and radio and television interviews. They left on the jet that afternoon for Washington, where they stayed at the J.W. Marriott at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. Their lodgings were donated by Virginia businessman Earl Stafford as part of the People's Inaugural Project, which provided rooms, clothes and events for low-income people who otherwise would not have been able to attend.

That night, Searcy walked across the National Mall for the first time, past crowds buying souvenir Obama buttons and staking out spots along the parade route, to see the National World War II Memorial.

On Inauguration Day, Searcy rose at 5:15 a.m. to board a bus to Bolling Air Force Base, where military brass gathered to honor the 203 airmen present before they were bused to their seats at the front of the inaugural audience near celebrities, former presidents and members of Congress.

That evening, he headed back to the Marriott, dusted off his old tuxedo and attended the People’s Inaugural Ball, where he drew reporters from a local student newspaper and college students in slinky strapless gowns who later joined him on the dance floor. He shook hands with Stafford and thanked him for sponsoring the event.

“I’m overwhelmed,” Searcy said.

By the time he returned home to his one-bedroom senior apartment Wednesday night, his wool Members Only jacket bedecked with Obama inaugural pins, Searcy said he felt fulfilled.

“This is history,” he said. “And I got to dance with twins for the first time in my life.”

-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske

Photo: After watching President Obama take his oath of office at the Capitol, members of the Tuskegee Airmen, the country's first group of black military pilots and crew, sing the national anthem Tuesday during the inauguration celebration in Washington. Credit: Ryan Anson / AFP/Getty Images