On Feb. 1, history came alive for the more than 500 people in attendance at the Fort Bragg Club.
The event, part of the African American Heritage Observance, was hosted by the 8th Military Information Support Group (Airborne) Equal Opportunity Office, and the start of African American History Month at Fort Bragg.
Featured guest speaker, Donald Elder, captivated the audience with his stories and experiences as a young man who enlisted into the Army with the desire to join the famed Tuskegee Airmen unit. As Elder took the podium and observed the mass of military uniforms, he was visibly awed with the response from the audience.
“If I had any idea that the things I went through after joining the Army Air Corps would result in this opportunity to be with you today, reliving those experiences for you, I would do it all again over,” said Elder.
Don Elder was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, enlisted at the tender age of 17 and received military and specialized training at several facilities including Camp Atterbury, Ind., Chanute Field, Ill. and Keesler Field, Miss.
“While I was stationed at Camp Atterbury, the more than 5000 German prisoners of war had better housing and messing than we did,” said Elder.
Later, Elder was assigned to the 99th Fighter Squadron as an aircraft maintenance specialist and crew chief on the P-47, one of the Army Air Force fighter planes flown in combat by the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II.
The term “Tuskegee Airmen” refers to the military members assigned to the Army Air Corps program to train African Americans to fly and maintain combat aircraft in World War II. Air Corps officials built a separate facility at Tuskegee Army Air Field and flight training took place at the Division of Aeronautics of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Segregation in the armed forces was a fact of life and the Tuskegee Airmen experienced racism and segregation throughout their training.
After his military service ended, Elder went back to his home town of Columbus, Ohio. He worked at North American Rockwell, retiring after 33 years. He then worked for the State of Ohio in the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections and later accepted the manager of diversity position with Bell Helicopter, Textron Division, until his retirement in 2004.
In March 2007, Elder, along with about 300 other Tuskegee Airmen, was awarded the United States Congressional Gold Medal by President George W. Bush at the United States Capitol Rotunda, Washington, D.C.
Elder is recognized nationally, for his commitment and service to the improvement of civil rights and fair employment practices. He is the founding president of the Central Ohio Minority Affairs Representatives and a long time, active member of the National Urban League, National Association of the Advancement of Colored People, the National Alliance of Business, Youth Motivation Task Force, Board Member of the National Industry Liaison Group, and chairman of the Fort Worth McDonald YMCA Minority Achievers. Elder currently serves as the president of the North Texas Industry Liaison Group and is self-employed as a human resources consultant.
Another member of the famed Tuskegee Airman was in the audience. Reverend James Jones, who lives in Lumberton, N.C. was also a maintenance specialist on the P-47. Jones’ son, Courtney is a major in the Military Information Support Operations Command.
“I remember growing up and my father giving me proper direction and the fortitude to do the right thing. He is a great role model,” said Jones.
After Elder finished his speech, many in the audience realized they had been given a history lesson and the understanding of what occurred in the 1940s was just as important then, as now. After the standing ovation for Elder and Jones had ended, a moment of silence was observed as Sgt. 1st Class Wilford Rosario read the names of Tuskegee Airmen who had passed away last year.
Throughout his speech, Elder repeated for the audience a line that he learned when first joining the Tuskegee Airmen.
“You got to know where you have been, if you want to know where you are going,” said Elder. Words, that he thought, would help those in his audience remember their personal heritage.