By Don Branum, U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs
/ Published July 22, 2011
U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- A personal tragedy for one of the documented original Tuskegee Airmen ended on a happy note July 22, courtesy of the Colorado Springs community, and Airmen from Peterson Air Force Base and the Air Force Academy.
Former 2nd Lt. Franklin Macon received a bronze replica of the Tuskegee Airmen Congressional Gold Medal from Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz in a ceremony held in front of the Tuskegee Airmen statue on the Academy's honor court, replacing a replica that had been stolen May 31.
Three other original Tuskegee Airmen -- retired Col. Lowell Bell, retired Capt. Sam Hunter Jr. and Aviation Cadet Randy Edwards -- attended the ceremony alongside Macon.
"It's an honor to present this replica to Lieutenant Macon and the other original Tuskegee Airmen," said Schwartz, who is an honorary member of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc. "They are among the most revered and unforgettable members of our greatest generation. Our Air Force has been enriched by the Tuskegee Airmen, whom we remember not only for valiant service against an adversary, but also for their perseverance against inequity."
The small ceremony was designed to honor Macon and his fellow original Tuskegee Airmen without upstaging the original presentation of the gold medal by the president in 2007, Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Mike Gould said.
Colorado Springs police responded to a call around noon May 31 from Macon, said Springs Police Department Sgt. Darrin Abbink. When officers arrived, they found the medal had been stolen, along with a notebook computer and an ammo can filled with roughly $200 in coins.
"When I first discovered it was gone, it was a shock," Macon said. "It felt like my whole world had just disappeared."
After three weeks, the Springs Police Department had no leads on the case. The El Paso County Sheriff's Department had previously turned to the public for help in a case involving a stolen urn. The CSPD decided to send out a similar call for help, Abbink said.
"In the long run, that urn was returned to a church in Colorado Springs," he said. "So we thought that by putting a press release out, we might get the public's attention, and we might also alert pawn shops to call us if one of them received the medal."
The release didn't generate any leads, but the story gained immediate attention in the local area, gaining coverage by both local TV stations and the Gazette. The tale spurred local Airmen into action.
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE
First Lt. Alyssa Tetrault and Jennifer Rounds saw the story and looked into whether the 21st Space Wing could buy a replacement.
"We both thought it was heartbreaking, both that someone would burglarize an 87-year-old and that they'd take a medal signifying a personal honor," said Tetrault, the 21st Force Support Squadron's Manpower and Personnel Flight commander and a 2008 Academy graduate. "The Tuskegee Airmen are an icon for the Air Force and today's military. I think that's why everyone was so passionate about finding a medal replacement."
Rounds "took the bull by the horns," Tetrault said, offering to track down a replacement Tuskegee Airmen Medal replica. Within an hour, Rounds found that the U.S. Mint sold replicas of the medal for $42.
"We were expecting it to cost a considerable amount," Tetrault said. "We didn't know we could order a replacement from the Mint."
Tetrault checked Defense Department and Air Force instructions to make sure the wing could legally buy the medal using a government purchase card.
"Even if we couldn't have purchased it with government funds, we would have bought it out of our own pockets," she said.
Col. Stephen Whiting, the 21st Space Wing commander at the time, approved the purchase. There was just one problem: The Mint only had one replica left, and officials there didn't know where it was.
AIR FORCE ACADEMY
Gould had also heard about the theft of Macon's medal. He asked Commandant of Cadets Brig. Gen. Richard Clark to assign someone the task of finding a replacement medal. The two bases' efforts were "independent, but almost simultaneous," he said.
Maj. Julian Stephens, the air officer commanding for Cadet Squadron 14 and a liaison for the Hubert L. "Hooks" Jones Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc., took up the challenge.
"It was the least I could do for what the Tuskegee Airmen did for me as an African American," said Stephens, a 1996 Academy graduate and native of Sandusky, Ohio. "The barriers they broke down and the things they had to deal with well overshadow anything we have to deal with today. I felt that it was my duty to help in some fashion."
When he spoke with Macon, he found out that the 21st had ordered a replacement and that Col. Chris Crawford, the new wing commander, planned to present it to Macon.
Stephens approached officials at the 21st. The Air Force chief of staff would be in town July 22 to dedicate the Holaday Athletic Center; why not ask him if he could spare the time to present the replacement?
"I thought it would be a golden opportunity," Stephens said. Macon could not attend the 2007 presentation ceremony in the Capitol Hill Rotunda; he had received his medal replica through the mail, courtesy of the local chapter.
Stephens asked officials at the Pentagon whether Schwartz could open 10-15 minutes on his schedule. The major said the answer he received was an enthusiastic "yes."
"He said it was the least he could do," Stephens said. "He felt obliged to make time on his calendar to do that, even though he's a busy man."
However, that still left the problem of receiving the medal. The Mint said the soonest they could deliver a new medal would be August.
"It was kind of an up-and-down feeling," Macon said. "Will it happen, or won't it happen?"
Stephens, a career acquisition officer, asked officials at the 21st if he could work the order. After getting the wing's permission to talk with the Mint, he explained the situation.
"They scoured their inventories and found the last (medal)," Stephens said. "They came through."
A HAPPY CONCLUSION
As the official party departed the July 22 ceremony, Macon became the star of the day. Academy staff members and visitors formed a line to have their pictures taken with Macon and the other original Tuskegee Airmen and to thank the gentlemen for their service.
Afterward, he spoke with representatives from the local TV stations. He explained that the medal symbolizes the effort that all of the Tuskegee Airmen made through World War II. The original gold medal is on display in the Smithsonian Institution's National Mall Building in the World War II Aviation Exhibit. And Macon's replica is back where it belongs.
"To have (the medal) back in my hands again ... I can't express the great feeling I have," he said. "I really appreciate all the effort that was put into it."