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Freedom Fighter

A local World War II pilot is honored for his role in liberating France.

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In early June the French government will bestow on Baugh, a Tuskegee Airman, Petersburg native and Midlothian resident, the title of chevalier as he joins 100 other World War II veterans as recipients of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest nonmilitary award.

“It may be my imagination and hope, but it’s my understanding that it’s their equivalent of the Congressional Medal of Honor,” he says.

Baugh and his eldest son, Howard, also a pilot, will travel to France on June 4 for four days of events commemorating the 60th anniversary of D-Day. The French government is paying transportation and accommodation costs for Baugh and a guest.

“It will be a small reunion,” Baugh acknowledges of the Tuskegee contingent. Three other men from across the United States, members of the all-black 332nd Fighter Group are among those being honored. Baugh’s sons David, a lawyer in Richmond, and Richard plan to go to France for the event, too. The Baughs also will visit Utah Beach and the French cemetery for American veterans.

“I’m so proud of him,” David Baugh says, noting that Secretary of State Colin Powell and retired Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf are previous Legion of Honor recipients.

On June 6, 1944, 200,000 Allied troops made their assault on the beaches of Normandy. The fighting was fierce. Total Allied casualties on D-Day are estimated at 10,000, including 2,500 dead.

Allied troops established a beachhead against the Nazi forces. Within a month, a million Allied troops had landed, and by August the troops, with the help of the French Resistance, liberated Paris. The Germans were now in retreat in Western Europe and by the end of summer they had been driven from both France and Belgium.

In April and May 1944, Allied air forces lost nearly 12,000 men and more than 2,000 aircraft in operations that paved the way for D-Day.

Baugh survived. He recalls pushing the Germans back from North Africa and up the boot of Italy. Mostly he flew his P-40 Warhawk, the “Connie Jeanne” — named, he says, after his wife.

“These guys were knocking the hell out of the enemy, disproving Jim Crow,” says David Charles Hahn, senior assistant director of the Virginia Aviation Museum, of the Tuskegee Airmen.

The airmen were a group of black fighter pilots, the nation’s first, who flew for the United States Army Air Corps during World War II. They were trained at an airfield near Tuskegee University in Alabama. While they were allowed to fly in combat, because they were black, the pilots had to train and fly in a segregated group. Their squadron was controversial.

“It was generally thought of by the government and top brass that we couldn’t fly planes,” Howard Baugh recalls. “The question was then, were we worthy of combat?”

After eight months of training, Baugh was one of four in a class of 20 who earned their wings. Throughout WWII, that number would grow to 1,000.

The Tuskegee Airmen flew more than 15,000 missions and received hundreds of Air Medals. The 332nd Fighter Group — which included Baugh’s 99th Fighter Squadron “never lost a bomber that it was escorting to enemy fighters,” he says. More than this, he says, the Tuskegee Airmen are important because they showed the world that in combat and elsewhere, race has nothing to do with ability.

Howard L. Baugh is proof. He was commissioned in 1942 as a second lieutenant. He spent 16 months overseas and flew 135 missions, nearly three times the number of most pilots. “Then one day I almost got killed,” he says of a routine landing. His commander decided Baugh had had enough. He spent the next 23 years as an instructor and pilot in the Air Force at various locations throughout the world.

Baugh’s awards include the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters, an Air Force Commendation Medal and other ribbons for his service during World War II. He spent 25 years as a military pilot, logged more than 6,000 flight hours in more than 15 types of aircraft — including 1,100 in jets — before retiring as a lieutenant colonel.

Baugh returned to his hometown of Petersburg just eight months before the war ended. While troops elsewhere were met with fanfare, only Baugh’s family welcomed him back. It was enough, he says. But one wonders.

It wasn’t until 1995 when HBO’s movie “Tuskegee Airmen” came out that people began recognizing the soldiers’ contributions, he says. And they were significant. The Tuskegee Airmen — Baugh is one of only a handful still alive — flew more than 15,000 sorties and destroyed more than 1,000 German aircraft.

The 332nd shot down 17 German planes in just a few days, Baugh says, remarkably without losing one of its own. He and his wingman shot one down. “It was exhilarating and a little scary,” he says. He explained it this way to his former adversaries three years ago on a visit he took to Germany.

Baugh says the airmen’s success during the war not only proved they were capable of flying and fighting for their country but also led the way for racial integration in the military.

Today the retired pilot speaks regularly to groups about his experiences. And he recounts the history of the Tuskegee Airmen. “I get into racism and discrimination, how it was then and how it is now. And we have some,” he says, referring to the issue of gays in the military.

The details of his career don’t appear softened by time. Nor do the struggles he and his colleagues faced. A German prisoner of war once asked why black soldiers fought so hard for a country that treated them poorly, he says. Baugh puts it this way: “We were doing what we were trained to do, fighting for the only country we knew.” S

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