By Don Branum
U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs
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.
Macon received his original gold medal from the president in 2007.
“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 Colorado Springs Police Department had no leads on the case, and decided to send out a public call for help.
The news 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.
Wanted to help
On 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 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.
Col. Steven 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.
At the academy
Air Force Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Mike Gould had also heard about the theft of Macon’s medal, and wanted to find 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.”
Then 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?
He asked officials at the Pentagon whether Schwartz could open 10 to 15 minutes on his schedule. The major said the answer he received was an enthusiastic “yes.”
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, talked with the Mint, , and “they scoured their inventories and found the last (medal),” Stephens said. “They came through.”
Lifetime of thanks
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.
Macon said 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.”