2013 Honored Veteran

Connie Nappier, Jr., Tuskegee Airman
Connie Nappier., Jr., served in World War II as a member of the esteemed Tuskegee Airmen, the group of heroic African-American combat pilots and bombardiers who defeated the Germans in the skies over Europe and racial discrimination on the home front. Connie, born in Georgia, raised in Hartford and a New Britain resident for more than 20 years, is a humble and proud veteran who to this day takes the time to speak to youth groups about his experiences in the war and the lessons America learned. In 2007, Connie and his fellow Tuskegee Airmen were honored in Washington with the Congressional Gold Medal. Following is The Hartford Courant story about Connie, his comrades and the special day they were guests of honor at the White House.

  • To view Connie Nappier's papers at the Veterans History Project at CCSU, click here.
  • To watch Connie Nappier's 2006 interview with CCSU Veterans History Project Director Eileen Hurst, click here.
  • For more on the Tuskegee Airmen, click here.
An Overdue Salute
Tuskegee Airmen Receive Congressional Gold Medals

Overdue Salute: Tuskegee Airmen Receive Congressional Gold Medals

By David Lightman, Hartford Courant
March 30, 2007

As President Bush stood in the Capitol Rotunda Thursday and offered a salute to Connie Nappier Jr. and 300 of the surviving Tuskegee Airmen, the room fell silent.


Faces froze. Politics were forgotten.


"I don't agree with him in most ways, but he handled this well,'' said Nappier, a flight officer who was trained as part of the Tuskegee program that taught blacks to fly during World War II.


The airmen gathered in Washington Thursday to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, after serving in a military that was not only segregated by race, but one that doled out regular humiliation.


Nappier, 85, a New Britain architect who graduated from Weaver High School in Hartford, once spent time in the stockade because of those policies. At Freeman Field in Indiana, he and dozens of other black servicemen were jailed because they refused to sign an affidavit agreeing to be separated from whites at the Officers' Club.


"There were 6 or 7 feet of barbed wire and enough searchlights to turn night into day,'' he recalled Thursday.


President Truman heard of their plight and set them free.


And now, years later, another president and members of Congress officially marked the airmen's contribution -- and their suffering. For two hours Thursday, they all put aside the bitter debate over Iraq that had been raging on both sides of the Capitol.


Instead, they gathered under the marble statue of Abraham Lincoln, looking out on the vast space where presidents had lain in state and where tourists visit regularly to remember more than two centuries of history. House Speaker Nancy D. Pelosi sat next to Bush, trading polite chatter.


They watched as the airmen filed in, one by one. It took them 25 minutes to enter the hall much as they had lived, with a quiet, almost solemn dignity. There was no martial music, no whoops or cheers from family, just some polite applause now and then as each man walked in and took his seat.


Few wore any medals or pins. A few wore red coats and ties, symbolic of the color the airmen painted the tails of their planes. Some stopped to shake the hand of Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the 1960s civil rights leader who formed a one-man receiving line inside the room.


The airmen's triumphs have become the stuff of legend; 927 graduated from the Tuskegee program as U.S. pilots.


During World War II they downed 111 German planes in the air and another 150 on the ground. Sixty-six of the airmen died in combat.


"I benefited from what you and so many others did," said retired Gen. Colin Powell, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of state.


As the events unfolded in Washington, Dr. Sedrick J. Rawlins, who served in a support unit in the weather squadron alongside the airmen, was at his Manchester home, remembering those days.


"I'm very proud of my colleagues,'' Rawlins, 79, said.


"Most of the Tuskegee Airmen today would say we should have been honored years ago, but it's nice to be honored, it's nice to be remembered,'' Rawlins said. "There were women, there were nurses, there were all kinds of people who were helping the effort.''


Nappier had similar thoughts.

After the ceremony, he stood on the Capitol steps with his wife and other family members -- including his daughter, State Treasurer Denise Nappier. He was dressed in a gray and brown suit, black shirt and black tie with a clasp of the B-25J bomber he had once flown.


Nappier spent the war in the United States; he remembered being told he was going to Okinawa in 1945, and then "President Truman made it so we didn't have to go'' by ordering atomic bombs to be dropped on Japan.


Nappier was grateful for the chance to be in Washington on a crisp and sunny spring day, back with friends, basking in the praise. And being recognized, quietly but quite firmly, by the man in charge.


He wished his colleagues could have been there to see the president. "This brought back memories of the fellas who had gone before,'' he said.


Bush, whose father was also a World War II airman, grew up hearing all about the war from a very different perspective.


"In a way,'' the president said, "[white service personnel] were very fortunate because they never had the burden of having their every mission, their every success, their every failure viewed through the color of their skin.


"Nobody told them they were a credit to their race,'' he said, looking straight at the old veterans just below him. "Nobody refused to return their salutes. Nobody expected them to bear the daily humiliations while wearing the uniform of their country.''


And so, as he finished his brief remarks, Bush got that steely gaze he gets when he is determined to do something.


"I would like to offer a gesture to help atone for all the unreturned salutes and unforgivable indignities,'' he told the veterans. "And so, on behalf of the office I hold and a country that honors you, I salute you for the service to the United States of America.''


For the first time all afternoon, the cheers were almost deafening.