Too young to know about the famed Tuskegee Airmen, 7-year-old Trinity couldn’t quite grasp the significance of Lieutenant Colonel Leo R. Gray’s service to his country. Still, the youngster pressed forward amid the small gathering of people that had surrounded Gray and reached out her hand, thanking him for his World War II enlistment.
Trinity, along with three of her siblings and their grandmother Lizabeth Doebler, were among the approximately 200 people who assembled on the University of Miami’s Coral Gables campus on November 11 for a Veterans Day ceremony to honor the men and women—both living and deceased—who have defended the nation against enemies.
“He gave us freedom,” the young Trinity said after shaking hands with Gray, who flew 15 combat missions in Europe in a P-51 Mustang. He was one of the 355 so-called Red Tail African-American pilots who graduated from the Tuskegee Army Air training program in Alabama and served overseas.
During last Friday’s ceremony, Gray told an audience of UM employees, students, and visitors—some of them veterans themselves—that one of the most important actions they can take to “maintain the freedoms and liberties we enjoy in this country” is to vote.
Gray’s message resonated with Vincent Ku, a second-year UM law student and Marine reserve lieutenant who called his remarks “awe-inspiring and motivational.”
“He’s a living legend,” said Ku, who was one of about a dozen people who gave Gray a small audience after the ceremony, listening to his stories of what it was like to fly the P-51 and lose fellow Red Tail pilots who were shot down behind enemy lines, never to be seen again.
A UM class of United States Air Force ROTC cadets attended the ceremony, among them, Anne Marie Peters, a meteorology major who will enlist as a weather officer in the armed forces, providing forecasts for pilots and ground forces. “I have a special place in my heart for veterans like Colonel Gray,” she said.
After Gray’s remarks, Rear Admiral William D. Baumgartner, commander of the Seventh Coast Guard District headquartered in Miami, educated the audience on the critical role his branch of the armed forces played in wars past and present.
More than 240,000 people served in the Coast Guard during World War II, Baumgartner noted, conducting anti-submarine patrols and sinking German U-boats. He paid tribute to Nathan Bruckenthal, who died along with two U.S. Navy sailors intercepting a waterborne suicide attack on an oil terminal off the coast of Iraq in April 2004. Baumgartner also recognized the Merchant Marines, who he said had “some of the most dangerous duties” of World War II, resupplying troops while often being targeted by enemy subs.
Families of active service members also should not be forgotten, Baumgartner said. “They often struggle quietly and in uncertainty not knowing what their loved ones are facing,” he said.
University of Miami President Donna E. Shalala punctuated that sentiment with a personal story. Noting that two of her uncles were killed in World War II, she said her grandmother always kept two gold stars in the window to remind everyone of her their national service.
Announcing a newly established Veterans Student Organization on campus, Shalala said the nation is made strong by “the men and women in uniform who pledge their very lives to serve her.”