Photos by : Rachel Mosoco Denis
orlando sentinel april 6th,2010
Tuskegee Airman in Oviedo gets belated congressional honor
First Haitian pilot in program missed 2007 ceremony
April 06, 2010|By Rachael Jackson, Orlando Sentinel
Raymond Cassagnol never set out to join the Tuskegee Airmen. He didn't plan to be the first Haitian to stand with nearly 1,000 other black pilots who helped break the U.S. military's color barrier in the sky.
Cassagnol, 89, explains the twists in his life with a Haitian saying: "What God has reserved for you, even a flood can't take it away."
Tuesday afternoon, he took his place in history as U.S. Rep. Suzanne Kosmas, D- New Smyrna Beach, presented Cassagnol with a replica of the Congressional Gold Medal, a belated award that he missed when his fellow pilots were honored in 2007 by the president.
Though the Tuskegee Airmen are widely known for their historic flights during World War II, relatively little has been written about the handful of Haitians who graduated from the program. Cassagnol is thought to be the only one still alive.
"These guys just disappeared," said John Gay, who lives in Lake City and is immediate past president of the regional chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc. "They fell off the radar."
Cassagnol's life has been filled with many surprises. One of the first came when as a young man he couldn't afford college and instead he applied to the Haitian military. When he showed an aptitude for working on airplanes, he was sent to Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama.
He first noticed segregation when he boarded a train in Miami and was directed to a car for people of color. During his training, he avoided trips to downtown Tuskegee, fearful of what would happen if he did something as minor as fail to yield to a white person on the sidewalk.
But he recalls his instructors fondly and said he was treated well during about six months of intensive training. It was routine for fuel to be cut off in the air, forcing student pilots to react to emergency conditions. Per tradition, after his first solo flight, his buddies dumped a bucket of ice water on his head.
"Your head was hot. They needed to cool it off," he explained.
After graduating in 1943, Cassagnol went back to Haiti, where he patrolled the island from the air to ward off Nazis. He left the Haitian Air Corps in 1946 and later exported lumber. When President Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier came to power, he says he got involved in the opposition.
In 2004 Cassagnol's memoir, Memoires d'un Revolutionnaire, was published in French.