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Published: 7/18/2011 - Updated: 2 years ago

Bell honor to recall role of ex-Toledo WWII vet

Jibilian pointed out black pilots' key deed

BY TYREL LINKHORN
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Art Jibilian died last year at 86. Art Jibilian died last year at 86.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge

When radioman Art Jibilian helped orchestrate the rescue of more than 500 downed U.S. airmen from Nazi-held Yugoslavia during World War II, Tuskegee Airmen provided cover from the sky.

Mr. Jibilian, who grew up in Toledo and later lived in Fostoria, fought to set the record straight about that daring OSS mission, from the covered-up heroism of Serbian partisans to the long-unknown contribution from America's first black military pilots.

He died last year at 86. His cause, however, remains very much alive.

"As we got into this story, it kind of took on a life of its own," said Brian McMahon, a Perrysburg real estate developer who helped organize local honors for Mr. Jibilian and eventually recognition for the veteran at the world's largest air show in Oshkosh, Wis., a few months before his passing.

On Saturday, Toledo Mayor Mike Bell is to be named an honorary Tuskegee Airman and made a member of national Tuskegee Airman Inc., based in Tuskegee, Ala.

The ceremony is to occur with an original P-51 Mustang fighter nearby, its tail painted bright red in honor of the squadron markings of the Tuskegee pilots.

Those who are bestowing the honor on Mr. Bell hope it inspires more people to recognize Mr. Jibilian's effort to set the record straight while giving a new voice to the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen.

"With Mayor Bell and his integrity, he's a perfect candidate for an honorary Tuskegee Airman," said LaVone Kay, marketing director for the Commemorate Air Force Red Tail Squadron.

The idea to confer honorary membership to Mayor Bell came after he took the skies last year in the back seat of an F-16 fighter jet of the 180th Air National Guard wing.

The 180th, coincidentally, has a partnership with the Republic of Serbia, and when the unit deploys to Iraq, it is assigned to the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing, which traces its legacy back to the Tuskegee Airmen's 332nd Fighter Group, said Master Sgt. Elizabeth Holliker of the 180th.

The ceremony on Saturday is to be at Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti, Mich., during the annual Thunder Over Michigan Airshow.

Mayor Bell is to receive the honor at 10:20 a.m. from Lt. Col. Alexander Jefferson, a Tuskegee pilot who spent time as a German prisoner of war after being shot down on a mission.

With fewer Tuskegee Airmen surviving, it's important to preserve their legacy, Ms. McKay said.

"We teach the lessons of the Tuskegee Airmen and encourage [children] to set personal goals in their lives and succeed as the Tuskegee Airmen did," she said.

Mr. McMahon said it was at Oshkosh in 2009 that many of the Tuskegee Airmen learned their connection to the rescue.

The Forgotten 500, the 2007 book by Gregory A. Freeman that was the catalyst for Mr. Jibilian's local recognition, didn't make reference to the Tuskegee pilots' role.

Surviving pilots "found their logbooks were as simple as 'Go to some place in Yugoslavia and escort some C-47s,' " Mr. McMahon said.

"It isn't just about honoring Mike Bell, it's about recognizing [and] revisiting who these people where who fought under the most adversarial conditions.

"It didn't exist in the combat zone; it existed in this country," he said.

Contact Tyrel Linkhorn at: tlinkhorn@theblade.com or 419-724-6134.



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