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Robert Ashby of Sun City is among nine surviving Tuskegee Airmen with Arizona ties. The experimental unit was the first in the U.S. Army Corps comprised entirely of black personnel. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Nicole Tropp)

PHOENIX -- When the Army Air Corps launched an experiment allowing black servicemen to fly planes during World War II, Robert Ashby said he jumped at the chance to be a pilot.

"It intrigued me. I said, ‘Great, I can fly just like anybody else,'" said Ashby, one of the original Tuskegee Airmen.

A retired lieutenant colonel now living in Sun City, Ashby was among six surviving Tuskegee Airmen attending a State Capitol ceremony Thursday honoring their service. Participants also celebrated a new law establishing an annual Tuskegee Airmen Commemoration Day in Arizona.

Gov. Jan Brewer signed the bill designating the fourth Thursday of March to recognize the men and women who formed the first black military wing in the Army Air Corps.

"We celebrate the many battlefield accomplishments of this groundbreaking aviation unit," she told the group. "We celebrate their bigger message about the human spirit, about how, regardless of circumstance, brave and persistent men and women can and will overcome barriers and burdens to show the world what they're made of."

In all, nine surviving Tuskegee Airmen have Arizona ties, according to the Archer-Ragsdale Arizona Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc.

Ashby, who didn't serve overseas during WWII, said most people associate the Tuskegee Airmen with pilots.

"That's not how we fliers think of the Tuskegee Airmen," he said. "Everyone that participated in this program, experimental program -- cooks, bakers, maintenance, clerks -- we stood on their shoulders. They went into this program with the same purpose that we did: This program is not going to fail."

State Sen. Al Melvin, R-Tucson, who sponsored the legislation creating Tuskegee Airmen Commemoration Day in Arizona, said he wanted to recognize that group's commitment to fight for a cause greater than self.

"Edmund Burke during the Revolutionary War said, ‘The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing,' " Melvin said. "Obviously these airmen stepped up and helped the United States win that war."

Brewer said she hopes society can learn from history and grow to become what the Tuskegee Airmen fought on the battlefield and the homefront to create.

"We're all truly and enormously proud of all the airmen and their accomplishments and their courage during and after their years of service to this nation," she said.

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