Washington The Tuskegee Airmen were called racist and hurtful names as they became the nation's first black military pilots during World War II.
On Thursday, they were called heroes.
About 300 airmen, widows and relatives sat proudly in the Capitol Rotunda as the Tuskegee Airmen received the Congressional Gold Medal - the nation's highest civilian honor - and a heartfelt salute from their commander in chief.
The award is recognition of the airmen's role in fighting two wars: one against America's enemies abroad and another against the evils of ignorance and racial intolerance at home.
"The Tuskegee Airmen helped win a war and you helped change our nation," President Bush said. "And the medal that we confer today means that we're doing a small part to ensure that your story will be told and honored for generations to come."
But Bush said the award wasn't enough to atone for the "unforgivable indignities" and the unreturned salutes the airmen endured from white servicemen. The president stood ramrod straight, put his hand to his head and told them:
"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."
Several airmen, some of whom entered the rotunda with the aid of canes or wheelchairs, stood and returned the salute.
The airmen join the ranks of Rosa Parks, Jonas Salk, Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Charles Lindbergh and the Little Rock Nine as Congressional Gold Medal recipients.
Another recipient, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, attended Thursday's ceremony and thanked the airmen.
"You caused America to look in the mirror of its soul, and you showed America that there was nothing a black person couldn't do," he said.
"We are so overjoyed at the reception of the Congressional Gold Medal," Roscoe Brown, an airman from New York City, said on behalf of the group. "Because of our great record and our persistence, we inspired revolutionary reform in the armed forces that led to integration in the armed forces : and provided a symbol to America that all people can contribute to this country and be treated fairly."
The Army Air Corps began training black soldiers to become pilots in 1941 at Alabama's Tuskegee University under orders of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Army officials were skeptical of the skills of blacks, largely basing their assumptions on a 1925 military study that concluded that blacks lacked the courage and technical aptitude to be counted on in combat.
Nearly 1,000 black soldiers earned their pilot's wings in the Tuskegee program between 1942 and 1946. They flew more than 15,000 sorties over North Africa and Europe during World War II, destroyed more than 250 enemy aircraft on the ground and 150 in the air, and were so proficient at protecting American and Allied bomber planes that squadrons requested that the pilots escort for them.