WASHINGTON - Watching as Barack Obama became America's first black president, members of the Tuskegee Airmen, the country's first group of black military pilots and crew, had the same feeling: They never expected it would happen, but they sure are glad they lived long enough to see it.
''I knew it had to happen, but I didn't expect it so soon,'' said H.M Cummings, who witnessed Obama's oath-taking just after noon on Tuesday, bundled up and sitting in a wheelchair at age 89, having come a long distance in time and space from the day during World War II in April 1945 when he suffered the humiliation of racism by the military.
The airmen were invited by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who led the joint congressional committee that planned the inaugural ceremonies. At the time, the California Democrat said it was ''appropriate to honor these members of the greatest generation who overcame enormous racial barriers to serve their nation.''
This Friday picture shows Clarence Jamison, 90, of Shaker Heights, Ohio, an original member of the Tuskegee Airmen, who has been invited to Barack Obama's inauguration. Jamison flew a P-40 Warhawk. As a Tuskegee Airman during World War II, Jamison, stationed in Italy, led a flight of fellow pilots credited with shooting down five German planes.
The Tuskegee Airmen were recruited into an Army Air Corps program that trained blacks to fly and maintain combat aircraft. They trained as a segregated unit at an air base in Tuskegee, Ala.
After fighting the Nazis, they returned home to the country they helped defend and faced discrimination instead of the jubilation, parades and awards typically afforded America's heroes.
Nearly 200 airmen were expected to attend the inauguration, according to the Arlington, Va.-based association that represents them. Some also participated in the parade.
Claude Plette, 87, of Fort Worth, Texas, who attended with his wife, Erma, said Obama's presidency surprised him.
''I didn't think I'd live this long to see it,'' he said.
Cummings said he was among 103 airmen who were taken into custody in 1945 at Freeman Field, Ind., for refusing to sign a letter promising to stay out of the all-white officer's club. He was placed under house arrest and never saw combat.
Fifteen years after his arrest, in 1960, Cummings was among 15 of the original 103 officers who were notified that their military records had been purged of any reference to the incident.
Billy Holloman, 84, of Seattle, said that after his experience with the Tuskegee Airmen he never thought he'd see a black man become mayor of a major city, let alone president. But his hometown made Norman Rice its first black mayor in the 1990s.
Holloman said Obama has what's needed to ''bring us out of this funk and put us back on the right track.''
''I am proud to witness this changing of the guard in American politics,'' he said.