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TUSKEGEE AIRMEN

IT WASN'T EASY:

"They set up this Jim Crow Air Forces OCS School in Tuskegee. They made the standard's so damn high, we actually became an elite group. We were screened and super-screened. We were unquestionably the brightest and most physically fit young blacks in the country. We were super-better because of the irrational laws of Jim Crow. You can't bring that many intelligent young people together and train 'em as fighting men and expect them to supinely roll over when you try to fuck over'em, right? How does that go? Sowing the seeds of their own destruction. (Laughs.)

"I was washed out as a fighter pilot. I'm told it was because of FBI intervention. I had already graduated from officers' school in October of '42, at Fort Benning. They literally pulled guys off the stage, 'cause FBI, Birmingham, was accusin' them of subversion, which may have been attendin' YMCA meeting in protest against discrimination.

"The army was dominated by southern generals, and most of the posts were old, dating back to World War One. Either all white or all black. The air force introduced a new wrinkle. They started from scratch.

"I wrote a letter to the inspector general. You become a little bit of a shithouse-lawyer and learn all the army regulations for your own protection. Here we officers were barred from the officers' club. The inspector general flew down and made some changes. This was '44 and the real beginnin' of integration in the army. 

"From there we went to Midland, Texas, the bombardier training school. Five of us had the whole visiting officers' quarters to ourselves. Each of us had two suites, but we still resented the fact that we were not allowed to go to the officers' club. We wrote the inspector general again. The post commander was a Texan but also a soldier. This was after V-E Day. He called every officer on the post together and said in the classic military manner: 'I may not like this and you may not like this, but these are orders. These officers will be treated as officers, they will have full access to all privileges and nobody will fuck with them, is that clear? (Laughs.) We're now veterans of two successful struggles, but, wait, there's more to come.

"We're now, forty-five of us, at Godman Field, attached to Fort Knox. We're boxed in, Jim Crow. The white officers could go to the officers' club as guests of Fort Knox officers. Nobody invited us. I guess I'd become pretty disgusted, so they removed me from my division and put me in RTU, the Reserve Training Unit, where the troublemakers wound up. We began hearing rumors that they were going to make the Godman Officers' Club all white and the black officers would go to the noncom club. To add insult to injury, we had a few thousand bucks in the officers' club. We swore we weren't going to take this. Well, they shipped us out, one squadron at a time, to Freeman Field, near Seymour, Indiana.

"They were prepared for our arrival. expectin' trouble. MPs were there to keep us out of the club the night we arrived. We decided to go in groups of eight and nine. We were gonna scatter, play pool, get a drink, buy cigarettes. I'm in the first wave. This white captain says: 'You can't go in here.' We just brushed past him and scattered. The commandin' officer was livid and placed us under arrest, at quarters.

"It was my job to convince the other guys that they should go in and get arrested. (Laughs.) After the first nine, it was tough gettin' the next nine. But we broke the ice, and two more groups went in and were placed under arrest. They had to close the son of a bitch down because the whole post would have been under arrest, at quarters. They wanted to put us in the position of disobeying post command.

"The commanding officer read the damn thing and ordered each of us to come up and sign it. If you did that and disobeyed, they could prosecute you. The post commander says: 'Do you recognize that under the sixtieth article of war, in time of war, disobedience to a direct order can be punished by death? Okay, give him an order. I hereby command you to sign this.' He knocked off a bunch of guys. I'm lucky. They called us alphabetically, right? (Laughs.) I got a little breathing spell. I remembered an article of war that roughly is the equivalent of the Fifth amendment. We devised a strategy. We'd go through all the formalities, salute properly and say, 'Yes, sir.' Where he gives you a direct order, you say: 'I'm sorry, sir, but under the sixty-sixth article of war, I'm afraid this might incriminate me. I refuse to sign.' There were a hundred and one guys who stood up under that one, one by one. We were all placed under arrest.

"The word spread all over. The black enlisted men were pissed. They stopped gassin' the airplanes. It was chaos. They had five or six C-47s to fly us away, we were such a source of unrest. They had the officers' quarters enclosed in barbed wire, with white MPs patrolling it. And spotlights. Here again, the contradictions of racism screwed them. They wanted to isolate us. But they couldn't bring themselves to ignore the military code: officers are "gentlemen" and therefore entitled to valet service, right? You gotta have somebody make your bed and shine your shoes and cook for you. They could not see themselves assigning' white soldiers to perform these tasks for black officers. So they put some black guys in. (Laughs.) As luck would have it, the sergeant commanding the outfit, I used to play pool with him in Detroit. These guys were our keys to the outside world. They were gettin' our messages out. We were heroes all over Fort Knox. Chappie James, the general, was among those arrested.

"They let Chappie go because he flew the C-47, our communications ship. Every day he went to Wahington [[Washington]] with orders. He also carried press releases from us, letters to Mrs. Roosevelt, to Judge Hastings, to the NAACP. We had a guy in our outfit who typed damn near as quick as I could talk. I'd dictate a press release, give it to the sergeant, who got it to Chappie, who would fly it in. (Laughs.)

"They sent in investigators and they were never able to get one out of a hundred and one guys to identify a leader. That, I think, is really something.

"It was only a month later that V-J day occurred. We chose that day to invade the white officers' club in Monroe. It's the same damn thing. We were told the next morning that we had an option of signin' up for three more years or gettin' the hell out immediately. Of course, I opted for immediate and got out. 

"As a result of that incident, they published a war department memorandum, 450-50, which was the beginning of integration in the army. All officers' clubs, service clubs, and recreational facilities are open to all military personnel, regardless of race. Shortly afterward, Truman integrated the army. Oh, I remember 450-50 very clearly.

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