On January 4, 1944, nearly two years after he had enlisted at Fort Dix, Technical Sergeant George Watson Sr. set sail from Norfolk, Virginia, aboard the Liberty ship S.S. Josiah Bartlett along with other members of the first all-black service unit in World War II.
Watson was 24 years old and feeling apprehensive and excited. “At last, the pent-up emotion that we had for so long regarding the war and the part we should play in it had reached a climax,” Watson wrote in a self-published account of his life, Memorable Memoirs. “We knew that the 366th Service Squadron would play a prominent part in WWII.”
Just how prominent a role did not become clear until many years after the war. Watson was among thousands of African-Americans who were part of what was known within the military as the Tuskegee Experiment.
In June 1939, the Civilian Pilot Training Act had been signed into law, authorizing the private training of military pilots by civilian schools. A last-minute amendment allowed the limited inclusion of African-Americans in the program. The Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, was among the black colleges approved to provide the training.
Still, not until two years later did the War Department, under pressure from the African-American community, announce the formation of an all-black unit of pilots, the 99th Pursuit Squadron. The activation of three more all-black squadrons, under the 332nd Fighter Group, soon followed.
The Tuskegee Airmen distinguished themselves in combat, flying hundreds of missions over wartime Europe, including 179 bomber escort missions. They are credited with destroying more than 260 enemy planes in the air and on the ground, as well as enemy vehicles and ships. They earned three Distinguished Unit Citations, 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses and many other medals. At least 150 gave their lives during the war, including 66 killed in action.
Yet even as the Red Tails pilots—named for the brightly painted tails of their P-51 Mustangs—were protecting American bombers in German skies, other members of the Tuskegee program were quietly fighting at home against the bigotry that then pervaded much of the Army Air Corps and, indeed, the country.
“The Tuskegee Airmen [story] is not the final chapter, but sort of the penultimate chapter in a decades-long fight to desegregate the U.S. military,” says Joshua Guild, professor of history and African-American studies at Princeton University.
The Tuskegee Experience (as the airmen prefer it to be called) encompassed much more than the celebrated Red Tails (later re-named the 99th Fighter Squadron). In fact, a majority of those who call themselves Tuskegee Airmen were not pilots, a detail often overlooked.
Of the 2,400 aviation cadets who studied at Tuskegee, just under 1,000 graduated as trained pilots. More than 16,000 other young men and women, including Watson, became crew chiefs, radiomen, technical inspectors, welders, painters, clerks, typists and other support staff needed to keep the program running and the planes in the air.
Watson and his service unit were stationed in Italy at Capodichino Air Field near Naples and Ramitelli Air Field near Termoli until the war in Europe ended in May 1945.
“My job was technical supply sergeant. And I was responsible for working with the crew chief to get whatever part they needed for an aircraft to fly the next day,” says Watson. “I had a Jeep at my disposal. I could drive anywhere in Italy to other bases and borrow from them so that we could make the mission the next day.”
German fighter pilots on nightly raids usually passed over the blacked-out Capodichino airfield without incident. On the evening of March 16, 1944, Watson was on guard duty.
“This particular night I’m the only one out there and here come the Germans, getting louder and louder,” Watson recalls. “All of a sudden, I’m looking at these bombs coming down. At first I thought they were paratroopers. When they hit, it tore up 27 of our P-39 airplanes.”
The attack also sent shrapnel slicing into Watson’s knees and ankle, an injury he didn’t report at the time for fear of being transferred from his unit. Not until 66 years later—after Watson finally reported his wartime injuries—did the military award him a Purple Heart.
The Lakewood resident, now 92, worked as a recruiter and an aircraft and missile technician until he retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1969. He later was a frameman and installer for New Jersey Bell Telephone Company. He and his wife, Louise, have three children and three grandchildren.
Watson is among a small number of surviving Tuskegee Airmen across the nation, including a handful in New Jersey. (Even as we researched this article, members of the group gathered for the funerals in Alabama and New Jersey of two of their own.) On these pages we present the stories of five more of these aviation and civil-rights pioneers.
In March of 1942, Sergeant Shade Lee received orders to report to Tuskegee Army Air Field to train as an aviation cadet. Once there, Lee quickly read the writing on the wall.
“I looked on the roster of how many men were ahead of me for cadet flight training and it was 1,700,” says Lee, 91, who lives in Elizabeth with his wife, Mary. “They only had vacancies for 33 pilots. I come from a very poor family. My people had no political pull.” Lee resigned himself to work as a technical inspector and communications chief.
Born Shade Meshack Lee in rural Alabama, Lee was no stranger to the Jim Crow segregation laws of the Deep South. Passionately committed to civil rights, he and his fellow activists were irked by the segregated training facility at Tuskegee.
“We were not all slaphappy about this,” he says. “The president of Tuskegee Institute and other Negro colleges were satisfied with a separate [training] entity—with this token. We weren’t. We knew we were coming to a time when we would have to integrate and we didn’t want to see this setback.”
Lee was discharged from the service following the war but reenlisted in 1948, retiring as master sergeant in 1963. He then held a variety of jobs, including radar technician and computer engineer. He has court records, legal affidavits, correspondence with political leaders and other documents attesting to his decades-long struggle against discrimination in the military and elsewhere.
“I started in 1938, and my view has been consistent since,” says Lee, who has three children and seven grandchildren. “A person should be admitted to the armed forces on the basis of what he or she brings to the mission. There should be no separate thing based on race, religion or sexual orientation.”
A 1937 graduate of Arts High School in Newark, Charles Nolley loved acting, dancing, stand-up comedy—anything that placed him in front of an audience.
“Show business was my life then,” says Nolley, 95, who lives in Edison with his wife, Martha. “Everything about it was great.”
But Nolley’s dream of a life on stage would soon be stalled when, on December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, propelling the United States into World War II.
Drafted into the army in 1943, Nolley, then 26, says he also took part in the Tuskegee flight-training program.
The Army Air Corps was “a white club,” Nolley says. “It was difficult. They didn’t want us. But finally they said, ‘Alright, let the blacks in.’”
Nolley, too, had to fight a few campaigns at home. During basic training at Godman Field near Fort Knox, Kentucky, he staged a strike against the practice of withholding milk, meat and other rations from black servicemen. He was arrested, but his court-martial exonerated him.
At Godman, Nolley was appalled to find prisoners of war accorded better treatment than the African-American aviators. “We couldn’t go to the movies [because of our color],” he says. “We had a lot of German and Italian prisoners of war [on the base], and they were allowed to go, sometimes with white girls. That really bothered me.”
Upon his honorable discharge on March 17, 1946, Nolley, who has two children and three grandchildren, returned briefly to the stage. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Virginia State University and a Master’s in dramatic arts from Columbia University. He taught art classes at Barringer Prep in Newark and later became the school’s vice principal.
Nolley’s war mementos include an aged black-and-white photograph. It shows the young serviceman grinning widely as he performed a comedy dance routine for his unit in an open-air Army theater on August 31, 1944. He doesn’t recall where the photograph was taken, only that it was one of many performances. Clearly, not even war could dampen Nolley’s theatrical spirit.
Eager to be a pilot, Private Roscoe Dabney was among thousands of African-American enlisted men in the early 1940s to undergo the same rigorous academic and psychological testing that was given to white applicants. Three times he took the test, and three times he passed. Yet he received no call to report to Tuskegee.
“The army didn’t explain why. I found out later that they had restricted the number of black people entering the Army Air Corps,” Dabney says.
Finally, on Christmas Eve 1943, Dabney was told to board a train for Alabama to begin aviation cadet training.
“At that time, there was a paper floating around the entire military compound [at Tuskegee] that said black people couldn’t [learn to fly airplanes] because we were lazy, lackadaisical and childlike. And that our brain wasn’t as big,” Dabney says, referring to an Army War College (AWC) study that sought to perpetuate the myth that blacks were mentally inferior to whites.
The AWC memorandum declared among other falsehoods, that “the cranial cavity of the Negro is smaller than the white; his brain weighing 35 ounces contrasted with 45 for the white.” Any blacks who showed “marked mental attainments,” it asserted, had “a heavy strain of white blood.”
“It was pretty strange because here you were in Uncle Sam’s airplanes, doing all of these things that they said you couldn’t do,” says Dabney, who remained Stateside throughout the war. He graduated from the Tuskegee program as a first lieutenant in 1945, a month after the United States forced Japan to surrender by dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
After the war, Dabney flew blimps as a civilian pilot for the U.S. Navy. Now 90, He lives in Willingboro with his wife, Brenda. They have two children and two grandchildren.
The war ended without Victor Ransom ever leaving U.S. soil. But he and other members of the 477th Bombardment Group were busy fighting a different battle.
Activated in June 1944, the 477th was plagued by delays and inefficiencies, due in large part to its commander, a white colonel and rigid segregationist who moved the group from base to base 38 times in less than a year to try to quell dissent. Fed up, a group of black officers staged a quiet, nonviolent protest at Freeman Field, Indiana, on April 5, 1945, when they tried to enter a club used by white officers only.
Ransom, who graduated from Stuyvesant High School in New York City and attended MIT before the war, was among the protesters.
“I was the first guy into the [white] officers’ club,” says Ransom, a former Bell Labs engineer who turns 89 next month. “They said to go back to quarters and remain there. So we were under arrest in quarters for violating an order.”
Cleared by a congressional inquiry, Ransom and the others were released within a few weeks. A few months later, the war ended and Ransom returned to MIT to complete his graduate work in electrical engineering. He lives in Tinton Falls with wife, Dorothy; they have two children. He speaks modestly about his role as a Tuskegee Airman.
“My achievement was our efforts to integrate the officers’ club,” he says wryly. “It was silly. But it characterizes the nature of the country at the time.”
Sixty-eight years after his training at Tuskegee Army Air Field, Dr. Leslie Hayling, 85, can still recite—with military precision—the verses forced upon him by upper classmen (of any race) seeking to haze hapless young aviation cadets.
“Cadet, what’s a Dodo?” he drones. “Sir, a Dodo is an amoeba of an army flier to be properly chastened and subdued by an intricate course of predetermined idealistically integrated formulas.”
About to be drafted, Hayling, then 18, enlisted on April 25, 1945, arriving in Tuskegee a month later after passing the required exams. There he flew Stearman PT-13Ds at Moton Field, a runway that was little more than a strip of grass and dirt.
“Sometimes on Saturdays, they would have the cadets get on the Jeep with the regular soldiers and do MP [military police] duty in town,” says Hayling. “We had a .45 [caliber handgun] on our hip and a small rifle called an Air Corps carbine. But we had no bullets. They gave us the guns with no bullets. We knew why. They didn’t want us to shoot any white people.”
Hayling never got the chance to test his skills in combat. “When we graduated from primary flight training, the war was over in Japan,” says Hayling, now a dentist living three blocks from his childhood home in Trenton with his wife, Adrienne, and their son. “ I had three choices: I could fly as a second lieutenant until 1947, go on enlisted-man status, or get an immediate discharge. I called home and told my mama I’d be home in three weeks.”
Mary Ann McGann is a freelance writer and former CNN reporter/producer based in Warren.
FDR’s First Lady Airs Her Opinion
In the spring of 1941, with war raging in Europe and the likelihood that the United States would soon be drawn into the conflagration, Eleanor Roosevelt asked to be given an aerial tour of an airfield still under construction and in desperate need of funding. Assisted by the pilot, the First Lady climbed aboard the single engine, two-seater Piper Cub and off they soared.
That simple, spur-of-the-moment act shocked her Secret Service detail and others, not because of its inherent risk but because the pilot was black and the airfield was in Tuskegee, Alabama, deep in the segregated South.
Upon exiting the plane at the end of her 40-minute flight, Roosevelt confidently announced, “Well, he can fly alright!” Her endorsement, along with a widely distributed photograph (left) of the smiling First Lady and the celebrated African-American pilot, the late Charles Alfred “Chief” Anderson, garnered much attention for the newly established program to train black pilots at the Tuskegee Institute—just as the First Lady, an ardent supporter of civil rights, knew it would.