- Public Domain
- Officers of the 477th Bombardment Group at Freeman Field, Indiana.
In this week’s cover story, we remember the military’s first black pilots, the Tuskegee Airmen. During World War II, this elite group faced discrimination and insidious sabotage from the very War Department whose bombers they were sworn to protect. Despite this, the famed 99th Squadron — and later the 332nd Fighter Group — fought valiantly, losing few planes, setting new records and participating in some of WWII’s cornerstone battles.
But according to Santa Rosa Airman James Goodwin, the skies of Italy weren’t the fighters’ only battleground. While the 332nd was fighting Germans, the 477th, a Tuskegee-trained group that would never go overseas, was fighting segregation in the south. Leslie Williams, a 92-year-old San Mateo resident and member of the 477th participated in the events of the famed Freeman Field Mutiny, in which 162 arrests were made.
“We were unhappy because we had more people at Freeman Field than the white officers did, but we couldn’t use the officers’ club or tennis courts,” Williams recalls. This feeling was exacerbated by the fact that white officers were often promoted much faster than the black pilots. “They would be teaching us, and they hadn’t even gotten as much experience as us,” Williams says.
On April 5, 1945, several groups of three black officers entered the all-white club. They were refused service. When they were sure they were being discriminated against as a whole, the men donned their best uniforms and made an orderly parade to the club door. “Someone told the white officers that we were coming, so they stationed someone outside the front door,” Williams recalls. Sixty-one officers were arrested.
Charges were eventually dropped against all but three officers, who were then sent to what Williams calls “The Stockade.” At Fort Knox in Kentucky, Williams says they were placed in a special, high-security wing of the prison. “It was a stockade in every sense of the word. There were barbed wire fences and floodlights and they couldn’t get in or out. They could look out from the barbed wire fence and see German prisoners of war who were more free than they were,” he says.
Two of them were eventually released, but one, Lieutenant Roger Terry, was convicted of jostling the officer stationed at the club door and received a dishonorable discharge. “That’s like a felony,” Williams says. “He endured the stigma from that for many years. That’s what prejudice is all about.”
Meanwhile, 101 officers were briefly arrested (some for a second time) for refusing to sign a document stating that officers’ clubs would be segregated. The atmosphere was strained even for those who weren’t arrested, Williams says. “We couldn’t assemble in groups of three. It was a very tense time,” he remembers.
News of the arrests spread nation-wide, and due to pressure from labor unions, black organizations and politicians, charges against the 101 were dropped. Several black pilots were elevated to command roles afterward as well. Truman didn’t sign his order integrating the military until 1948, but Williams says the 477th sees their protests as at least partially responsible for his decision.
“We all feel, all of us, that we helped instigate that,” he says.