477th Bombardment Group

The Men and Their Airplanes: The Bombers

Stanley Sandler on page 119 of his book, Segregated Skies: All-Black Combat Squadrons of WW II, "The 477th Bombardment Group was conceived solely in response to black pressure, rather than to any perception that black Americans in the Army Air Forces could make any great contribution to the war effort. And it remained a paper outfit from its activation in June 1943 until January 1944."

[Author's note: Some sources call the 477th Bombardment Group the 477th Bombardment Group (Medium) and some sources list them as the 477th Bombardment Group (Negro).]

By late 1944 the 477th was able to conduct combat training missions, but winter conditions reduced flying time. When not fighting weather and equipment, the men also faced racism from white officers and men. Promotions went mainly to the white officers and enlisted staff while black promotions were limited. In March, 1945 the 477th was moved to Freeman Field, Indiana. Tension between white and black personnel increased. Part of the problem of the 477th lay in its white base commander, Colonel Robert Selway whose strict segregationist policies hurt morale and led to the Freeman Field incident on April 5, 1944.

The 477th's contribution was not in its combat record. Ultimately the Freeman Field incident opened the door to the eventual desegregation of the USAAF. As Sandler notes on page 131, "The 477th, although lingering on as a unit until 1947, never saw combat. It scored no "kills", blasted no enemy positions, bombed no alien cities. But it had its victories.

The 477th Bombardment Group became the 477th Composite Group with B-25's and P-47's and trained for a possible role in the Pacific Theater. The war ended, however, before the 477th could be deployed overseas in a combat role.

The aircraft the 477th flew in training was the B-25 Mitchell medium bomber. This workhorse was used in both the European and Pacific Theaters. Variations of it included models with up to thirteen fifty caliber machine guns or a seventy-five (75 mm) cannon for anti-ship missions in the Pacific.

B-25 of the 477th Bombardment Group
at Atterbury Army Air Field, Columbus, Indiana

Registration, Freeman Field, 1944, Photograph
Courtesy Indiana State Archive

A version of this information appeared in the Summer 1993 issue of the IHS's popular history magazine
 Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History

In January 1945 the American effort in World War II was reaching a climax. GIs in Europe had turned back the last German offensive on the western front at the Battle of the Bulge, and in the Pacific Theater United States troops were recapturing the Philippines from the Japanese. While military operations were reaching a fever pitch overseas, back home in Indiana activity was winding down at a military installation that had awarded wings to approximately four thousand airmen: Freeman Field, located near Seymour. Although the U.S. War Department had placed the installation on an inactive basis on Jan. 27, 1945, the air base would soon be a proving ground in a different struggle, not against fascism on the battlefront, but against racism on the home front.

Denied access to the base's officers club on account of their race, approximately sixty officers from the all-black 477th Bombardment Group, which was receiving bomber training at Freeman Field, were arrested on April 3, 1945, when they attempted to enter what the Indianapolis Recorder referred to as a "swanky and modern officers club set up by order of Colonel Robert R. Selway, Jr., commander of the outfit." After the dust had settled, three officers--Roger C. Terry and Marsden A. Thompson, both of Los Angeles, and Shirley R. Clinton of Camden, N.J.--faced a court-martial, and approximately 100 men from the air group (including current Detroit Mayor Coleman Young) were jailed at Godman Field in Kentucky.

The calm atmosphere of a small Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) emergency field, located southwest of Seymour, changed following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which plunged the United States into war. On May 6, 1942, the War Department announced that the Seymour CAA field had been selected as a site for an advanced aerial training center for bomber pilots, to be designated as Seymour Army Airfield. The base, which was renamed Freeman Army Airfield on March 3, 1943, in honor of the late Capt. Richard S. Freeman of Winamac, Indiana, included more than 400 buildings and was built at a cost of approximately $15 million. The 2,550-acre facility the federal government created in Jackson County was "the epitome of military airfield design," according to Louis Osterman in his 1986 history of the base. The installation had an immediate financial impact on a community still reeling from the Great Depression.

Officially activated on Dec. 1, 1942, under the command of Col. Elmer T. Rundquist, the air base welcomed its first group of soldiers just seven days later. The added population proved to be a boon for area businesses. "The stores were open on Saturday night then, and the sidewalks were packed from curb to store with townspeople, the farmers of the area and their families, and soldiers in their wool, khaki uniforms and jaunty overseas caps," Seymour resident Carolyn Mahon told Osterman.

To help meet the soldiers' recreational needs, the city had been planning, even before the first troops reached the base, to open a United Service Organization (USO) center. It organized a U. S. O Council and obtained the use of the former Greeman Furniture Store. The club opened in December 1942 and was the scene of a number of dances and other activities for soldiers. The club, however, did not provide services to all military personnel stationed at the air base.

On Jan. 21, 1943 the first members of the black 320th Aviation Squadron arrived at the Seymour installation. The some 600 squadron members were used primarily as service troops, performing such duties as cooking in the mess hall and tending the base's 20-acre garden.

Segregation in the armed forces during World War II was widespread. In fact, it wasn't until January 1941, after pressure from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other groups, that the Army Air Force (AAF) allowed blacks to become pilots. After being threatened with a lawsuit, the War Department established an air unit (later known as the 99th Pursuit Squadron) for African-Americans near Tuskegee Institute, Alabama. The Tuskegee Army Air Field, however, was completely segregated at the outset, with fliers under the command of and trained by white officers.

Opportunities for blacks in this state at the start of World War II were little better than those offered by the Army. "It was nearly impossible to find in Indiana a public place, institution, or group where whites accorded blacks an equal and open reception," noted Indiana University Professor of History James Madison in his history of the state from 1920 to 1945. Although there were no actual statutes on the books, in many towns blacks encountered so-called "Sundown laws," which forbade them to stay in the city after dark In most aspects of their daily lives, from eating in restaurants to watching motion pictures, African-American Hoosiers faced discrimination and segregation.

Jackson County was no different from any other Indiana community in the 1940s "in that segregating and insensitivity to civil rights issues were accepted facts of life," noted Osterman. Because black troops stationed at the airfield could not use the white USO club in Seymour, the USO Council established a separate facility for them on West Tipton Street, which was dedicated on Feb. 14, 1943, in ceremonies held inside the center because of severe weather. Rev. John L. Prentice, Jackson County USO Council chairman, formally presented the club to the city "as a channel of service for the citizens."

Segregation continued to be a problem for the next black troops stationed at the Seymour base, the 477th Bombardment Group, which was part of the First Air Force. Under the command of a white officer, Colonel Selway, a West Point graduate and Far East veteran, the unit "had traveled a rocky road since its activation in January 1944," according to then Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. The first black graduate of the U.S. Military Academy in this century and a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, Davis took charge of the 477th during the height of the Freeman Field controversy.

The first black squadron to be trained for service in multi-engine airplanes, the 477th was originally stationed at Selfridge Field, located near Detroit. The field had a history of racial conflict. On Jan. 1, 1944, some black officers who had attempted to enter the base's officers' club were blocked by commander Colonel William L. Boyd and a second officer. This blockage flew in the face of the armed force's own rules, specifically Army Regulation (AR) 210-10. According to that ruling, officers' clubs and other social organizations were mandated to offer "all officers on duty at the post the right to full membership, either permanent or temporary." Alan Osur, who studied race relations in the AAF during World War II found, however, that the military organization had "dogmatically pursued a system of segregation that was almost impossible to maintain. It even went so far as to violate War Department regulations in order to prevent the mixing of whites and blacks in officers' clubs."

Afraid that black "agitators" in the Detroit area might incite trouble with the Selfridge Field airmen (race riots had broken out in the city in June 1943), the AAF moved the 477th to Godman Field near Fort Knox, Kentucky. At the new airfield, black officers were able to enjoy full use of the officers' club. Racial relations, however, were not as promising as they seemed. While blacks used the officers' club at Godman, their white supervisors used the facilities at the segregated Fort Knox. Osur points out that black airmen were powerless to protest the situation; since they were not assigned to Fort Knox, they could not use its facilities.

Other problems plagued the black fliers at the Kentucky AAF base. Along with bad flying weather during the winter, the field suffered from a lack of proper hangar and apron space and an air-to-ground gunnery range. On March 1, 1945, the 477th moved from Godman to Indiana's Freeman Field. Trouble, however, soon broke out between blacks and whites. The difficulties weren't with Seymour residents, who, according to AAF Captain Earl D. Lyon in his study of the bombardment group's war service, "were less openly antagonistic" to black officers than residents of similar small towns located near Army airfields. Instead, the racial trouble broke out on the base over a familiar issue--the officers' club.

In attempting to keep black and white officers from using the same facilities, Colonel Selway, with the support of AAF Major General Frank Hunter, took advantage of a loophole in AR 210-10 by designating one officers' club at Freeman for supervisory personnel and a second one for trainees, which resulted, as Osur points out, in "de facto segregation." The issue came to a head on the night of April 5, 1945, when 19 black officers, disregarding an assistant provost marshal's orders to leave, entered the whites-only club. Shortly afterwards, two other groups of blacks totaling 17 officers joined the original group; all 36 were put under arrest by the provost marshal. The next day, an additional 21 African-American officers were arrested when they tried to enter the club.

Freeman Field command, through its public relations office, attempted to put its own spin on the issue. It issued a statement to the Seymour Daily Tribune to the effect that in the case of recreational facilities, it had "been a long standing policy which applies throughout the United States which maintains that it is unwise to have personnel in training utilizing the same recreational facilities with those who train them." Even though the two groups might use the same instructional facilities--classrooms, training equipment, airplanes, ranges, etc.--after normal duty hours "each . . . selects its own recreation and entertainment separately, in order that they may relax from their official status."

Despite the air base's best efforts, the outcry over the incident would not die down. First Air Force legal officers were soon on their way to Freeman Field to investigate the matter. They found that Selway's original order was "inexact and ambiguous as to its meaning or purpose," and all but three of the black officers were released. (Lieutenants Clinton, Terry, and Thompson were still under lock and key for allegedly pushing the provost marshal when the entered the club.) A new directive from base commander Selway, however, would spark more protests and lead to even more arrests.

Selway, with General Hunter's help, drafted an order for black officers to sign outlining what facilities different personnel could use on the base. The directive also included a place for the black officers' signatures indicating that they had read and fully understood the order. Even when that designation was stricken from the order, and the black officers were asked merely to signify that they had read it, some continued to defy the authorities. A total of 101 blacks--who became known as the 101 Club--refused to sign and were flown back to Godman Field and placed under arrest awaiting court-martial.

Quentin P. Smith, who grew up in East Chicago, Indiana, and learned to fly while living there, was one of the 101 black officers arrested for not signing the order. An Indiana State University graduate and former flying instructor at Tuskegee Institute, Smith, due to his large size, had to transfer from fighter to bomber duty. First Lieutenant Smith and the other black aviators did not receive a warm welcome when they arrived at Freeman Field. Smith remembered Colonel Selway informing the group that, along with the officers' club, the base's tennis court and swimming pool were also off limits to them. The announcement was not greeted favorably by the airmen: "We booed the colonel loud and long," Smith said.

The Hoosier native had a more direct confrontation with the colonel after the officers' club incident. Called into Selway's office and asked to sign the new directive, Smith replied in a clear voice, "No, sir." Even when he was threatened by the colonel with Article 64, which states that failure to obey a superior officer's direct order could result in the death penalty, Smith stood firm. In an oral history interview with Indiana Historical Society Editor Doug Clanin, Smith remembered:

"The immediate major said, 'I order you to sign.' I didn't have any breath, I didn't have any saliva left to say anything . . . I shook my head because I couldn't even talk. So I said, 'no' [in high voice]. He rapped a gavel and said, 'you go out that door.' When I went out that door a soldier said, 'Go back to your barracks, don't put your head out, don't come out, when suppertime comes, we'll bring you your food.' So I'm sitting there by myself thinking, 'now this just can't be true. I'm just about 190 miles from home and this just can't be happening.' But it was.

Organizations throughout the United States, including the NAACP and black newspapers, swung into action on the officers' behalf. The War Department received several letters of concern from lawmakers, including Michigan Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg, New York Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, and Indiana Congressman Louis Ludlow. California Congresswoman Helen Gahagan (who would be defeated for re-election after the war by Richard Nixon) even telegraphed Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson urging that the officers be released. These efforts paid off; in mid-April charges against the 101 black officers were dropped and the men were freed.

Charges against the three officers accused of pushing the provost marshal, however, remained in effect. By the time the three came to trial, the 477th had a new commander, Colonel Davis, former leader of the black 332d Fighter Group. An all-black court-martial acquitted Thompson and Clinton of all charges, convicting only Terry for "offering violence against a superior officer." He was fined $150.

The entire Freeman Field situation deeply troubled Colonel Davis. Although he could understand the underlying feelings of prejudice shown by officers from the Deep South, he could not understand "putting the issue of segregated facilities ahead of the need to prepare the group for war; nor the decisions to move the 477th from one airfield to another, which halted progress toward combat readiness for several months." The 477th never had the opportunity to prove itself in combat, as the group was still at Godman Field when the Japanese surrendered to the Allies on Aug. 14, 1945.

Although Freeman Field was once again put on an inactive basis shortly after the officers' club fiasco, its role in America's war effort wasn't finished yet. In June 1945 the War Department selected the base to serve as a testing ground for captured enemy aircraft. Once again airplanes filled the skies over Seymour. Two years later, the War Assets Administration gave the facility to Seymour, which used the base as a municipal airport.

Despite its crucial role in training aircrews for combat, perhaps Freeman's greatest contribution to America's fight against fascism was the incident with the black officers, which, as Osterman points out, "caught the attention of the military and forced a re-thinking of its policy of segregation."

Letters of Reprimand Removed from Tuskegee Airmen's Records
By Master Sgt. Merrie Schilter Lowe

Air Force News Service

WASHINGTON -- Retired Air Force Lt. Col. James C. Warren and 100 other black Army Air Force officers stood against an unlawful order at Freeman Field, Ind., in 1945 and each received a letter of reprimand for his actions.

The men had tried to enter the base officers' club, which had been integrated by War Department policy, but again segregated by the local commander.

Fifty years later, on Aug. 12 in Atlanta, the Air Force vindicated Warren and 14 other Tuskegee Airmen members by removing the letters of reprimand from their permanent military records.

Rodney A. Coleman, assistant secretary of the Air Force for manpower, reserve affairs, installations and environment, announced the Air Force decision during the Tuskegee Airmen annual banquet.

He also announced that the Air Force set aside a court-martial conviction against another former Army Air Forces officer, Roger C. Terry, who is president of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc. Additionally, the service restored all the rights, privileges and property Terry had lost because of the conviction.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman, who was the banquet's guest speaker, presented the official documents to Warren and Terry.

"With this action, a terrible wrong in the annals of U.S. Air Force and U.S. military history has been righted," said Coleman. He said the Air Force will remove the letters of reprimand from the other 89 former officers' records as soon as it receives their requests.

Earlier in his remarks, Coleman called the Freeman Field incident a "bellwether for change with respect to integrating the U.S. military." He said the men who took part in the actions had taken "a giant step for equality" nine years before Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus in Montgomery, Ala., and paved the way for changes "in the soon to be brand new service -- the U.S. Air Force."

Warren, who had been a flight officer in training at Freeman Field, started the letter removal process by writing to Coleman and asking the Air Force to consider correcting the records of everyone involved in the Freeman Field incident.

Coleman said his office worked with the records correction board to investigate the circumstances of the 50-year-old incident, which Warren describes in his book the "Freeman Field Mutiny."

"The 104 officers involved in the so-called 'mutiny' have lived the last 50 years knowing they were right in what they did -- yet feeling the stigma of an unfair stain on their records because they were American fighting men, too -- and wanted to be treated as such," said Coleman.

The Freeman Field incident began April 1, 1945, when the base commander issued a letter segregating trainees from base and supervisory officers. At the time, all the trainees were black and all base and supervisory personnel were white, said Coleman.

"The actual effect of the letter was to segregate the officers' clubs on the basis of race and, authorized discrimination in violation of War Department policy," said Coleman.

Tuskegee Airmen Mutiny At Freeman Field

By: Warren, James C. // Foreword by Ellis, William B. // Introduction: Warren, James C.

213 pages

Pub Date: January 1998
Pub: Conyers Publishing Company
US cover price: US $14.95
ISBN: 0966081803

Tuskegee Airmen and their B-25s at Atterbury Army Air Force Base, Columbus, Indiana

Page last revised 10/18/2020
James D. West