William B. Ellis, who pushed to break racial barriers as one of the Tuskegee Airmen, the nation's first black military pilots, has died in Riverside. He was 93.
Ellis, who co-founded the
Angeles chapter of the Tuskegee veterans organization,
died April 3 at a hospice of complications related to
Alzheimer's disease, his family announced last week.
A fighter pilot during World War II, Ellis trained in Tuskegee,
Ala., as part of a segregated program set up by the Pentagon.
He was one of about 1,000 members of the Tuskegee Airmen, an
all-black squadron that escorted U.S. bombers on missions during
World War II and never lost a single plane.
In the air, Ellis was part of a decorated group of pilots who
were among the most respected of the war. Back on the ground,
they encountered rigid segregation on military bases.
But in April 1945, Ellis and 60 other black officers of the
477th Bombardment Group who were stationed at Indiana's
Freeman Field helped change that.
"Sure, we were patriotic as hell, but we were also hostile as
hell because of the way we were being treated," Ellis told The
Times in 1990.
Over two days, the officers swept past the base provost marshal
and walked into the all-white officers club.
"We told the officers, get in your class 'A' uniforms … make
sure everything is spit 'n' polish, and then … walk into that
club. If they order you out, refuse to go," Ellis, then a first
lieutenant who was one of the more senior pilots, said in an
oral history for the Museum of Flight in Seattle.
All of the officers were arrested. Within two days, Ellis and
all but three of the men were released.
The black officers on the base were soon ordered to sign a
statement indicating they understood the regulation that
officially barred them from the club. When Ellis and 100 other
officers refused to sign, they were arrested for disobeying the
orders of a superior during wartime.
Furor over the incident, which became known as the Freeman Field
Mutiny, prompted the War Department to establish a committee to
investigate illegal segregation in the Army Air Forces. It was
the first step toward the official desegregation of all U.S.
armed forces in 1949.
Ellis called the officers club incident "the single most
socially significant thing to come out of World War II," The
Times reported in 1990.
William Benjamin Ellis was born April 24, 1916, in Atlanta and
grew up in Washington, D.C. He was the younger of two sons of
James Ellis, a butcher, and his wife, Emma.
After attending Miner Teachers College in Washington, Ellis
joined the Army Air Forces in 1941 and trained in Maryland
before being sent to Tuskegee Army Airfield in 1942.
In 1950, he left the military and three years later earned his
bachelor's degree in accounting and business from American
University, his family said.
He moved to Los Angeles in the 1950s and worked as a financial
consultant, tax examiner and deputy assessor for the county.
Throughout his life, Ellis remained an active alumnus of the
Tuskegee Airmen and helped organize the group's local chapter in
1974. He was one of 10 donors who gave $10,000 apiece to start
the group's scholarship fund, said O. Oliver Goodall, a fellow
airman and chapter member.
The social Ellis often spoke at schools and stressed the
importance of education, said Olivia Clement, his companion of
more than 50 years.
At 90, he still introduced himself as Wild Bill, a nickname he
acquired in the military even though he "was not wild but a very
sober-thinking and moving person," said Clement, who is his only