In a 1996 ceremony in Westchester, William B. Ellis, right, and fellow Tuskegee Airman O. Oliver Goodall receive plaques honoring aviation and aerospace pioneers. (Los Angeles Times / May 25, 2010)

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
Los 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 immediate survivor.