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
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 USO 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
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
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,
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
That policy, however, would be in
place for a few more years after the war ended. In July 1948 President
Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 8891 that mandated the armed
forces to integrate. Truman's order could not instantly strip away the
legacy left by the years of discrimination in the military. Smith,
perhaps reflecting the feelings of the hundreds of thousands of black
troops who battled prejudice during World War II, stated: "Nobody
Eyewitness to Jim Crow
- Roger "Bill" Terry Remembers
"For the first time in
50 years, I could vote, I could hold office, I was restored to my rank of
Second Lieutenant, and it only goes to show that we're a nation of laws.
If you wait long enough, you will be vindicated. The only thing is that
they wasted so much money and so much time doing it. But, we did show them
that we could fly."
[Roger "Bill" Terry, a native of
Southern California, earned his pilot's wings at the Tuskegee Institute in
Alabama during World War II. In this narrative, Terry describes his
experience in the Jim Crow South, how it altered his outlook and led him
to fight discrimination in the Armed Forces. He is a college graduate from
UCLA, received his law degree from Southwestern University, and served as
the President of the Tuskegee Airmen.]
To the student:
As you read this first person account
of life under Jim Crow, ponder the following:
Why wasn't Bill Terry accepted into
the Air Force when he first applied? How does this reflect the military
culture of the time?
Why did the white pilot from the
University of Wyoming say that white pilots couldn't have made it
through the Tuskegee Institute's training program successfully? Why do
you think the training there was so rigorous? How did this training
benefit the Tuskegee Airmen? Why does he describe the white military
instructors as both "good" and as the "opposition?"
Can you describe Mr. Terry's
reaction to the climate in the South? What was he reacting to? How did
his experience there affect his outlook on life? Why do you think some
southerners reacted differently?
Why wasn't Terry concerned about
being arrested for his action of civil disobedience in Indiana? Can you
describe the role Eleanor Roosevelt played in desegregating the
military? Why was she not able to help Bill Terry?
After reading this narrative, can
you list the various ways, both overtly and subtly, that African
Americans in the military resisted or coped with discrimination? How do
you think their actions were or were not helpful?
Terry describes his first attempt to join the Air Force.
My name is Roger C. Terry, and I'm
known as "Bill" Terry. I was born in California... went to high school in
Compton...and to college at UCLA. I finished UCLA at the age of 19 before
the war.... Everybody was white [at UCLA]...everybody was white [in
school] except at Compton J.C., I think there were about 40 Negro students
there, colored students there. And, four of them were my brothers. It was
just that way. We had a completely...well, a united nations,
really...neighborhood that we lived in. See, I lived in this
neighborhood...and, there's Mammy Clark. She was a white lady, an old
white lady. We called her Mammy Clark...and the Chinamen lived over here,
and the Tagouris lived right over here. They were well known.... And,
Butch owned a whole lot of the property around there. He was quite
I've been a product of Southern
California. My participation in World War II would be the same as any
person who was born in Southern California in 1921 with the exception of
the fact that we suffered the pains of segregation and discrimination.
I went into the Air Force in 1941
after the war started. They had an advertisement in the Daily Bruin,
which is the UCLA paper, asking for candidates for the Air Force. And I,
along with about 1,000 other fellows, we signed up for the Air Force. We
took the examination for pilot...I think about 700 of us passed it. And
then...about 500 of us passed [the physical]. After we passed it, they set
a date to swear us in. And, the Colonel, in looking over...the
applications, he saw that I was a basketball player, and it was basketball
season. Ken Forbes was a basketball player, and he had been kept under the
football team. So, he [the Colonel] thought that he should swear in the
two athletes, since the Bruin athletes joined the Air Force. And so, the
day came, three days later, and I went before the camera...and he swore us
into the Air Force. About four days later, he called me up and said,
"Would you come and see the Colonel?" "When I went to see [him], he said,
"Why didn't you tell us you were colored?" I said, "You didn't ask me.
And, it wasn't on the papers; therefore, I didn't know about it. What
difference does it make?" He said, "Well, I don't know. But, you wait
until you hear from the Air Force." And so, I waited for about a month,
and I got a paper saying that I was too big...I weighed too much. I was 6
foot 2½ [inches] and [weighed] 175 pounds, in the best physical condition
I could be in....
After arriving at Tuskegee, Bill
Terry learned the art of flying--and the ways of the South in the Jim Crow
Anyway, I finished college...with no
place to go--they couldn't draft me, because you had to be 21 to be
drafted...I couldn't get a job because of the fact that I was 1-A. And
then, I got a telephone call from a man...and [he] said, "If you can come
to Tuskegee, we'll teach you how to fly, and we'll make an instructor out
of you." So, I borrowed some money...and I bought myself a helmet,
goggles, and everything. And, off I went to Tuskegee.
...Somebody met me there and said,
"Well, you're the guy that came from California. You're to sleep in the
first emery...." So, I went to bed and, about two hours later, [heard] the
damnedest noise..."Onward Christian Soldiers" and all that. I ran to the
window and looked...here comes the whole school. It was the band first,
then the president, then the vice presidents...then all the girls, and
then all the boys. And, they were all dressed in uniforms...on their way
to chapel. I knew, then, that I had reached...Beulahland, so to speak....
So, with little to do about it, I went to breakfast.... And, [one of the
guys] asked me, "I beg your pardon, do you have any cigarettes?" I just
happened to have a package of Old Gold...and I didn't smoke. So, I said,
"Here." He said, "I don't smoke that type." Therefore, I'm getting hip to
what they like and what they don't like.
Then, we went to dinner...in the
dining hall. It was a white hall. And, all the men were at one end, and
all the women were at the other end. I said, "What is this?" He said,
"There's no mixing on Sunday. At two o'clock...on the lawn...we can talk
to the girls, but you can't sit down, you can't talk to them, you know. I
mean, you can talk to them, but you can't touch, etc. I was first
integrated to the folk ways of the South and the attitudes of the
people...and I didn't like it from the beginning. It was anti-social, as
far as I was concerned, and it was completely unacceptable to me, because
I had grown up in California. I was born here and went to school here. I
felt that my existence or my ability to cope and to answer any situation
that might come to bear was...due to my particular capacity to take care
of the incident, because when I went into the service...I went in with a
bunch of the guys that I knew at college. They were already...flying here,
flying there, other places. They had gone into the service as candidates
for officers' positions in the Navy. And, I had just as much ability as
they had. I felt that I had the capacity to exist and to either excel or
not excel due to the particular field in which we were competing.
...When I got involved, we knew that
[the Tuskegee experience was the result of pressure by the NAACP.] But, we
felt that from the beginning that they were going to allow us to fly with
the rest of them. We didn't know that it was going to be separate and
equal...separate and unequal. We didn't know that we would be completely
isolated from the point of view of somebody who had seen combat, had done
other things with the air force. We felt that the 99th, once they had
proven that they could fly, that we would be integrated. And then, we
found out that we were wrong. I think I found out the third class.... The
first class was five guys, the second class was two, and the third was
three, and we figured out that they weren't going to have many more. I was
down there, I was learning to fly, and I don't think that they thought we
would ever go into combat...that we would ever be anything but a token to
say that, yeah...so we let you fly, and that's it.
...The ones that first taught you how
to fly, the ones that gave you the introduction to flying, were
Negroes.... We would take our primary training there [and] we would fly, I
think it was, 80 hours. Then, if we completed that, we went to basic.
That's when we got our first flight with [white] military personnel. We
flew the BT-13...about 80 or 90 hours. We got our introduction to the use
of the radio. We learned how to use flaps. We learned how to use prop
pitch.... Then, we went to primary...that's when we got our [white]
military instructors. And, I will say that they were good instructors.
They were tough. It was, [well] you've heard of the situation where they
say stand in line and say, "Look to the right of you, look to the left of
you. Two of you won't be here." Well, we thought that was a joke, but it
wasn't.... We started with 83 in my class and we finished with 14 fighter
pilots and seven twin-engine pilots. That's 21 out of 83...less than a
...I know one [white pilot]. He played
basketball with me, [he] went to the University of Wyoming when I went to
UCLA. He was a P-38 pilot; he just went through, you know. When I told him
what we did to get our wings, he said, "Hell, we never would have made
it." See, what happened was, at Tuskegee you flew BTs, ATs, B-25s,
P-40s...off the same damn field. And, if you weren't astute, and if you
weren't on the ball, you really got washed out. I can recall coming in one
day, and I'm getting ready to land. And, the guy said, "AT-10, pull up and
go around. There's a B-25 on your tail." I pulled out. You had to give
way. The AT-10 gave way to the B-25, the B-25 gave way to the fighter, the
P-40...in other words, you had to know your pecking order when you came in
to land, and you had to know how to get out of there.... Well, if you
messed up, like one of my friends--I guess he didn't know that the guy was
coming with his P-40 and just shaved his tail off, and he was dead. But,
we were lucky. We had very few accidents. I think we had one of the best
records in the world. And another thing that a lot of people don't
realize, we had the best of ground crews. In fact, I never worried about
getting in an airplane, whether an airplane would quit on me. I was
worried about getting it up and getting it down....
...My best memory [of my training at
Tuskegee] was when I got my wings. That was a sense of accomplishment....
After that, nothing seemed to matter. I didn't go any place during my
training so that I would run into any of the effects of segregation. I
just concentrated on trying to get my wings. ...So you stayed on the
field...and, I think, the only time I went off the field was when my
grandmother died, and I went to the funeral.... But, all of your work was
within this field and within this little town. You were surrounded by
Negroes all the time, and you saw the white folks, they were the
instructors, but they were the opposition. Whether you believe it or not,
they were the opposition. They helped us, and they were all
volunteers...that was one thing. But, we felt that you had to learn, and
if you didn't learn, then you'd get cut off.
And so, when I got my wings, I came
home. For the first time in my life, I...took a girl to the theater and
didn't have but three weeks or two weeks or something like that. I found
myself counting the number of colored people to see who was with me and
who was against me. And, that meant that I had changed my whole outlook on
life, because, prior to that time, it really didn't effect me as to how
many colored people there were, how many white people there were, unless
somebody was going to start a fight or something like that, then I would
have to count the odds. But, I'd count the odds no matter where I went.
And, I found out that after that experience, I continued to count the odds
for me and...against me and to figure out strategically how I was going to
get out of some place and how to get into it. It was definitely a change
in my attitude.... It was just the idea that I had never been any place
where there was a percentage count, where you figured where the hell your
place was. I resented it. I resented it to the core of my being that they
would have the temerity to set up a standard that, perhaps, I should meet.
We (my buddies and I) all felt the same way except for a few who were
southerners. But, we always talked about finding out whether we were full
fledged officers or whether or not we were tokens, and we wanted to prove
to them that we were as good as they were, in fact, much better than most
After his squadron was selected for
an overseas assignment, Terry encountered more discrimination, even though
President Roosevelt had outlawed segregation at recreational facilities on
military bases. In this passage, Terry describes his response and the
consequences he suffered as a result of his action.
[After I got my wings, we were sent
to] ...Goodman Field, Kentucky. It was an auxiliary filed for Ft. Knox.
And then, there were two squadrons of this group that were in
Atterbury (AAF)...in (Columbus),Indiana.
Then, there was the other section that was down there in Walterboro, South
Carolina, where we would go for gunnery, bombing etc., so, we were
scattered. And so, they decided that we were going to go overseas.
Finally, MacArthur...asked for the best-trained B-25 squadron in the
country. And, they said it was the 477th. But, they're colored, and most
of the generals and the commanders of the U.S. Air Force over there, they
said they didn't want the colored group coming...because they would
disrupt the harmony of the [Forces].... But, MacArthur said, "To hell with
what you like and what you want. I want the best-trained one, and we will
take the 477th."
So...they decided that we would go to
Freeman Field, Indiana, and, there, we would
have the whole group together, and we could make plans, etc. So, we sent a
cadre, about eight or nine officers and 20 enlisted men...they went
up...looked it over, and they said what could be used, this, that, and the
other. But, when they came back, they reported to us, and when I say "us,"
I say we were very much aware of it. We're going to go overseas...to
fight, and we're going to die, well okay. But, we're going to find out
whether or not we're full-fledged officers and whether or not we're
full-fledged Americans. And, so he set this up so that he's got officer's
club number two, that's for "you guys," and officer's club number one for
the white guys...and we found out...we could go to officer's club number
two, but we couldn't go to the PX, we couldn't go to the officer's club,
we couldn't go to the bowling alley, and we couldn't go to the theater.
And I said, well to hell with that. Roosevelt has signed this Executive
Order 210-10, paragraph A and B, saying there would be no discrimination,
no segregation at any recreational facility of any Army, Navy, or Marine
base in the country.
...So, we ended up at
Freeman Field. The train backed in, and we
all got out and got our billets and everything. We set up a table to make
sure that all the guys that went to the officer's club were in good
uniform, their fingernails were clean, they hadn't been drinking, all this
stuff. So, here we are...and we sent...three people at a time to go down,
get arrested, and come back. So, they went down, got arrested and...I
think...I was the 62nd guy, or something like that. I went down there, and
the guy said, "Well, you can't come in." ...I said, "Well, why not?" And,
he said, "All you trainees...." I said, "How do you know we're trainees?"
He said, "Well to be frank, no niggers can come in." So, I had a little
bit of reluctance...I went over to him. I...walked by and went in, and
there was a Major in there. He took my name and all my credentials and
sent me back under arrest. So, that was okay, because that's what I was
looking for, to be arrested. The next day, we sent some guys down there,
and they closed it before they got there. I'll never forget this guy's
statement. He said, "You got to be swift. You got to be quick." And so, we
didn't worry about being arrested, because we knew...Franklin D.
Roosevelt's wife, Eleanor Roosevelt was very instrumental in us getting to
We knew we had a friend...Bill Parker,
whose mother was the chief housekeeper at the White House, and a friend of
Eleanor's. And we knew if we could get Bill Parker to Washington DC...he
was just a working officer...a first Lieutenant...an MP, I think. He was
with us. We...said...would he talk to his mama? His mama would talk to
Eleanor. Eleanor would talk to Franklin, and Franklin would say, "Let my
people free," see? But, it didn't happen that way. Franklin was feeling a
little tired. He was having a little R&R down in Warm Springs, Georgia....
Anyway, by the time we got there, they weren't communicating between the
White House and Hyde Park.
And so, Bill went to the White House
and told his mother. His mother had to get on the train and go to Hyde
Park to tell Mrs. Roosevelt. That takes a couple of days...by the time we
got him there and everything. He told her, and then, by the time she got
in touch with Roosevelt, the old joke was that he said, "The Nazi's are
over here on the western front, and Hirohito's boys on the eastern front,
now the Negroes." And he gave up, and he died, see? That was a bad day.
Here I am...waiting on Roosevelt, that he would do the right thing, and
he's dead. And what do we have? We have Harry Truman. And Harry Truman was
a Pendergast man, he was a southerner...he was the boss, and he was a
southerner. And as far as I could determine, he didn't believe in
integration. I thought that he didn't. And, I was very wrong. He believed
in integration, but he didn't believe in social freedom of action. But, he
did desegregate the army in 1948.
So, I stayed in jail.... There were
101 of us. They wrote up a directive saying that I read and understood
regular orders, and I could only go in such-and-such a place. And, 101
guys refused to sign it. So...they moved all of these officers...back to
Goodman Field. And, they had the other guys pack up their stuff, because
they were going to go back to wherever they came from.... These other two
guys that they picked out to say that they were the leaders of this
insurrection...they flew them back to Goodman Field, where they had barbed
wire fence all the way around this compound. They did have recreational
facilities, they could play cards, etc. But, they were not working--they
were not doing anything. And, they [the Air Force] did something that the
Japanese couldn't do and the Germans couldn't do. They put two complete
groups of airmen out of action.
Finally, after a couple of weeks, they
flew me back down to Goodman Field and put me in another room. [They] put
a man outside the door with a gun and, on the hour, every hour, they would
come in and ask me who I was. "Who are you?" "Second Lieutenant Roger B.
Terry, 0841165." They would do that. And, if I wanted to go to the
bathroom, I'd have to knock on the door. The guard would open the door,
and I'd say, "I'd like to go to the latrine." ...He couldn't take me to
the latrine; the officer of the guard had to be there. And, of course, the
officer wouldn't come right away. He wouldn't come running. He would just
wait. So, I got smarter than they did. I'd wait an hour before I got ready
to go to the toilet, and I'd ask for somebody; by the time they got there,
I was ready. Then, they'd take me down to the bathroom...and you had to
use the bathroom with the guy standing there with the gun. It was just
debilitating, really, and discouraging....
They finally charged me. And I said,
"You've got to charge me within seven days. The articles of war have to be
presented to me." They didn't say anything but about 14, 15, 16 days, they
charged me with mutiny, treason, inciting to riot, disobeying a direct
order, jostling, and conduct unbecoming of an officer. So, it went on for
about a month or two months.... But, the other guys, they went back to
work. They were given reprimands, and there were only three of us left
under arrest. And then, I guess, it got all tied up...they said, ‘What the
hell, you've got all these guys, you've got 900 and something pilots, and
they're not doing anything..."
They sent for Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.
They got him from overseas, and they brought him back, and...he took over
command of the 477th. That was the first time that a Negro had command of
any facility in the United States Army.... Before that, there was always
somebody who was in his class, in the class above him, or something like
that. He was in command of the group, but he was never in command of the
facility, which covered all of the area surrounding it. So, he came
back...and, the white folks, they were working in Air Corps supply. They
found out he...he's bringing a whole colored command with him, and they
said, "We refuse to work for him." That's one thing I can say for him.
Davis was not phased one bit by it. He sent for ...two companies of
[black] WACS [from Des Moines, Iowa,] and brought them there right away.
And, they [the whites] said, "Well, now we'll go to work for you!" And, he
said, "No. It's too late. We've already got your replacements..."
Well, anyway, I was
court-martialed...I was convicted, and I stayed convicted for 50 years and
one month. And, after 50 years, I was president of the Tuskegee Airmen,
and General Fogelman was the main speaker at our convention in Atlanta,
and the Secretary of the Air Force was there, and Secretary of Defense...I
was given a full pardon, and I restored my rank, etc. For the first time
in 50 years, I could vote, I could hold office, I was restored to my rank
of Second Lieutenant, and it only goes to show that we're a nation of
laws. If you wait long enough, you will be vindicated. The only thing is
that they wasted so much money and so much time doing it. But, we did show
them that we could fly.
Based on his experiences as a
Tuskegee Airman, Roger "Bill" Terry has some advice for young students.
Well, I would like to say that you
should take advantage of your educational facilities and prepare yourself,
so if the chance comes where you have to prove yourself, you will be able
to do it. Nothing suffices except education and learning how to do
whatever you want to do under the proper circumstances. It's kind of tough
to say, but...the [African-American] girls have learned it and the boys
haven't learned that they have to be prepared. And, most of them are
thinking about basketball or football or so doing this, that, and the
other and making a fast buck. What is really important is to be solid in
your family background and in your education. And then, the sky's the