Interview with Bertram Wilson, by Steve Showers for the Voices from the Second World War: An Oral History, Center for Oral History, University of Connecticut, 3 March, 2000.
Steve Showers:† Today Bertram and I are going to talk.† The first question just to get things started is basically where and when were you were born?
Bertram Wilson:† I was born in 1921 in Baltimore, Maryland.† I never really lived there too long.† At an early age, I lived with my grandparents in Virginia for a while.† Then I moved up to New York with my mother.† My parents were divorced by then.† I went to Dewill Clinton High School and City College, New York.† From there, it mustíve been 1941 or í42.† I tried to get into the Air Corps as a pilot, but they werenít accepting any black pilots at the time, or black enlistees.† But I did sign up for it, and I think in 1942, a program had been established in Tuskegee in Alabama.† I was called and I was assigned to class 44.† This was 1942.† I was assigned to class 44E, which meant that I would be graduating in í44 in May, May 23rd, to be exact.†† Before getting to cadets, we had basic training in Biloxi, Mississippi.† Thatís where you learn your right foot and your left foot, and who to salute, and when and how.† Then from there, as cadets, it was up to Tuskegee where we were stationed on the campus itself, on Tuskegee campus.† It wasnít a part of the airfield itself but itís where we first got indoctrinated into the pre-flight programs on the campus.† Thatís where we also were assigned to primary classes and these were at Moton Field, which was part of the campus, but it was not on the airfield.† It was part of the civilian field.† Thatís where we first learned to fly in the Piper Cubs.† We didnít actually fly them.† We went with instructors in them to show us what it was like to be airborne.† From there, we went to ďprimary training.Ē† When youíre in primary, then you were part of the Army Cadet Program.† Primary is where you flew the PT-17s, the Stearmans.† This is where they weeded out a lot of people, for one reason or another.† From there, you went to basic training, which was on the Tuskegee Airbase, the actual airfield.† This was basic training.† I would say in Primary, youíre still civilians, more or less.† But on the base itself, thatís when you really were considered an Army Air Corps Cadet in basic training.
SS:†††††† Now all your training was at Tuskegee?
BW:†††† Yes.† It was the only base that we could train, was at Tuskegee.† It was a segregated unit, as you probably know, as all units were in the service at the time.† This was no exception.† I might add also that although it was segregated, it was equal as far as your training was concerned, and as far as your equipment was concerned.† You had the same thing as everybody else.† I might add that this was, I think, to make sure that if you failed with everything else everybody else had, it meant that you were inferior, that you really couldnít do it.† So, thatís what it was supposed to be.† You were supposed to fail.† We were very determined that we wouldnít, and we didnít.
SS:†††††† Did you have an interest in flying before that?
BW:†††† Oh God, yes.† In fact, I used to read paperbacks, G8 and his Battle Aces.† Iíve got some of those books from some of those exhibitions and book sales.† I still have some of those things I got from all sorts of places.† I still have those things.
SS:†††††† As a boy, then, once the war started, is that what was on your mind?† That you would join and be a pilot?
BW:†††† Yes.† I had no idea that it was like it was.† I had no idea that it was just one unit, one segregated unit.† I thought Iíd be just like anybody else.† At the time, that wasnít the case at all.
SS:†††††† Do you remember how you felt about going in and finding out that youíd be segregated from everybody else?
BW:†††† I knew the South was, well the North was segregated also, certainly not the way it was in the South.† I had no idea that it was so prevalent as it was.† Here you are, you couldnít go places that you would go in the North, naturally.† It just was different.† You knew this was the case and this is what you had to do, so thatís what you did.
SS:†††††† Do you remember Pearl Harbor, when the attack happened?
BW:†††† Pearl Harbor?† Yes.† I was walking in the street somewhere.† I had no idea what Pearl Harbor was, of course, but I remember all of a sudden we were at war.† That made me feel good because I thought maybe they would speed up my application then.††
SS:†††††† What was the training like on the base at Tuskegee?
BW:†††† It was very strict, very, very military and very strict.† Your instructors were all white, in basic training and advanced training.† They were all white.† All your instructors in primary were all black.† These were civilian pilots, in primary training.† We were flying PT-17s.† Then we got back to the Tuskegee base and the training was strictly military and I canít say that you were treated ÖinterruptionÖ
SS:†††††† We were just starting to talk about what the training was like.†† You were saying how some of the earlier trainers were all white and then later on you had some black civilian trainers.
BW:†††† No.† It was the other way around.† First we had the black civilian trainers and then we got to the base and had all white officers, whereas, the civilians werenít officers.† They were just civilian pilots.† Then, now strictly military, they were all white officers.† Most of them were from the South.† I canít say that they were any more prejudiced than anybody else in the South, but you had to tolerate certain things and you did it and that was it.
SS:†††††† Howíd your family feel back home about you joining and signing up to be a pilot?
BW:†††† They had no idea what it was like.† Nobody had any idea what it was like.† It was all a new adventure.† It was just like going into the service.† They had no idea what the training was like.† They had no idea what you had to go through for the training, the rigidity of it, where you didnít make a mistake, if you made a mistake you washed out.† The academics were all college level.† They had no idea what it was like.† They just thought youíre just going to a service school.† You would go for a certain time and you graduated.† If you were lucky, youíd get a commission and get your wings.† From there, you went into combat.† Of course we had no idea what it was like at all.† At the time, there were no combat units, no black combat units in í41 Ė í42.† The first one, of course, was the 99th.† Then others followed, the 302nd, 301st and the 100th, were the ones that followed.
SS:†††††† How did your training progress once you actually started to fly the plane you were going to be assigned to?
BW:†††† Well, we first flew the P-40s.† As cadets we flew P-40s.† Then we flew P-47s.† We got most of our RTU training, Replacement Training Unit, was all flying P-47s, because we thought that was what we were going to be assigned to fly in combat.† We flew those for the designated time they were supposed to have a pilot train in them and then we got to Italy and North Africa and they didnít fly P-47s anymore. They were flying P-51s.† We had never flown P-51s.† So, therefore, you had to learn in combat to fly the P-51, in about maybe three hours, four hours training.† Then you were on your own.
SS:†††††† Howíd it feel to actually be flying a plane, though, even during training, since you had that interest of becoming a pilot and now you were actually being a pilot?
BW:†††† Most of us, I guess, guys who dreamed of flying all the time, it was almost like second nature.† It was just like a dream come true.† Because I knew how to do loops and split Sís and all those maneuvers because I practiced with a stick between my legs, a broomstick, when I was flying with G8 and His Battle Aces.† Iíll show you those books.† I still have them.
SS:†††††† Now do you think you had any extra motivation to succeed because of the way things were in the South?
BW:††††††††††† Definitely.† Definitely.† You said to yourself, and I said to myself, that I donít care how many names Iím called.† I donít care what Iím called.† I donít care what they do.† Iím not going to let it get me down.† Iím going to show them that Iím maybe not better than they are, but Iím just as good.† In most cases, we turned out better than most of them.† Yes.† Mine was motivation.† I didnít plan to be better but I planned to be as good as.
SS:†††††† Howíd that feel to finally get your orders to go overseas?
BW:†††† That was the best thing in the world.† Hey, this is what itís all about.
SS:†††††† When you graduated, did you go over with a whole group of people or just go over individually?
BW:†††† No.† Most of your class went over.† It was a split class.† We went over with about thirty and fifteen of us were in one class and fifteen in the other half.† We all went over, not at the same time, about a month apart, maybe even less than a month apart.† Then we got overseas, and we were not all assigned to the same squadron.† By this time, you had four squadrons.† Two guys went here, two guys went there, depending on what they needed for replacements.† Maybe three guys went to one squadron.† Maybe one guy went to one squadron.† So thatís the way it was.
SS:†††††† Which squadron did you wind up in?
BW:†††† I was with the 302nd.† Two of us went to 302nd.† It was a bit scattered around.† I went to 302nd and the rest of us went different places, 301st, 100th, and the 99th.
SS:†††††† Where were you stationed?
BW:†††† In Ramitelli, Italy, at the airbase there.
SS:†††††† Thatís when you started to practice on a P-51?
BW:†††† Yes.† Thatís where you went down and sat in it and saw what it was like.† You took off with it, with no tanks, first of all, no tanks, and flew around to get used to it.† The next day, you flew it with tanks, empty tanks.† The next day, you flew with tanks filled, to show how differently it handled.† The next day, you were on a mission.
SS:†††††† Were you assigned your own plane?
BW:†††† Yes.† You had your own name on your plane, everything.
SS:†††††† Did you get to name your own plane?
BW:†††† Oh yes.
SS:†††††† What about the ground crew?† Were they assigned specifically to your plane?
BW:†††† Yes.† You had a crew chief, and an armorer, and that was your crew.† The crew chief was the one who got up in the morning before you got out and pre-flighted your airplane, and gassed it and all that kind of stuff.† When you got back from a mission, you checked with him to see what was wrong with the airplane, whatever idiosyncrasies or whatever was goofed up, like the heater wasnít working, things like that.† Which it never did.† He would check it out.† He would try to fix it with whatever he had.
SS:†††††† When you got there, that squadron, was that segregated also?
BW:†††† Oh God, yes.† It was completely, from the doctors, nurses, from the medics, from the mess halls, everything.† It was completely segregated.† It was just only one base.† This was our base.† We had nothing to do with any other base and that was it.
SS:†††††† How did everybody get along on the base?† What was the morale of the group?
BW:†††† Iíd say the morale was exceptionally high.† Iíd say that, we were here, we knew what it was like to be segregated and we accepted that.† I donít know why we wouldíve felt less than proud to have your wings and everything, and be an officer in the Army Air Corps.† So, morale was high.† We did a job.† We had good leadership, because of General Davis, who was a colonel at the time.† He didnít tolerate any heroics.† In other words, if you were assigned to do something, thatís what you did.† You didnít go off and leave your bombers and go off and try to be a hero.† Thatís the way it was.
SS:†††††† What was a typical day like for you?
BW:†††† We slept in tents, about four guys to a tent.† A typical day started with a broadcast on a public PA system.† It would say, ďAttention all pilots.† Briefing is at such and such a time, 0730.Ē† This would start off around 5:00 would be the first call.† You had to get up, shave, of course, a lot of us werenít shaving in those days.† Get up, washing in your helmet.† You didnít have showers at the time.† Go to the mess hall.† Get on the truck.† Go down to briefing.† Briefing lasted about a half an hour or so.† Then you go back down to your squadron area, pick up your personal stuff, your parachute, your Mae West, your .45, your gun, and the truck would drop you off at your airplane.† The airplanes were in revetments.† You had four airplanes to a revetment.† The truck would drop you off at your airplane and your crew chief would be there waiting on you.† Youíd get in the airplane.† Heíd help you.† Heíd strap you in, and he would tell you what was wrong with the airplane if anything was wrong with it.† At a certain time, youíd all taxi out to line up to take off.† Youíd take off and a mission could last from two hours or three hours to seven hours, depending on where it was.† Youíd come back, youíd land, and then go to briefing.† You would go to briefing and you would tell who got shot down, who got hit, or whatever.† Youíd get two ounces of bourbon and then youíd get on the truck, go down to your equipment area, leave your parachute and stuff, go up to the mess hall and have chow.† Then you were through for the day.
SS:†††††† Do you remember your first mission?
BW:†††† God, yes.
SS:†††††† Whatíd you guys do?
BW:†††† Well, the first mission, I was flying number four.† In other words, I was the last plane in the element.† The first two guys took off, the first guy ran into a bunch of sheep in the runway.† The second guy ran into him and they both blew up.† I think the third guy, I donít know who that was, ran into airplanes also.† He got burned.† He didnít get killed.† I was the fourth guy.† When I took off, I had enough sense to see all the smoke I was going to fly through, the burning flesh and airplanes, so I put my oxygen on a hundred percent because I didnít want to have it on demand where Iíd be breathing that smoke and everything.† I managed to take off through that smoke and Iím in there, by myself, waiting, wanting to know, what do I do now?† I would just latch on to who ever I could latch on to, and fly my mission.† I didnít know where the mission was but I knew it was a long mission.† So I latched onto somebody.† We got over the target and I happened to notice that my red light was on.† My oxygen was all gone because I had forgotten to turn it back to demand system.†† It was panic, in the first mission, so I called my leader, whoever it was, and told him I was out of oxygen.† Of course, we were over the Alps.† So, at 33,000 feet and if you donít get any oxygen, I had to get sack time and go home.† You get sack time and get down as low as you can where you can breath, you go down to about 10,000 feet.† Go over the Alps if you can, find a ravine or something to go through.† After you get over the Alps, you get down low and youíre all set.† In the briefing, General Davis says, ďWho was that asshole over the target who ran out of oxygen?Ē† Of course, I didnít say it was me.† I looked around like everybody else.† I donít know who it was, you know?†
SS:††††††††††† Obviously you made it back.
BW:†††† Oh yes.† That was my first mission.
SS:†††††† Now you said General Davis.† Was heÖ
BW:†††† He was a colonel at the time.
SS:†††††† He was a colonel then?†
SS:†††††† And it was Ben Davis?† So you actually got to know him, become friends with him?
BW:†††† You didnít get to be friends with him, no.† You got to know him but you didnít get to be friends with him.† No way.† He was a stickler.† He was a West Pointer, and you knew it.
SS:†††††† Now you said that you had good leadership.
BW:†††† Oh, he was a leader.† He was the leader.† You had other leaders too, other squadron leaders.† They werenít always West Pointers, but they were good pilots and had good leadership ability because they were squadron commanders.
SS:†††††† What rank were you at this time?
BW:†††† I was a second lieutenant.
SS:†††††† So you had gotten your wings, you were an officer now?
BW:†††† Thatís right.† But I was still second lieutenant, right.
SS:†††††† Now yourself and the leaders, did you guys have a sense of what you were doing as a segregated unit?† Did you feel like you were doing something important?
BW:†††† Yes, because we were assigned to escort a flight wing of bombers and that was our mission.† They didnít know us.† We didnít know them.† All we knew was that it was a B-17 mission, or a B-24 mission.† You have different categories, penetration, target cover and withdrawal.† Those were the three categories.† One, you took them into the target and you left them because someone else would pick them up.† Another group would pick them up.† Another was penetration and target cover.† Youíd take them in and youíd stick with them while they were dropping their bombs.† Then somebody else would pick them up and bring them home.† The third one was the bad one Ė penetration, target cover and withdraw.† You took them in, you hung over them while they were dropping the bombs and you brought them home.† That was a long mission.† Those were the longest missions.† Those were six, seven hours.† Thatís where youíd get a lot of flak, a lot of anti-aircraft, a lot of flight action.
SS:†††††† Did you wind up seeing any enemy fighters and engaging any enemy fighters yourself?
BW:†††† Yes.† In fact, on the Berlin mission, when we shot down the German jets, we shot down three German jets on that mission.† Usually, you went in for low-level target.† On low-level missions, thatís when you run into the German fighters.† You go in to strafe an airfield, trains, or whatever, and thatís where youíd run into fighters, there, below 10,000 feet.† Youíd run into them when theyíd try to attack your bombers, yes.† This is when you stuck with your bombers.† You didnít go off chasing them to be a hero, to be an Ace, and to shoot them down.† You stuck with your bombers.† That was your job.† Thatís what you did.
SS:†††††† Do you remember ever engaging one yourself, a 109 or a 262?
BW:†††† Yes.† In that book there, Iíd just gotten back from a mission where I shot an FW190 and also an ME109.† That was the mission to Linz when we shot those down.
SS:†††††† What was that like?
BW:†††† It was so short and so brief that it wasnít like it was in World War I, where youíre flying around and doing loops and Immelmanns and split Sís and stuff like that.† You run into a bunch or they run into you.† You get on their tail or they get on yours and if you got on theirs, it was a matter of whose airplane was the best, or whose airplane was the fastest and who could turn the sharpest.† It didnít last very long.
SS:†††††† Whatíd you think of the German pilots?† How would you rate their skills?
BW:†††† I would say, by the time we got into it in the last part of í44, all their best pilots were the ones who were flying against the 8th Air Force in England.† I guess the ones that we flew against were, more or less, like us, guys who had just got through training, and all that.† They werenít very good or else we couldnít have shot them down so easily.† But they had good airplanes.† ME109s were good airplanes, and FW-190s were good airplanes.
SS:†††††† You said you were doing primarily a type of escort mission.† Did you ever do any with the 8th Air Force?
BW:†††† No.† They were out of England.† This was the 15th Air Force I was with.† This 8th Air Force was out of England.
SS:†††††† You guys still flew all the way up into Germany for missions up there?
SS:†††††† Does any particular mission stand out for you?
BW:†††† I have a log book, which I still have.† Yes, every mission stood out in one way or another.† Either one of your buddies got killed or the mission was, for one reason or another, they just all stood out.† There were a couple of times it was just called routine missions.† You didnít see anybody.† You didnít even fire your guns. You didnít have to drop your tanks and on like that.† For the most part, they all were memorable.
SS:†††††† Did you guys lose a lot of people through the course of the missions?
BW:†††† Oh yes.† I donít know exactly how many people we lost but in my class, which was thirty-three of us who graduated.† Iíd say, letís see, Hawkins, Hockaday, Foreman, I would say a third of us got killed overseas.† Hockaday, Hawkins, yes, at least a third of us.
SS:†††††† These are guys that you had gone to school with?
BW:†††† Yes.† These were guys in my class.
SS:†††††† After getting to know your guys and working with them, was that something that was really tough to deal with, losing friends like that?
BW:†††† Yes, but you were twenty-one years old then.† It didnít bother you as much.† It bothers you when you lost your tentmate.† For instance, I lost Starks, who was my tentmate.† It was sort of funny, we had sleeping bags and we also had air mattresses.† Youíd put the air mattress on the cot and the sleeping bag over that.† My air mattress always leaked.† Overnight it would go down.† What I would do, when heíd go out somewhere, go to the john or whatever, Iíd take my air mattress and put it on his bed and Iíd take his.† In the middle of the night his would go slack and he would know who did it.† Heíd wake me up and give me my air mattress.† I remember on the mission that he got killed, I had taken his air mattress and put it on my bed and he got killed that day.† I remember saying to myself, we had to go somewhere, we moved up from one base to another base, and I had let the air out of the air mattress.† I felt funny because when I let the air out.† It was his breath.† He had blown it up.† Heíd been dead maybe a week.† That got next to me too.
SS:†††††† Howíd you guys deal with something like that?
BW:†††† You just went on.† The next day was another mission.† You just couldnít dwell on it.† It got next to some people but, as I say, youíre nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two years old and you just thought itíd never be you.
SS:†††††† Did you ever do any missions that were integrated with any of the other groups, the white pilots?
BW:†††† No.† The only integration was when we escorted them.† They were bomber pilots, and they were all white bombers, of course.† You never saw them and they never saw you.† That was it.† You did your mission with them and you came home and that was it.
SS:†††††† So you guys never had any briefings together with any of the white squadrons or anything like that?
BW:†††† No.† You had your own rest camp together.† You had your own rest camps.† We had a rest camp in Naples, which was strictly segregated.† Even in Naples, though they were still not in the Army Air Corps.† You never went to their rest camp.† You never went to a bar with them, or had a drink with them.† That was it.
SS:†††††† Did you ever see any of those guys when you were off base?† Any white pilots?
BW:†††† Youíd see a guy with wings, maybe, a white guy with wings.† We wouldnít walk up and tap him on the shoulders and say hey, you know.† You just stayed where you were, thatís all.† The only time we ever did that was when my wing man and I were sent up to the Rivera.† There was another rest camp up there, this was in France, strictly an integrated rest camp.† It was in a hotel.† Thatís when you saw other pilots, from Italy, from wherever.† Thatís when you got to drink with them.† Otherwise you didnít.† Not in combat you didnít.†
SS:†††††† Howíd the civilians in the area treat you, say in Italy or in France?
BW:†††† They treated us better than we were treated by the military.† We were treated like anybody else.† We were treated, like Italians and French, of course, they treated us like human beings.† You werenít segregated.† You werenít called any names.† No.† You were treated like a human being.
SS:†††††† That seems like it would be something really tough to deal with in itself.† Here you were fighting for your country and yet youíre separated and not necessarily treated very well.† Did you guys feel that?† Were you aware of it?
BW:†††† We were aware of it, of course we were.† We were very much aware of the fact that in the States you couldnít go into a bar and have a drink.† Not only you couldnít go into a bar and have a drink, but you couldnít go into the officerís club.† If it was a white officerís club, you couldnít even go into the white officerís club and have a drink.† Yet you still had your wings and your bars like anybody else.† We were very much aware of that but what was the alternative?† Where else could you go?† In other words, Iím trying to say, youíre country is still your country.† Itís the only country you have.† Itís still not the best, it could be better and maybe one day it will be better.† Thatís what we always thought, maybe one day it will be better.† One day, my kids wonít have to put up with this shit.† And we all thought that.† When you got back from fighting the war and you were bruised and hurt and everything else, and still being treated the same way.† Even after the war is over, we were still treated the same way.† You say, ďJesus Christ, itís still a long time coming.Ē† Is it going to ever come?† When Truman ended segregation, thatís when you say, ďHell, this is one step.Ē† Then Martin Luther King is another step.† Things still arenít the way it could be but itís still a hell of a lot better than it was.† Even in Korea, when I was in Korea, I had a squadron in Korea, in Vietnam, rather.† When I was relieving the white guy I was relieving, he did a double take because he didnít think there was going to be a black guy relieving him.† Even that late, it was stillÖBut it was subtle.† It was still, if he wantís to feel that way, you know, itís his problem.† I donít have a problem.
SS:†††††† Back to World War II then, how many missions did you wind up going on?
BW:†††† Maybe sixty-seven, something like that.
SS:†††††† That was all through í44 and into í45.
SS:†††††† Howíd you feel about the progress of the war was going?
BW:†††† We followed it.† In briefing, every morning youíd have big map, I still have the map by the way, to show you where the line is now, where it is now.† Weíd be following Patton, his thing, what heís doing.† We just followed wherever it was going.† You just knew thatÖ [pause, end of side one]
SS:†††††† I was just curious, again, if your bases had moved as the Allies made progress up the country?
BW:†††† Yes.† Thatís what we did.† Right.† We moved from Capachino to Ramatelli, which was on the other side of Italy, and up the coast to, I donít remember the name of it.† But when we got up there, the war was just about over.† We were pretty close to the Udine Valley.†
SS:†††††† So youíre in northern Italy now?
BW:†††† Yes, right, northern Italy.†
SS:†††††† Did your missions change as you moved up?
BW:† †† Same missions.
SS:†††††† You were always doing escorts?
BW:†††† Yes, doing escorts.† But then we flew more ground support.† We flew more strafing missions.† We did more of that.† We still flew the long-range escort missions.
SS:†††††† Do you remember VE-Day?
BW:†††† Oh yes, oh yes.
SS:†††††† What was that like?
BW:†††† Well, we just said, ďHey, this is great!† But here we go again, now weíve got to go fight Japan.Ē† We figured, at least weíd go home for a while and regroup, then go again.
SS:†††††† Did that happen?† What was the course of events after VE-Day for you guys?
BW:†††† Yes, more or less, we came home.† Then it wasnít too long after VE-Day that in Japan, they surrendered too, so we didnít have to go again.
SS:†††††† All during this time, were you keeping contact with your parents, friends and family back home?
BW:†††† Oh yes.† But you couldnít tell them what was going on.† You couldnít tell them anything because everything was so regulated and everything was so restricted.† You couldnít just write and tell them how many people you lost and who got killed and all that kind of stuff.† Everything was censored.
SS:†††††† So when you came home, were you guys making plans to go to Japan?
BW:†††† No.† We came home, but no, we didnít know what we were going to do.† All we knew is, we came home.† The war was over in Europe.† We would go back either to Tuskegee, or youíd go up to the field up in Michigan.†
BW:† †† No, I can look it up.† But I went to Tuskegee and hung around there to see what was going to happen.† Finally, after VJ-Day I said, well I think Iíll get out and go back to school, and I was married at the time, so I thought Iíd raise a family and do that.
SS:†††††† Once you got out, did you take advantage of the GI Bill?
BW:†††† Oh yes.† Most of us did.†
SS:†††††† Did you go back to college?
SS:†††††† How was it to transition from military back into civilian life?
BW:†††† I donít think there was any transition, really.† The military was over, now Iím a civilian like all these other GIs.† You had a bunch of GIs.† It wasnít that bad.† It wasnít traumatic.† It was just shifting gears, you know, now Iím a civilian again.
SS:††††††††††† Whereíd you go to college?
SS:†††††† Oh, you went to UCONN.
BW:†††† Then came the Korean War and now youíre itching to go again.† Itís like the old warhorse.† You want to go do some more.
SS:†††††† So did you get involved in the Korean conflict?
BW:†††† Yes.† I was recalled for that.
SS:†††††† You were recalled?
BW:†††† Thatís right.
SS:†††††† Whatíd you do in the Korean conflict?
BW:†††† I was assigned to an AC&W Group, an Aircraft Control and Warning Group.† I wasnít flying as much then, but I was flying.† After that was over, I volunteered to go to Vietnam.† So I went to Vietnam and was assigned to another group over there, an early warning group, an on the ground group.† Then I get rid of that and decided it was time to come home and time to retire, which I did.
SS:†††††† Had you stayed in the reserves or anything like that ever since World War II?† Or had you just rejoined?
BW:†††† I was reserved all the time, right.† I was in Reserves, right.
SS:†††††† Were you still flying throughout this whole period?
BW:†††† Yes.† I was flying out of Otis.† Yes.† I was flying.
SS:†††††† What type of planes did you fly throughout your career?
BW:†††† T-33s, jets.
SS:†††††† So you made that transition from props to jets?
BW:†††† Yes.† That was a transition, flying from props to jets, but there was no problem.
SS:†††††† How did the military change through that period?† You went from the segregated forces of World War II?
BW:†††† This was, itís strange, what it was in the military.† Now, all of a sudden, thereís no segregation and youíre assigned to a squadron or youíre assigned to a unit.† Whereas, before, when you were assigned a unit, it was an all black unit.† Now youíre assigned a unit that has maybe one black guy in the unit.† Maybe one black pilot, maybe one black ground officer, whatever.† It was not strange, but it was different.† Because now, you donít have any old buddy buddies that you knew when it was all segregated.† Theyíre all scattered out, you know, two here, two there, two everywhere.† Which is the way itís supposed to be but that was strange, you know, not strange, but it was different.
SS:†††††† What was your rank, say, at Korea?
BW:†††† Well, I ended up as a lieutenant colonel.† That was when I got out from Vietnam.† I came back a lieutenant colonel.
SS:†††††† As you moved up in rank did you take on more responsibility in the groups?
BW:†††† Oh yes. My first responsibility as a first lieutenant, I was assistant operations officer.† Then I was operations officer and from then on I was going up from there, from second lieutenant to first lieutenant.†
SS:†††††† Captain and major?
BW:†††† Captain and major, right.
SS:†††††† Was that a big difference for you to, all of a sudden, go from that segregation to the integrated forces and be in charge of white, black, Hispanic, all different races?
BW:†††† Yes.† That was a difference.† It was different, but it wasnít that traumatic.† In other words, now you have young kids who are just out of high school who didnít know segregation.† For instance, like in Otis, when I was operations officer in Otis, I had kids in my squadron whoíd never heard of segregation.† They didnít know what it was.† For them to have a black officer, it was no big deal, he was a black officer.† That was it.† Whereas, if it had been maybe twenty years before, they probably wouldíve resented the fact that they had a black officer over them.† These kids couldnít care less.† That was the beauty of it.
SS:†††††† Did you have any sense of accomplishment that you guys had come in through these segregated times and now you wereÖ
BW:†††† Oh yes.† You still feel that way.† You still feel that you did, I donít know if youíd say that you did any more, but you did as much as you were asked to do, and you did more when you had to do more.† I think thatís an accomplishment.
SS:†††††† Did you ever have any resentment or anger because of what you had to go through versus somebody else?
BW:†††† No.† I think if you let something like that bother you, I think youíre defeating your own purpose.† If you get mad because, if youíre called a name, if you let that get next to you, that shows that youíre just like anybody else. You ought to be above that.†
SS:††††††††††† Through all this, whatíd you wind up doing for civilian work once you got out?
BW:†††† What the hell did I do?† I was the director of personnel at UCONN for ten years.†
SS:†††††† Was that in between the different conflicts?
BW:†††† No.† That was after I got back from Vietnam.† I was the director of personnel at UCONN.† I didnít start off that.† I started off working as a special assistant in personnel at UCONN.† Then my boss was fired and Babbage called me up and said, ďYouíre my new personnel officer.Ē† I said, ďHow the hell do you spell personnel?† Is it two nís or two lís?Ē† Anyway, but I was his personnel office, and I was there for ten years.† No, I was there for eight years and then I was appointed the first EE officer, Equal Opportunity officer.† Then I was there for a year at UCONN and then I was also EE officer for the Department of Education in Hartford.† I was there for a year, which gave me exactly ten years.† I said, ďTen years, thatís it.Ē† This gives me my way of getting out of this thing.† So that was it.
SS:†††††† Did you retire from there?
SS:†††††† Did you wind up with a dual retirement then?† From the military and the state?
BW:†††† Yes, absolutely.† A double dipper.
SS:††††††††††† Looking back, do you think your experience from World War II helped you in your civilian career and the rest of your military career?
BW:†††† I think so.† I think it made you strong.† It made you persevere.† It made you say, ďHell, this is nothing.† Nothing can beat me.† If I could take the crap that we took as cadets, and as pilots in a segregated unit, I can take anything.Ē† I donít know anybody else that had to take that kind of crap.† I wonder if anybody else had, they couldíve done the same thing we did.† I mean, come out with flying colors.† That gives me a good feeling to know that.
SS:†††††† Now itís probably, like you said, tough for some people to understand what it was like for segregation because they never felt it.† Like myself, when I was in the military, I was like those younger guys that you said.† I had black officers.† To tell you the truth, the best supervisor I had, Sergeant Dave Stanley, was an African American.† That was during the 80ís.† It really wasnít that different, or Iím sorry, that long from when you had gone through, about thirty, forty years or so.†
BW:†††† Thatís right.
SS:†††††† It seems so tough for me to understand, and I donít know if itís tough to talk about, but what kind of stuff were you going through?† What kind of things did people do to you because you were an African American?
BW:†††† For instance, say in Italy, if you had your uniform on, you had wings on, you had bars on, pin your rank, and you pass a white enlisted man.† He wouldnít salute.† What could you do?† You could call him down.† He could give you a hard time and say, ďI donít salute no niggers,Ē something like that.† What are you going to do then?† Call the APs, who were also white.† What are you going to do?† So, just ignore it.† You say, poor, uninformed bastard who doesnít know...In other words, donít put yourself to his level.† Donít get down in the dirt with him.† Just say, Hey, thatís tough.† I feel bad about it but hey, thatís the way it is right now.† Maybe one day itíll be different.
SS:†††††† Is that something that kept you guys going?
BW:†††† Thatís right.† That kept you going.† That kept you going.†
SS:†††††† Now you actually did see it change too, through the course of your career.† Was that always in the back of your mind that there was this discrimination and segregation but now itís different?† Do you think that helped you to make a difference or explain changes to other people?
BW:†††† Itís hard to explain to other people because, I talk to kids in school nowadays.† I talk to the kids about what it was like to be a Tuskegee Airman and that kind of stuff.† I bring in pictures.† They have no idea.† These kids just have no idea.† I canít explain to them what it was like.† You just canít.† They have no idea.† I think it was some guy, he was a black major, one of the Tuskegee guys who wasÖ well this is a story thatís probably second hand.† He was on a train, I think, in a dining car.† He was being served.† Iím familiar with the story but I donít know how it all transpired.† Anyway, he was asked to get up and leave because a white person, a white officer, maybe not even the same rank, wanted the table.† He was disgusted but he did it.†
SS:†††††† Did you hear of a lot of stories like that?
BW:†††† Oh God, yes.
SS:†††††† Was that another Tuskegee guy?
BW:†††† Yes.† But it never happened to me.† I donít know of any case where I wasnít saluted. Maybe itís because I didnít go where there were white enlisted men that had to salute me.† Except when I was in Germany in places when I was in later on.† These kids coming up, they had to salute anyway.† They didnít know any difference.† I donít know of any case where I, personally, was affronted.†
SS:†††††† Do you think discrimination had any impact on your career at all, either in the military or civilian life?
BW:†††† No.† I just thought that, hey, if I can do that, I can do this.† I donít think it did.† I think it just gave me confidence.† It gave me, you know, I can do it and devil take the hindermost.† Iím not going to make an excuse and say, well, this happened to me because I was black.† No.† It happened to me because either I couldnít cut the mustard or something like that.† Thatís why it happened.† Not because I was black.† I donít use that as an excuse.† I never have.† I never will.
SS:††††††††††† Looking back on that World War II experience, how would you assess it, in terms of your life?
BW:†††† I would say that my life couldnít be like it is now if I hadnít had that experience.† Going through the segregated time, going through the war times, the whole era, I donít know what my life wouldíve been without it.† If there hadnít been a war, I donít know.† If segregation was still, without the war and all that, if segregation was still going on, although, I didnít go to a segregated school, I went to high school and college not segregated, if there hadnít been an awareness of the fact that people are equal, I donít know.† That was time that it had to be, I guess.
SS:†††††† What do you think about how World War II is portrayed and taught in schools?
BW:†††† Well you wouldnít have thought that there were any black people in World War II at all because, except for the Tuskegee guys, which has just come forth now, you never heard about the sailors, the Army troops, the 92nd Division that was all black.† You never heard about those.† Therefore, you wouldíve just thought that the only people that fought in that war were white guys.
SS:†††††† Do you think itís kind of unbalanced, then, as far as itís taught?
BW:†††† Well, it was for World War II, but now since Vietnam, now you see as many black guys as white guys since World War II.† There werenít any Marines in World War II, in the service.† Nowadays, itís like this now.† Were these black guys who were in Vietnam, were they in Vietnam because they couldnít do anything else?† Because they were just not out of high school, maybe, or just out of high school and thatís all they could do was go to Vietnam?†† Cannon Fodder? I donít know.† But the white guys were cannon fodder too.† The guys in Vietnam, JesusÖ
SS:†††††† How long were you in Vietnam for?
BW:†††† Exactly one year to the day.† The guys at Conthiei up in those battles in Vietnam where you lost so many people, lost so many guys, hell there were just as many white guys as black guys.† But World War II was the glamour war.† The 8th Air Force, Patton and his troops, you never knew that the guys that supplied Patton and his troops, that Red Ball Express, you know, those were all black guys that ran that.† All you saw was Patton and his two guns.
SS:†††††† Do you think itís getting more balanced as far as an accurate history nowadays?
BW:††††††††††† Definitely.† Oh sure.† Definitely.
SS:†††††† Do you still keep in touch with some of your old Tuskegee buddies?
BW:†††† Well, we have, yes.† In fact, we have a reunion every year.† Itís the Tuskegee guys and another group thatís joined us now.† Itís called the Black Airline Pilots Association.† These are black airline guys whoíre flying for the airlines now.† They joined the Tuskegee guys.† Now we have a thing together.† Weíre meeting this year in San Antonio.† Every year we do different places.† We have chapters all over the place.†† We have a New England chapter, we have a Washington chapter, just all over the place, scattered all over.† We talk to kids.† We have scholarship funds.† We do lots of things like that.
SS:†††††† I guess we can wrap things up.† Iím curious if thereís just anything else that you mind want to add to your story.
BW:†††† I wish I had, while I was sitting here, to thumb through that stuff that I had.† Like my log book, I couldíve told you a lot of stories.† I think I more or less stuck to what I thought and what it was like, without being dramatic.† No.† I canít think of anything that I wish I had told you.† I might think of something later, when you edit this, let me know.† Oh gee, I shouldíve mentioned this, I shouldíve mentioned that, you know.
SS:†††††† Sure.† If you ever think of anything else, itís always possible to talk again.† Iíve got plenty of tapes, plenty of time.† Are you fully retired now from your civilian job?
BW:†††† God yes.
SS:†††††† What do you do a lot in your spare time?
BW:†††† What I do is, I just got a call from my travel agent.† My wife died about ten years ago now and I do have a friend who we do things together.† I took her to Paris last year.† Weíre going on another cruise this year, a fifteen day boat cruise.† We did a Mediterranean cruise last year.† Weíll go on another one this year.
SS:†††††† Do you ever go back to Italy where you were stationed?
BW:†††† I was thinking about that.† In fact, I would like to go to Ramitelli.† Anyway, we had rest camp at Via Pacilipo.† Thatís where we had rest camp in Italy.† Up on a hill, Via Pacilipo.† I was thinking about going back and seeing the rest camp, if that thing is still there.† It was just a big building that overlooked Naples Harbor.† We used to fly down there for rest leave, about every, I donít know how many missions youíd go before youíd qualify for that.† But youíd fly the airplane down to Naples, and youíd leave your airplane there and the guy who was leaving, who was going back to Ramatelli, he would take your airplane back and thatís the way youíd travel.† That was fun.
SS:†††††† Do you ever go back to Tuskegee?
BW:†††† No.† In fact, itís all so changed now.† I think all the base is gone now.† Itís just all changed now.† You wouldnít even recognize it now.† That was a nice base.
SS:†††††† Well, like I said, if you ever think of anything else, we could always talk some more.† I really appreciate the time we spent today talking.† I learned a lot.† You have a really interesting story, and I really appreciate your time.
BW:†††† I didnít tell you what it was like to be a fighter pilot.† You were independent.† Iím still that way.† I like to be on time.† I have a fighter pilotís, I guess, way of doing things.† I like to be by myself.† Iím a stickler for being on time.† My friends, it pisses them off when Iím like that.† Donít be late and all, you know.
SS:†††††† Iím glad I was on time today!
BW:†††† You were right on time.† You were right on time!† I like things orderly.† I like things to be just so.† I like nothing to be haphazard.† I like to be independent.† Thatís the fighter pilot.† You were independent.† You donít have anybody to navigate for you.† You donít have anybody to shoot your guns for you.† You do it all yourself.† Youíre independent.† You do it all yourself.
SS:†††††† Fighter pilots seem to have a kind of, I noticed it with the last gentleman I talked to, I felt like it was kind of a lone wolf attitude.† Fighter pilots have to be very physical.† You look like youíre in good shape yourself.† Tough minded, single-minded.† Did you find that to be true, not only amongst yourself, but amongst the other fighter pilots as well?
BW:†††† Yes.† We were all the same way.† We liked to get together and have a drink and all, that stuff.† But, more or less youíre just on your own.† You donít think to hang out with somebody.† But, because your class that you stuck with, the cadets, those are the ones you more or less hung out with.† If you go to a reunion now, you try to find some guys who were in your class because the guys who werenít in your class, you didnít even know.† You were a dummy, or they called you a dummy, because you were underclassmen.† Those guys who were over you, you didnít like them.† Those guys who were under you, you lorded over.† So you were on your own.
SS:†††††† Thatís funny.† In that respect, it probably didnít matter if it was segregated or integrated because the other side was doing the same thing, the white guys, to the younger pilots, the cadets, were kind of like the big guys on the block.
BW:†††† Thatís right.
SS:†††††† When you flew, did you guys fly, well you talked about four in an element, did you all have the wingman formation and things like that?
BW:†††† I could show you.
SS:†††††† Youíve got some pictures of your flights and things like that?
SS:†††††† Do you have pictures of your airplane?
BW:†††† Yes 05, P51C.
SS:†††††† Thatís great.† Again, I thank you.† I appreciate the time talking to me.
BW:†††† Itís nice to get this oral history out on tape somewhere, in my own words, you know.† Itís nice to have that done.† Itís too bad this wasnít done say, thirty years ago.†
SS:†††††† I hope to do more of it someday soon.† Weíre all getting older.† The gentleman told me yesterday, I think something like 1400 World War II vets die a day. There seems to be, to me at least, some urgency to get this on tape, make it part of the record.† Again, thanks very much.
BW:†††† My pleasure.† [end of tape]