WWII Airmen Fought for Equal Rights

By Michael K. Martin,
Legal Editor

Arrested African-American officers of the 477th Bombardment Group at Freeman Field, Indiana, await transport to Godman Field, Kentucky, April 1945. The Freeman Field Mutiny was a series of incidents at Freeman Army Airfield, a United States Army Air Forces base near Seymour, Indiana, in 1945 in which African American members of the 477th Bombardment Group attempted to integrate an all-white officers’ club. The mutiny resulted in 162 separate arrests of black officers, some of them twice. Three were court-martialed on relatively minor charges. One was convicted. In 1995, the Air Force officially vindicated the actions of the African-American officers, set aside the single court-martial conviction and removed letters of reprimand from the permanent files of 15 of the officers. The mutiny is generally regarded by historians of the Civil Rights Movement as an important step toward full integration of the armed forces and as a model for later efforts to integrate public facilities through civil disobedience.

With the observance of the birth anniversary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the release of the historical film “Red Tails,” thoughts turn to the Freeman Field Mutiny of 1945.  
The Freeman Field Mutiny was a rebellion by Black members of the U.S, Army Air Corps, officers who had been banned from the officers club at Freeman Field, the Air Corps installation at Seymour, Indiana.  It was a civil rights action that predated the movement later led by Dr. King.
Before 1948, the United States military was strictly segregated.  One result of this segregation was the absolute absence of African American flyers in the Air Corps.  In 1941 President Roosevelt issued an executive order establishing the Fair Employment Practices Commission to ensure equal participation by Black people in all phases of the federal government, including the military.
 One of the results of this action was the admission of African Americans to the Army Air Corps to be pilots of fighter planes.  These Black pilots became the Tuskegee Airmen, undergoing training at Tuskegee Airfield in Tuskegee, Alabama.  Their service in Europe as fighter escorts for bombers was, by all accounts, heroic.
During the ongoing training cycles of African American fighter pilots at Tuskegee, the Army Air Corps, in 1944 began to train African American personnel to be pilots, navigators, bombardiers, radiomen, and gunners in B-25 bombers.  
These men comprised the 477th Bombardment Group.  The 477th arrived at Freeman Field, an Army Air Corps installation near Seymour, Indiana, in March 1945, to await its July 1, 1945 combat assignment date.
The officers club at Freeman Field was “whites only.”  The newly arrived Black officers were to use the newly vacated non-commissioned officers club.  The Black officers rejected these separate-but-unequal accommodations.  
The feeling among the airmen was, according to Leslie A. Williams, 92, a Tuskegee Airman who now resides in San Mateo, was defiant and indignant.  The group felt, Williams told me, “ ‘We’re officers now.  We can take a strong stand against this.’”  This sentiment is underscored in the book “The Freeman Field Mutiny,” by Lt. Col. James C. Warren, USAF (ret). “The kind of man selected to become a pilot – an officer, and a leader of men,” wrote Col. Warren, “was highly unlikely to submit to what they knew was a clearly illegal policy.”
Accordingly, a protest by the Black officers ensued.  Every evening several waves of Black officers entered the club and attempted to get served.  They were, each evening, refused service, placed under arrest and confined to their quarters and the mess hall.   In the course of the protest a total of 104 African American officers were arrested, and charged with disobedience of a military directive.  One officer, Lt. Roger C. Terry, was charged with jostling a superior officer.  The officers faced a court martial.
Ultimately, all the African American officers were acquitted, except for Lt. Terry, who was found guilty of the jostling charge and fined $150.  The result of the protest and court martial was a change in command of the 477th.  
Lt. Col. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., who was among the first class of Tuskegee Airmen, and their commanding officer overseas, was named commanding officer at Freeman Field on July 1, 1945.  All white commanders at the field were transferred elsewhere.
It was the dream of many in the 477th, according to Mr. Williams, to fly a bombing mission escorted by the Tuskegee Airman fighter group – an all Black air combat mission.  The battalion never saw combat, however, as the war ended that August.  Still, the result of the stateside events in which they engaged was a complete transformation of the battalion command and the entire nature of the Army Air Corps.  
The Freeman Field Mutiny, as it became known, was a successful implementation of the tactics and attitudes that sustained the civil rights movement led by Dr. King beginning some 10 years later.  The dignified, firm, but nonviolent resistance to unjust regulations and their application proved effective in the military in 1945, as it was to prove effective in civilian circumstances in the ensuing years.  
The Tuskegee Airmen, in addition to spreading pride throughout the African community with their exploits in combat, set an example, through peaceful protest stateside that lives on.

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