I went into the service as a mechanic. The first unit I was assigned to be part of was a maintenance company. I got attached to an Engineer brigade. They built runways. We took care of all the maintenance on the dozers and all the trucks.
Every work on any planes?
All the planes that were in the Airforce.
Sidebar: I know, I just showed my ignorance. But maybe you didn’t know that either.
When we went in, privates pay was $72 a month. When you made PFC (Private First Class) it went up to $78 a month.
Did people make the same amount regardless of race for the same position?
They asked for volunteers to try out for Airborne. Everyone’s first reaction was, “we don’t want to jump out of no planes”. We were told that it was an extra $55 per month in pay. When I heard that I said, “What the heck I’ll try. It is something different”. About 480 of us went to jump school; but only 125 passed.
I’m confused. They had you jump out the airplane to fix a truck?
Let’s say you go into combat on an island. You can’t drive there. When you are in an Airborne Unit, you pack everything up like your equipment and vehicles (small tanks and small dozier). We would jump in on the first pass. On the second pass, the planes would drop all the equipment. Then, they would build the landing strips so the planes could land and drop off supplies. The Airborne units were responsible for their own security.
When they dropped tanks, why didn’t the tires get flat? Did they just fly low?
The cargo chute for the vehicles are a lot bigger. You have one on the front and one on the back. As soon as the equipment hits the ground in a combat area, you must run and unhook it quickly. You must get in it and drive it away.
Did you serve in any combat missions?
A few… Vietnam.
How was the military from a racial perspective?
In the 1960s we could go to the movies at the Palace and sit wherever we wanted, go to the drug stores, go to eat, etc. When I went to the service it was all fine. When I got into Kentucky, they had the sign up right outside the base, “KKK country”. After I finished my basic training, they sent me down to Fort Bennett in Georgia, that was the first time I saw areas marked “colored” or “whites only”. Of course, the drinking fountain for the coloreds was rusty and bad looking. The one for the whites was nice.
The military was further advanced in integration than it was on the outside. The rule in the military was that everybody plays together, lives together, and stays together. Some of the clubs off base were segregated. The commanders would put the club off limits for the blacks and the whites. When the clubs started losing money, that forced them to integrate.
Once I was on a train going from Fort Campbell to Fort Bennett. A group of us were wearing our uniforms. I was the only black, there were two Puerto Rican guys and the rest were white. When we got to Birmingham, Alabama, the conductor told me I had to move to the back car. I ignored him. He came back a second time and said again, “You got to move to the back car”. I told him, “I ain’t going nowhere”. Everyone else started saying, “He ain’t going nowhere”. The conductor walked away and didn’t come back and bother me after that.
It was weird that here (Columbus, Ohio) we didn’t have any issues, but if you wanted to go to the movies in Kentucky or Georgia you had to sit in the balcony.