A Tale of Two Pilots

Early this week I traveled to California to meet and interview eight World War II veterans for our documentary film on cartoonist Bill Mauldin.  As always I learned much, and each story was unique, worthy of its own study.

But I was particularly struck when, during some downtime on the set, two pilots, Art Hicks and Orville Erdman struck up a casual conversation about their parallel careers in the Air Force.  Both men enetred service in the 1940s, and both remained in the postwar military.  They worked around the same planes, spent time at some of the same bases, and even knew a few of the same people. 

So what was remarkable about this casual conversation?

Sixty-five years ago, the men probably wouldn’t have spoken to each other, much less shared the same social circles.  That’s because Art Hicks is African American, and the Army he joined in 1941 was strictly segregated.  Black soldiers generally performed menial duties and reported to white officers.  The Army tried to bar them from combat until manpower needs combined with political pressure forced it to put a few African-American units into the field.

Art Hicks, one of our last living Tuskegee Airmen

One of those units was the famous 332nd Fighter Group, otherwise known as the Tuskegee Airmen, Art’s unit.

As a boy growing up in Atlanta, Art saw planes fly overhead and wondered at the technology.  Like many boys, he dreamed of flight and fashioned model airplanes of cigar boxes.  As he came of age, he learned that his dreams would remain just that–unfulfilled aspirations.  These were the days of Jim Crow, and Atlanta was strictly segregated.  Racial violence was open and public, a warning to any African American who dared challenge the system.  Art remembers a neighbor of his, a senior at Moorehouse College, being lynched by two white men.  The men were arrested, tried, and sentenced to three years in prison.

In 1940, the eighteen-year-old Art saw a notice in the post office for the War Training Service which would teach applicants about airplane mechanics.  He saved up money he earned as a janitor and took a bus to the location in Memphis advertised on the poster.  When he showed up, the white administrator took one look at Art and told him the training was for white only.  The administrator suggested that a new location was being considered for “colored” mechanics.  Art worked as a busboy in Memphis as he waited more information and to earn money for a bus ticket.  Soon he was told to go to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where the new segregated training program would begin.

Art arrived at Tuskegee, learned airplane mechanics and also signed up for a civilian pilots training program.  After Pearl Harbor, he joined the Air Corps and thus became one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen.  He graduated from combat flight school too late to see action overseas but remained in the service after the war.

The action Art saw was on the homefront, when he did battle with the Air Force (as it was called after 1947) to live up to Harry Truman’s Executive Order 9981 signed on July 26, 1948 ordering the desegregation of the armed forces. 

At Seward AFB in Tennessee, Sergeant Hicks found segregation alive and well despite Executive Order 9981.  “Blacks could only use the swimming pool on Wednesday,” he recalled.  “On Wednesday night at closing time, the pool was emptied, scrubbed down, and refilled, and blacks couldn’t go into it again until next Wednesday.”

Sergeants Hicks complained to the base commander.  Soon after, he was transferred to Alaska, and the Air Force opened an investigation into Hicks’ “subversive” activities. 

Perhaps this fact says it all about Art Hicks’ courage and persistence as a Civil Rights activist: when Orville Erdman retired from the Air Force, he was a full colonel.  When Art Hicks ended his career after 28 years in the Air Force, he was still an enlisted man.  “I left as a chief master sergeant.  I could have been a colonel,” he said.

He thinks it was a small price to pay for the racial progress we’ve seen since World War II.