Black soldiers and World War II
The group of photos were on a back table at the auction house against a wall, almost hidden among much taller items. They were black and whites of African American soldiers. Several showed 10 soldiers in neatly pressed and starched khaki uniforms, the ones so familiar to most of us.
A few others were of the same black man, in handsome military officer dress, apparently at a special party or event. I wanted those photos. It’s not often that I come across photos of black people, and even rarer to find military photos.
Bidding on the photo of the officer started first. I jumped in. Then another woman bidded against me. We went back and forth for awhile, but she was determined. She got the photos, explaining to me afterward that she doesn’t often come across soldiers in dress uniform.
She was bidding on the photos to sell. I was bidding on our history.
I did get one set of photos: the 10 black men in khaki uniforms staring into the camera. Faces firm, stoic, no smiles. World War II. A time when racism, segregation and discrimination made for a tough experience for black men in the military. Behind the faces, what horror stories do these soldiers have to tell?
There were four photos of the same group of men. On the back was stamped:
RELEASED BY ARMY AIR FORCES
If used for publication, please credit as below
OFFICIAL PHOTOGRAPH U.S. ARMY AIR FORCES
I believe these photos belonged to a man named Lt. Oliver Salisbury, who had written O. Salisbury in ink on the backs of two photos. Also printed on the backs of two photos were ids on all the men (apparently written by Salisbury).
The other men were Lt. William E. Williamson, Lt. Edwin A. Campbell, Lt. Dickerson, Lt. Burns, Lt. Best, Lt. Hudson, Lt. Wiley, Lt. Montrose, Lt. Johnson.
Who were these soldiers? Where was the photo taken? Were they among the black aviators who were part of the Tuskegee Experiment? Did they train in Tuskegee, or elsewhere? Why did the U.S. Army Air Force distribute this photo? Was it propaganda?
There is no date on the photo, but the U.S. Army Air Force became the U.S. Air Force in 1947. Could the photo be from the 1940s? I have all kinds of questions about these men, and I’m still looking for the answers.
We’re all familiar with the Tuskegee Airmen and Tuskegee Institute’s historic role in training black pilots during World War II. But the so-called Tuskegee Experiment also included training for navigators, bombardiers, maintenance and support staff, instructors and others. The soldiers in my photo may not have been pilots but may have been involved in other areas of the program.
Early on, the training was not done exclusively at Tuskegee. When the federal government first authorized flight training for African Americans in 1939, Howard University and Hampton Institute joined Tuskegee in providing some preliminary training. By 1941, Tuskegee was the one that offered advanced training and produced the pilots, becoming the main source during the war.
According to the Tuskegee Airmen website, up until 1946, when the flying school ended, 994 pilots graduated from the program. Black navigators, bombardiers and gunnery crews were trained at military bases elsewhere in the country. Mechanics were trained at Chanute Air Base in Illinois before Tuskegee took over the training in 1942, according to the site.
Despite their prowess in war and the eventual desegregation of the Air Force, the black pilots could not defeat racism at home. Do you recognize any of these men? Let’s not forget them today, of all days – Veteran’s Day.
A bit of history: Eugene Jacques Bullard was the first black military pilot in history and the only one in World War I. In 1917, he fought as an American volunteer in the French army. He was born in Columbus, GA, on October 9, 1894, spent much of his life as an expatriate in France after the first war, fought against the Germans in the French army in World War II and returned to the United States after the war. He was posthumously named a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force in 1994.