GULF COAST WAR MEMORIES
Arthur Williams

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“Helping to Change America: Tuskegee Airmen"

Born in Hattisburg, Mississippi on June 23, 1918 to Murray and Eunice Williams, Arthur Williams dropped out of high school to help care for his family. He eventually took a job at the St. Joe Paper Company. When the war broke out, Williams volunteered to serve in the military, hoping for the opportunity to become a pilot as a part of the Tuskegee Airmen. He joined the Army Air Corps in 1942. During his Army physical, it was determined that Williams was color-blind, disqualifying him for the chance to learn to fly. “I had to pick another occupation, so I chose aircraft mechanic,” Williams remembers. “I really didn’t know what I was signing up for. You had to pick something, so that’s what I picked.” It was an occupation that Williams excelled at, graduating the first in his class – in a class of 600 – in the Army Air Corps Mechanics Training School at Lincoln, Nebraska in 1943.

Arthur Williams became a part of the Tuskegee Airmen, serving as a prized mechanic, one of about one million black servicemen in WWII. From 1942 until 1946, nearly 1,000 pilots, as well as mechanics, bombardiers, navigators, gunnery crews and administrators trained at Tuskegee Army Field in Alabama. In 1943, Williams enlisted with the 332nd Fighter Group also known as the “Redtails.” Williams served as a mechanic at Tuskegee at the school that was founded to determine whether blacks, who were largely assigned to menial positions in the military, could perform as combat pilots. The Tuskegee Airmen were dedicated, determined young men who enlisted to become America’s first black military airmen, at a time when there were many people thought that black men lacked the intelligence, skill, courage and patriotism to be military pilots. The young men who became a part of the Tuskegee Airmen knew that they would be fighting these racial stereotypes as well as the bigotry and discrimination that faced people of African-American heritage during those years.

“Tuskegee was started because the black organizations were demanding that they teach blacks how to fly,” Williams states. “Tuskegee was actually established to prove that blacks could not fly. We knew we had to prove that we could fly – and not just do it well but excel at it. The Tuskegee pilots were so good that the Germans were very afraid of them. The Germans called them the ‘Black Devils.’ At Tuskegee, we had a saying: ‘Do it right the first time.’ That’s how we operated – we did whatever we were required to do, we went above and beyond the call of duty, we did it with pride and we did it right the first time.”

“I was proud to be a Tuskegee Airmen because it was a turning point in my life,” Williams proudly states. He learned a craft that would later become his life-long career. And he met and married his wife, Ella Louise, in Tuskegee and later became the father of son Charles. “I really enjoyed my military career. I worked on B-25s. I loved to work on airplanes. Williams remembers. “I’d work day and night. I just loved to work on airplanes.” We would get up in the morning, start the airplanes up, check everything out, fix anything that wasn’t working properly, run the engines – everything you have to do to preflight an aircraft and make sure that it is ready to go and safe to fly.” Williams also realized that the work that he and the other mechanics performed was crucial to the Tuskegee pilots who flew the planes they worked on. “We had their lives in our hands,” Williams states. “So we made sure that our work was the best – we made sure we did it right the first time.”

Williams is humble about his place in history as a part of the Tuskegee Airmen. “When I was doing it, I wasn’t thinking much about making history,” he said. “Other people kind of thought of it as making history. I was just being Arthur Williams. I was just being me.” Yet Williams does recognize that the Tuskegee Airmen helped to tear down racial stereotypes and discrimination. “Tuskegee didn’t only change my life,” said Williams. “It helped to change America.”

The Tuskegee Airmen set out to prove that they were equal to the tasks assigned to them, and they did just that. Not only were they prove they were capable of flying, they performed admirably and proved their skills with an impressive combat record during WWII, including:

• Over 15,000 combat sorties
• 111 German airplanes destroyed in the air
• 150 German aircraft destroyed on the ground
• 950 railcars, trucks, and other motor vehicles destroyed
• 1 destroyer sunk by P-47 machine gun fire
• Sixty-six pilots killed in action or accidents
• Thirty-two pilots downed and captured, POWs
• NO bombers were ever lost to enemy aircraft while being escorted
• 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses earned
• 744 Air Medals
• 8 Purple Hearts
• 14 Bronze Stars

After the war ended, Williams went on to receive an honorable discharge and returned to school, earning his general equivalency diploma and an associate degree from Pensacola State College. He went on to work at the Aircraft Rework Facility at Pensacola Naval Air Station as a mechanic and later became the first black man promoted to production supervisor at Pensacola NAS. Mr. Williams also became a licensed real estate broker and worked with the NAACP for many years, continuing to help fight racial prejudice and bigotry.

In the spring of 2007, Congress awarded the Tuskegee Airmen one of the nation’s highest honors – the Congressional Gold Medal - in a ceremony in Washington D.C. President Bush and Congress awarded one of the nation’s highest honors to the Tuskegee Airmen for fighting to defend their country during WWII even as they faced bigotry at home. “For all the unreturned salutes and unforgivable indignities, I salute you for your service to the United States of America,” President Bush told the 300 Tuskegee Airmen, standing in salute as about 300 of the famed men returned the gesture. Retired Army general and former Secretary of State Colin Powell also attended the ceremony and addressed the airmen for paving the way for the opportunities he was experienced in his career. “You caused America to look in the mirror of its soul, and you showed America that there was nothing that a black person couldn’t do,” said Powell.

Like the remaining living Tuskegee Airmen, Williams believes that this recognition was long overdue. “Most of those who earned this medal are now gone,” Williams said. “It should have been awarded a long time ago so that hundreds and hundreds more could have received this honor. But it is never too late to do something right.”

Unfortunately, Williams did not learn about the ceremony in Washington D.C. until after it had occurred. John Croft, whose late father attended the Army Air Corps Mechanics Training School in Nebraska with Williams, learned that Williams had not received his medal and helped secure the congressional medal for the former Tuskegee Airman. “Mr. Williams, serving as a Tuskegee Airman, was in part responsible for my father coming back home alive," said Croft, whose father flew combat missions during World War II. “I’m glad that I could help Mr. Williams receive this honor.”

Just as President Bush did when he presented the Congressional Gold Medal to the Tuskegee Airmen in the Capitol Rotunda, U.S. Representative Jeff Miller thanked Williams for his service to our country and said, "I salute you, Mr. Williams, on behalf of a grateful nation. The recognition of these African American pilots, mechanics, bombardiers and navigators was long overdue, and I'm humbled to be a part of this
much-deserved and certainly belated recognition," said Miller.

"This is a very important honor and I feel great about receiving it," Williams said. “When I was told that I was going to receive a Gold Congressional Medal, it was a proud moment in my life because basically I had my son and my grandchildren there with me. I wanted to be a standard for them to live up to, to always do their best. So, for my children and grandchildren to see this ceremony, for my grandsons to see their granddaddy receive this medal….” Williams said, tears welling in his eyes and his voice chocking with emotion, “I could finally show them what I’ve been talking about all this time. I think they felt real proud.”