FORT BELVOIR, Virginia –
Major Anderson was an 18-year-old, World War II-draftee when he witnessed one of the most indelible scenes of his life. He and the other enlisted members of the 477th Bomber Group had just completed a parade at Godman Field, Kentucky, as the units’ officers came marching into view, the medals pinned to their dress uniforms glinting in the sun. Among them was the first black military officer the private had ever seen.
“It was the most spectacular thing, how spiffy, how amazingly good those officers looked in their pretty uniforms with polished insignias,” the 94-year-old said.
Anderson, one of the final remaining Tuskegee Airmen, sat among McNamara Headquarters Complex employees Feb. 18 as Defense Logistics Agency Director Army Lt. Gen. Darrell Williams described the struggles and triumphs of African Americans in the military during a Black History Month observance.
Blacks had mostly non-combat roles in the military until Congress passed Public Law 18 in 1938, giving hope to those who craved more with the creation of training for the first African-American pilots. About 1,000 black pilots were trained in Tuskegee, Alabama, and went on to protect B-17 and B-24 bombers from the Luftwaffe by escorting them into enemy territory in Germany and central Europe.
Tuskegee Airmen also include another 18,000 blacks who served as navigators, crew chiefs, nurses, mechanics and other support staff for the aviation mission. Anderson was a sheet metal worker.
“I repaired bullet-hole punches in the B-25 bomber. The hardest part was dealing with the noise of the engines. I used to put cotton balls in my ears to buffer the loud sound,” he said.
Anderson said he didn’t understand the significance of the mission until years after he’d taken an honorable discharge to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C. He’s often asked how he feels about having served a country that treated him poorly. Despite discrimination and segregation in America, it’s still the greatest country in the world, he tells them.
“I am proud to have served my country during a time of war and I am proud to be an American,” he said.