Remember: nearly 1,000 pilots and some 14,000 personnel served as Tuskegee Airmen between 1941 and 1949. These brief profiles explore the lives of only a select few. There are many more Tuskegee Airmen stories to learn!
Pilots and Crews Faced Racism at Home and Stood Up for Their Rights
Roger “Bill” Terry (1921-2009)
Roger “Bill” Terry was born in Los Angeles, California. Earning an athletic scholarship to UCLA, he graduated from the university at age 19, and joined the Army to train at the Tuskegee Airfield in Alabama. There, he earned his silver pilot’s wings in 1945, becoming a second lieutenant.
After Terry and his 477th Bombardment Group were transferred to Freeman Field in Indiana, the aspiring pilot became one of the most visible participants in an incident that would spark social change in the military and, ultimately, the nation at large. In an effort to maintain a de facto segregated base, two officers’ clubs were established at Freeman Field – one for officer instructors, and one for officer trainees. White officers were classified as instructors, while Black officers were classified as trainees.
Unwilling to accept such an unjust rule, Terry and dozens of other Black officers decided to enact a form of civil disobedience by forgoing orders and entering the white instructors club on April 5, 1945. As a result, 101 Black officers were ultimately arrested, with Terry being the lone Airman convicted for “jostling” a white officer while entering the club. He was fined $150, reduced in rank and dishonorably discharged from the Army in late 1945.
Returning to Los Angeles, Terry entered Southwestern Law School and earned a law degree in 1949, landing a role as an investigator with the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office.
Finally, in 1995, Terry received an official pardon from the Army for his conviction at Freeman Field, 50 years after he had challenged racist segregation on an Army base. The incident at Freeman Field led the way toward integration of the U.S. military in 1948, and played a role in the larger civil rights movement and fight against social injustice in the decades that followed.
It was a good feeling to be vindicated, because that showed we were a country of laws, that sooner or later you can be vindicated, if you’re right.
Mal Whitfield (1924-2015)
As a boy in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, Mal Whitfield snuck into the L.A. Coliseum to watch the 1932 Olympics. He was enraptured by track and field, especially Eddie Tolan, an African-American sprinter who won two gold medals that year.
Whitfield’s sister owned the historic Clark Hotel in Los Angeles, where the young man worked as a shoeshine and had the chance to meet another famous Black runner, Jesse Owens. He’d later become Whitfield’s mentor, bringing him into the running program at Ohio State University.
During World War II, Whitfield took on a new mission, joining the 477th Bombardment Group of the Tuskegee Airmen. As a member of a bomber crew, he continued to run in his off time. Still in the military, Whitfield entered the 1948 London Olympics, winning two gold medals (800 meters and 4×400 meter relay) and one bronze (400 meters), becoming the first African-American active duty serviceman to win an Olympic gold.
During the war in Korea, Whitfield flew combat missions as a tail gunner, staying in shape by running the tarmac of his airbase. In 1952, he returned to the Olympics in Helsinki, Finland, winning another gold in the 800 meters and a silver medal 4×400 meter relay. In 1954, Whitfield became the first Black athlete to win the James E. Sullivan Award from the Amateur Athletic Union.
Later recruited by the U.S. State Department, Whitfield trained in the U.S. foreign service becoming a career U.S. diplomat. For decades he used his sports skills in peace-keeping and diplomatic efforts around the world. His postings took him from the Middle East to Africa to Asia. In Africa especially, he trained generations of athletes, and helped foster the inclusion of African runners in world sports. Whitfield was recognized by more than one American President, and was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1974.
Don’t wait for things to happen. Make it happen.
Les Williams (1920-2015)
Leslie “Les” Williams lived an incredible, eclectic life. Battling prejudice to fly B-25 bombers as a captain with the Tuskegee Airmen, Williams fought in the skies and at home for equality among his military peers. After World War II, his dreams of becoming a commercial airline pilot were dashed, but Williams refused to let prejudice define him or accept society’s limitations, pivoting to a career as an accomplished tap dancer and later an attorney.
Dancing was Williams’ first love. After graduating high school, Williams opened his own dance studio in his hometown of San Mateo, California, to help fund his college tuition. He kept the business going even after graduating from San Mateo Junior College in 1939. But after the attack on Pearl Harbor, recognizing it was a matter of time before he would be drafted, he enlisted with the Army Air Corps hoping to avoid the fate of the brave soldiers who returned from service in the infantry with permanent battle scars and impediments. “I didn’t want to lose my ability to dance,” Williams said. “I’d rather crash and die. Better than losing limbs.”
While training at the Freeman Field base in Indiana, Williams was among the Black officers who staged a protest after they were barred from the white officers’ club, In the spring of 1945, Williams and other Black officers rallied against their exclusion.
After the war ended, Williams left the Army in 1947—just one year before it was desegregated—and returned to his hometown and his studio. For 30 years, he shared his passion for tap dancing with his students, counting NFL Hall of Famer Lynn Swann among them. It was a fitting contribution for Williams, who also crossed paths with famed major-league baseball player Jackie Robinson, and was the cousin of Olympic Gold Medalist Archie Williams, who won the 400 meters in the 1936 Berlin games. Never one to turn away from a challenge, at the age of 50 he graduated from Stanford Law School and began a second career as an attorney.
We told each other, ‘we’re going to be the best.’ We stuck with that, and helped each other.
Mitchell Lewis Higginbotham (1942-2016)
Growing up in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, Mitchell Louis Higginbotham built model airplanes in his teenage years and developed an interest in aviation. After the United States entered World War II, he volunteered for the service in 1942.
Hearing about new efforts to train African-Americans as military pilots, he applied to the program. Initially, Higginbotham studied to become a flight trainer. He later recalled that moving to the American South for training was a “traumatic” experience adjusting to the levels of racial segregation. By early 1945, Higginbotham had chosen to be assigned with 477th Bombardment Group. He’d felt the opportunity to fly multi-engine aircraft would present more opportunities to find civilian work as an airline pilot after the war.
First stationed at Godman Field, Kentucky, Higginbotham and his fellow pilots had received word from others in the unit to expect trouble upon their transfer to Freeman Field, Indiana. White commanders there were racially segregating the officers’ club, an act that violated Army regulations. “We decided to take a stand right there and then,” Higginbotham later explained. He was among the Black officers arrested for refusing to accept the rule, and was later released.
Higginbotham left active duty in 1946, and remained on inactive reserve for many years. As most Black pilots were unable to enter the commercial airline field, he continued his education, earning a master’s degree in labor relations. Late in life, Higginbotham worked with school children to help learn the Tuskegee Airmen story and consulted on Lucasfilm’s Red Tails.
It didn’t enter our minds what the consequences might be. We just knew that it was something we couldn’t stomach any longer. It was a culmination of many other humiliating and demeaning situations that we had and we’d just had enough of it.