Road blocks don't end at the front gate
May 24, 2012
In late 1942, a young serviceman was riding a bus through downtown Montgomery, Alabama with some friends. When the bus came to a stop at a red light on Cleveland Avenue, the man spotted a lovely young woman waiting to catch the next bus. He was so taken by her beauty, even as his friends teased him; he mustered all the courage he could to introduce himself. So with his hopes high, he decided to get off the bus to meet her.
After a conversation at the bus stop, the two exchanged addresses with plans to meet up again. Seventy years after that seemingly random encounter, they are still together.
Given the context of the times, the U.S. having been newly thrust into World War II, this spontaneous action doesn't really sound like anything too far out of the ordinary. However, what makes this version of the classic love tale a little different is that the hero of the story was George Watson, Sr., one of the original Tuskegee Airmen and the courage he showed that day was just a sample of his true temperament. Such temperament was a factor for Watson and the rest of the airmen, as they navigated their way through the adversity set before them.
When telling stories about his time spent in Alabama, Watson's eyes lit up and a big smile crossed his face. His vivid memories spawned story after story of a different time in America and the world.
"I fell in love with Alabama," Watson said, "because I met my wife down there and I enjoyed it down there. Alabama is a pretty place."
Watson served as a supply and administrative clerk for the 366th Air Service Squadron in Tuskegee, Alabama, which directly supported the 332nd Fighter Group of the U.S. Army Air Corps. Along with Watson, the service group consisted of welders, parachute riggers, mechanics, cooks and many other members which allowed the 332nd FG to earn the "Presidential Unit Citation" for the successful famed mission to Berlin and back in 1945.
Watson said that at the time, he and his compatriots didn't fully understand how their involvement in the experiment would impact the war, not to mention the social change that would occur as a result.
"What was on my mind at the time, was to make money," said Watson. "My father passed away, I had three brothers and I was the oldest one. My mother was scrubbing floors to make money and she was depending on me."
In spite of segregation, unfair treatment and even "scientific evidence" in 1925 War College of the United States issued a memorandum stating Negroes were inferior, had smaller brains and simply could not operate complex machinery, let alone be effective combat pilots, the Tuskegee Airmen exceeded the expectations many people had of the fighter group, according to Watson.
The men and women involved in the Tuskegee experiment, both pilots and ground support crews proved themselves by maintaining the sophisticated aircraft and flying hundreds of successful missions. In the process this helped turn the tide of the war and changing the military forever, as detailed in Watson's book, "A Salute to: The Beginning."
Unfortunately, the roadblocks did not end at the front gate. Watson explained, the first class to complete training only graduated 5 out of 13 cadets, of which 4 of the "failures" already had their pilot's license prior to enlisting. The following class had even fewer graduates.
Watson said, after involvement from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Negro Press and the President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the classes began to graduate more cadets. Tuskegee became the only Army installation to include the entire pilot training program at a single location. Watson said he feels this allowed for the airmen to receive more streamlined and consistent training and gave him more opportunities than he would have had moving from base to base.
Watson beamed with pride when he spoke about how he strived to achieve all that he could in order to prove to himself, his family and his soon-to-be wife that he could do anything he set out to do.
"During my time in Alabama, I went from being a Private to a Tech. Sergeant in less than a year," Watson said. "Because I did my job well and I volunteered for everything. I was always in the limelight."
Off post encounters were sometimes just as daunting as the military training for the airmen. The airmen were required to wear their uniform at all times and some local civilians attempted to incite poor behavior from the recruits by spitting on them and starting fights, just to keep them away from town, Watson recalled while shaking his head.
Watson said, in order to avoid any more conflict than necessary from such trouble makers, the airmen would often cross to the other side of the street when crossing paths with groups of locals.
"Even the old sheriff used to come around and try to get the men in trouble, even when we weren't doing anything," explained Watson.
Even with all of the hardships that these men had to endure, both relating to racial prejudice and the war in general, a positive attitude was an important asset for them to have. With a smile, Watson said it was comradery and sense of humor that helped the airmen through the difficult times and kept their heads up toward that very sky where they tested their mettle and showed the world what they were made of.
"When you dwell on negative things," Watson said when speaking of the difficult time at war while being so far away from his loved ones, "it'll weigh you down. I've been through a lot of negative things. I make a lot of jokes and that is what kept a lot of the Tuskegee Airmen going."
By throwing caution to the wind and jumping off of a bus in an unfamiliar town that day, Watson set into motion the path his life would follow for the next seven decades. Being deployed overseas during wartime was difficult, but Watson said having a loving woman waiting back home gave him the best reason of all to persevere and return home safely.