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Archive for Monday, February 23, 1998

WWII PILOT SOARED ABOVE RACISM

February 23, 1998

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A Tuskegee Airman who lives in Lawrence recalls the battle against racism that almost prevented the World War II pilots from taking wing.

On July 19, 1949, the engine on Allan Patterson's crop duster cut out as he flew above the grain bins of North Lawrence. He crashed into four gasoline storage tanks near Sixth and Locust and amazingly walked away with barely a scratch.

Thing is, though, he had already been scarred for life.

During World War II, Patterson was hurt by closed minds and vile thoughts and words, the kind that tore at his skin every day he took a breath or walked a step in Tuskegee, Ala.

``It was the way the people treated you down in that area,'' said Patterson, 72, Lawrence. ``We couldn't go in the front doors to get something to eat. It was real tough down there. ...

``I get mad every time I hear the word Tuskegee.''

Patterson was one of more than 900 U.S. Army Air Force personnel to train at the air base in Tuskegee, home of the Tuskegee Institute, founded in 1881 on behalf of blacks by Booker T. Washington.

Patterson was there for three months in late 1943. During that time, his friend James Jones was beaten half to death by white men who had found out he was dating a local white woman.

``It wasn't easy,'' Patterson said.

Overseas it was another story. Known as the Tuskegee Airmen -- the Germans called them "Schwartze Volgelmenschen,'' or black birdmen -- the group of navigators and pilots never lost a bomber during their missions in Europe.

Despite this awe-inspiring record, their acts were relegated to relative historical obscurity until the 1972 establishment of Tuskegee Airmen Inc., a nonmilitary and nonprofit national institute based in Detroit.

``The sad fact remains that there's a dearth of information on black World War II veterans,'' said Chico Herbison, Kansas University lecturer in African and African-American studies.

In 1995, renewed interest in their heroics brought about an HBO movie, ``The Tuskegee Airmen.''

Their experiences occurred more than a decade before Martin Luther King Jr. would lead the famous boycott in Montgomery, Ala., and they helped lay the foundation for the nonviolent civil rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s.

Today, Patterson has no idea ``how the hell we made it through all that.''

Still alive

After graduating from Lawrence High in 1941, Patterson was drafted into the Navy. He departed for Port Chicago in California in late 1942, where several weeks later more than 400 sailors would die in an ammunition explosion.

Although he and friend Arthur Thompson were miles away playing for the Port Chicago baseball team at the time of the explosion, they and a number of black men were linked to it and thrown in the brig. During their 176-day stay, Marines would often wake them up with billy clubs to the stomach.

They would say, ``You colored boys got no business being here,'' Patterson said. ``I don't know how the hell I'm still alive.''

They were given a choice: dishonorable discharge or transfer to Tuskegee. Needless to say, they chose the latter.

Life on the base in Tuskegee was fine, but life in town was not. Even when in dress uniform, Patterson and his colleagues had to step off the sidewalk when a white woman walked by.

``One of the greatest ironies of the training of African-American soldiers during World War II was that so much of it took place in the south,'' Herbison said. ``A significant number of the white officers who led them were southern. That would kind of exacerbate any tensions that were there.''

It was, after all, the rural South, where people were accustomed to seeing African-Americans behind a plow rather than in an airplane cockpit.

``I think, for a lot of southern Americans, it was beyond them,'' said Herbison, whose father fought in World War II, and who is working on a dissertation focusing on black soldiers in that era.

Patterson got so fed up with the treatment in Tuskegee that he urinated in the ``white'' drinking fountain -- an act of defiance that prompted his friends to call him crazy.

But after 120 hours of flight training, Patterson was sent to Saipan, Guadalcanal and Guam. In all, Patterson flew a red-tailed P-51 Mustang in more than 100 missions.

Mutiny against racism

In addition to their midair acts of bravery, men who trained at Tuskegee were involved in the famous ``Freeman Field mutiny'' in 1945 on an air base in Indiana.

More than 100 African-American U.S. Army Air Force officers tried to gain entry into the segregated officers club. They were arrested and court martialed, but their actions contributed to President Harry Truman's 1948 executive decision to end segregation in the military.

The accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen, Herbison said, mirrored those of Navajo Indians who worked as code-breakers, and the Japanese-Americans who made up the 442nd regimental combat unit. They fought while their families were in internment camps, and were the most highly decorated unit in the military.

``Here's a country that has rejected these people in every way, but they want to prove their American-ness,'' Herbison said.

Patterson was honorably discharged in January 1946, and returned to Lawrence, where racism also had taken root.

For instance, African-Americans were relegated to a separate movie theater, ``The Crow's Nest,'' and there were protests on Massachusetts Street after a police officer shot and killed an African-American boy.

Patterson and his friend John Stanfield wanted to enroll in aeronautical engineering at KU. But they were told the field just wasn't open to black men.

So Patterson took a job as a crop duster, until the 1949 crash.

In 1950, he went to work for Santa Fe Railroad in Topeka as a welder and car inspector. He retired in 1978, and still lives in his boyhood home in North Lawrence.

Patterson has been content to watch the gradual erosion of overt racism in America. And to this day, more than five decades after Tuskegee, he doesn't understand ``why they couldn't accept us colored guys in the service.''

-- Matt Gowen's phone message number is 832-7222. His e-mail address is gowen@ljworld.com.

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