by Elizabeth Canning Blackwell
Although it ended more than 60 years ago, World War II continues to be a defining American event, commemorated in Hollywood movies such as Saving Private Ryan and, most recently, Ken Burns' miniseries The War. Like other veterans, William Loving (CB54) is proud of his military service. But in his case that pride takes on an added dimension: As one of the Tuskegee Airmen, he helped prove to the country that African Americans deserved the same opportunities for military service as whites.
Loving's experiences highlight the war's great irony: Even as the United States fought for freedom overseas, the government denied freedom to some troops because of their skin color. Black servicemen were given menial duties such as cooking and cleaning, and troops were segregated in separate camps and mess halls. Under pressure to admit African Americans to all lines of service, the military set up an experimental aviation training program at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama. The graduates of the program — known today as the Tuskegee Airmen — served as fighter pilots, gunners and navigators overseas and in training missions in the United States.
"A Tuskegee Airman was considered a man overseas, but a boy back in America," says Ron Brewington, public relations officer for the nonprofit group Tuskegee Airmen Inc., based in Arlington, Va. "They had to overcome the ignorance of a country that didn't understand blacks could fly an airplane."
In 1922, the year William Loving was born, his father worked as a chauffeur for a family in the village of Oak Park (the Chicago suburb made famous as the home of Frank Lloyd Wright and birthplace of Ernest Hemingway). "The hospital in Oak Park wouldn't treat colored people," says Loving, "so my father had to drive my mother to a hospital in Chicago." Loving grew up in the city and graduated from Hyde Park High School in 1940.
After graduation Loving worked for a wholesale jeweler in Chicago, addressing envelopes ("I answered an ad in the newspaper looking for a young man with neat handwriting," he says), and attended college classes at night. He also joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps reserves, where he was trained to repair radios.
One evening in early December 1941, his class was interrupted by someone who rushed in and announced that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. "We all stood up and sang 'The Star-Spangled Banner,'" Loving remembers.
As a member of the reserves, Loving was called into service with the Army and sent to Salt Lake City for basic training. Given an unchallenging job forwarding mail — and later working as a supply clerk — Loving dreamed of bigger things. Hoping to become a pilot, he took the Army Air Forces exam for aviation cadets and passed. Before he could begin aviation training, he was sent to the Tuskegee Institute to take college courses in subjects such as math and science. "That was the best time of my life," Loving says with a smile. "All the boys had gone into the service, so it was a campus full of girls."
After completing his courses Loving was sent to Tuskegee Army Air Field for preflight training, beginning his affiliation with the Tuskegee Airmen. His regimen was extensive: He traveled to Florida for gunnery school, where he trained as a nose gunner in a B-24 bomber. "I was too big to fit in the turrets," he says, "so I sat behind a Plexiglas shield in the very front of the plane, with two 50-caliber machine guns. It was exciting."
In Texas he trained as an aerial navigator and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army, then went to bombardier school, where he helped train Chinese nationalist cadets by observing them on bombing runs.
Then came a bureaucratic mix-up that brought home a sobering reality. Loving, along with seven other African American officers, was mistakenly classified as white and transferred to the Air Transport Command at Wright and Patterson fields (the two fields later merged to become Wright-Patterson Air Force Base) near Dayton. "They didn't want us there," Loving remembers. "All we did was fly just enough hours to get our pay — they didn't assign us any other duties. When we went into the officers' mess hall, none of the white officers wanted to sit with us. They wanted to keep us segregated. So one day, we went in, and each of us sat at a different table. In order to eat, the white officers had to sit with us."
After a few months, Loving and his fellow African American officers were transferred to the Army Air Forces 477th Medium Bombardment Group at Godman Field in Fort Knox, Ky. Although the group was never called to active duty overseas, Loving and the bomber crews flew numerous training missions and performed at air shows. "We were showcased," says Loving. "We would land at different bases, and the black soldiers would be brought out to meet us. We wanted to show that there were black airmen who did everything the white airmen did."
When Japan surrendered, Loving and his crew were in California on maneuvers. "On our way back home," Loving says, "we flew through a rainbow that was a complete circle. I've never seen anything like that before." That rainbow remains his clearest memory of the end of the war.
After earning a bachelor's degree in business administration from Northwestern in 1954 on the Chicago campus, Loving took education courses at the Evanston campus in order to receive a teaching certificate. He taught high school accounting in the Chicago Public Schools for 25 years, retiring in 1993.
Today Loving lives in Glencoe, Ill., a few miles north of the Evanston campus, with his wife, Christine. They have been married for 40 years and have four children between them (two daughters from her first marriage and a son and daughter from Loving's first marriage).
Loving didn't leave aviation behind completely. After the war he served in the Air Force Reserve, eventually reaching the rank of captain and flying in and out of what is now Chicago O'Hare International Airport, where his son would often come to meet him. Loving's son — also named William — is now a pilot for US Airways, for which he flies overseas routes out of Philadelphia.
The fact that an African American can work as a pilot for a major airline is in part a legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen. "After the war the first major move toward desegregation in American institutions happened in the military," says Martha Biondi, associate professor of African American studies and of history. "The Tuskegee Airmen demonstrated the heroism, courage and skill of African American military pilots. Pro-segregation white congressmen had tried to block their assignment overseas, questioning their capacity and intelligence. But the Tuskegee Airmen performed brilliantly and won numerous awards and medals. As war heroes who returned to face segregated America with a new resolve and determination to fight, they paved the way for the modern civil rights movement."
On March 29, 2007, about 300 Tuskegee Airmen were honored in Washington, D.C., where the group was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. "It was a grand ceremony," says Loving. "I saw some of the pilots I'd flown with, people I hadn't seen since the 1940s. We recognized each other right away. It was emotional, seeing everyone."
Loving remains involved with a Tuskegee veterans group in Chicago. Their legacy lives on, he says, through the Young Eagles program, an initiative to introduce children to the world of powered flight. "The Tuskegee Airmen are still flying," he says. "I know five or six guys who own their own planes, and they take up boys and girls who have never flown. They carry on the tradition."
Elizabeth Canning Blackwell (C90) is a freelance writer in Skokie, Ill.
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