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Becoming a Tuskegee Airman

Leslie Williams is one of the few remaining Tuskegee airmen of World War II.  For those who are unfamiliar with Tuskegee airmen, they were the first African-American military aviators in the United States armed forces who fought during World War II.  George Lucas recently produced a movie called “Red Tails”—the nickname for this brave group of men.

ICareVillage had the opportunity to film Leslie in his home south of San Francisco, CA.  Here he shared a tale of drive, hope and passion.  Below is a partial transcript from this inspiring interview. 

As I told you I was interested in becoming pilot, but for anyone to become a pilot you had to volunteer. You were not drafted as a pilot. You were drafted as an infantry man.  You had to volunteer for the Air Corp. And so I said I’ll have to apply for the Air Corp. before the draft letter comes and try to get in there before I am drafted and prohibited from becoming a pilot. So I went to the to Air Corp. recruiting station in San Francisco with three of my other friends.  There was a small section of San Mateo that was colored but most of my friends were white. So I went with them.  We took all of the tests and I passed.  We were told to go back to San Mateo to wait for the letter that would get you into the Air Corp.  Well… the white applicants were called almost instantly. I was never called. But I was naive.  I thought I would be and so I did not do much about it.  In the meantime here comes the draft letter.  The draft letter beat the Air Corp. letter. And I saw this letter—a very formal looking envelope and I didn’t have to guess that that was the draft letter. I KNEW it was the draft letter.  Everyone knew what a draft letter looked like. And so I didn’t open it. I said “That’s a draft letter and all of my dreams of becoming a pilot are gone if they draft me.”   By that time I had learned enough about dancing from this San Francisco teacher to teach dancing.  So I had started to teach dancing in San Mateo. I had quite a nice following. And I had a little storefront studio where I was just getting started with dancing, but when that letter came I closed that studio.  I stopped right then and there.  That was the last day I was ever in my studio.

Leslie was determined to follow his dream of becoming a pilot. 

There were - and are - separate black papers. We called them colored at that time. And I was reading one of the most popular black papers called the Pittsburgh Courier and it had articles in there about black youth being accepted for Air Corp. training.  And I read the articles and the article said, or at least I thought it said they were being trained in Illinois at a place named Chanute Field. 

Leslie traversed the country with his brother Barney to find Chanute Field in Illinois but when they got there they discovered that they were in the wrong place. 

Those who wanted to become pilots were down in Alabama at a place called Tuskegee learning how to become pilots.  And we were miles from where we should have been.  The officer felt sorry for us because we were definitely not in the right place and so he said “I will give you the test here and if you pass I will send you a letter letting you know that you are invited to the Air Corp. So we both took the test.  We both passed everything except my brother did not pass the physical. He had a stone in his kidney and they wouldn’t take it.

The officer instructed the brothers to go back and wait for the letter.   Barney didn’t want to stay in Illinois and so he gave Leslie all of his money and an overcoat to stay and fight the cold of winter.  The officer instructed Leslie to go back to California as well.

“The next step is to see if you get the letter but you can’t wait for it here on the field.”  So I said o.k. and all along the way you are going to find that prejudice is an important role in my little story. Now in the army in those days any colored troops that wanted to be in the army were treated separately.  They could not sleep with white soldiers, they could not play any recreation with what white soldiers did, they had to eat in a separate location and in other words when you are black you have to get back.  Ok?  So I said well there must be a black area where all these people eat and sleep because that’s the rule and I’m sure it is not close by and it wasn’t. 

Chanute Field is an airfield with runways. Leslie guessed that the barracks farthest from the entrance must be the barracks for the blacks and he found that he was right.

So I went over there and after I was told I had to leave and asked the colored Sargent in charge of these guys if I could stay here, he said, “No you are a civilian. ” I said “Well nobody has to know that. And so he said “What if someone comes by here and sees you in civilian clothes?” and I said “I can hide, it’s going to be easy to see them coming across the white field.  They’ll have to get in a jeep way over there and then drive over to where we are which is at least 5 minutes. Somebody is going to see them and warn me and then I’ll go hide.”  And so it worked out fine.

Leslie was able to stay with the soldiers for about 3 weeks until he was discovered and escorted off the base. 

Where could I go?  Not very far.   The nearest city was Chicago so I hitchhiked to Chicago from Chanute Field and I became a street person.  At the same time I was becoming a draft dodger because I wasn’t going to tell them where I was in Chicago. And so when I went to Chicago it was cold. I met some of the nicest people I have ever met on the street.  They would tell me, “Get a job where there is food. ” That is number one.  Number two: “Try to find someplace where you can stay for little or no money.” And I found some places that charged fifteen cents a night for a room. And I’d rent those places but I never took off my clothes. I slept in my clothes because it was such a dangerous atmosphere that I wanted to be able to leave in a hurry and not have to leave some clothes behind.  So i did that for awhile. And I got me some jobs in restaurants.  Some I worked just for the food.   Some I worked for a meager salad.  But I wasn’t getting anywhere. I wasn’t making any money. Anything I made I had to give it all up.  But I said “look I’m a dancer. Why don’t I send a letter to my mom and have her send me my dancing clothes and dancing shoes and maybe I can get better jobs.”  And I did!  And she sent them. And I’d go to these clubs in Chicago—and said “I don’t want you to pay me anything. I just want a chance to get out on that floor and dance and try to get the audience to throw tips for my services. ” And one or two agreed to do that.  Then things got a lot better. A lot better.

Leslie worked many nightclubs including a trek to Indianapolis at the Sunset Terrace.  Tiny Bradshaw was the orchestra leader at the time. 

I thought I was safe but I wasn’t safe because one morning I was sleeping and I heard a knock on the door.  It was the postman.  He said “Are you Leslie Williams?” I said “Yes” and let him him. “What can I do for you?” “Here”.  He gave me a letter.  It was just like the letter I got at home.  It was a draft letter. I didn’t open it but he said before he left  “Now I have delivered this letter to you. I am duty bound as a government worker to tell the army recruiting station that I have delivered this letter to you. And after that it is up to you.  You can either go down to the draft board in Indianapolis or you can go to San Mateo and get drafted. ” And so I said “I’ll take San Mateo” 

Leslie knew that this would buy him another 2-3 weeks. And so he did return to San Mateo and he was drafted to the First Avenue Containment in Seattle.  His dreams of becoming a pilot were once again shot. 

When the blacks went into the service most of them did not even get a gun because they had to do janitorial work, stevedore , cooking, bus boy, those kinds of things. Very demeaning.  I’m sure some blacks went through the whole war without even seeing a gun. So when I got drafted and they gave me my uniform in Monterrey, they also gave me a train ticket to Seattle. I got involved with these men.  There were 500 in the post. Almost everyone of them without exception were from Arkansas. There were about ten of us from California which meant that there were about ten of us that could read and write. 

Anyone who got a check for the army had to sign for them. The men from Arkansas could sign their checks with an “x” and eventually the commanding officer put Leslie in charge of managing the check distribution to his fellow soldiers.  He had to recognize the “x” signatures for each of the 500 men. 

I was in charge of these guys and they turned out to be good soldiers.  I still had ambitions to become a dancer some day.  It turns out some of the soldiers had professional entertainers in them…We found out that there was enough of us to make a little orchestra.  Some of us could sing and entertain in downtown Seattle—lions club, rotary club, those kinds of associations and they loved it.  Up in Seattle they was a man named Henry Kaiser and he made ships. He made war ships and he made transport ships. He was in the ship building business and he made them up in Seattle and every time they produced a new one they would have a party for all of the politicians in the area and the governors, the mayors and admirals, generals and all of that.  And he would throw a party. We were chosen for dancing and to put on little shows for them.   We did about 4 of them. One night we were taking a break on the music stand and we saw this general approaching band stand and we jumped up.  We stood at attention. And he said, “Relax, take it easy, I just came to tell you how much I enjoyed your dancing music, entertainment. I loved it.  I also loved the way you carried yourselves. Now I want to do something for your behavior and your service. All you need to do is tell me what you want to be.

Leslie raised his hand and said “General, I want to be a pilot.”

The very next day Leslie did not have to stand in line.  He was on a train to Tuskegee to pursue his dream of becoming a Tuskegee Airman.