Arthur W. Ward during flight training in World War II. (Photo provided by Deborah S. Ward)
By George Morris
As the United States neared its entry into World War II, the world wondered whether England would fall to German bombs or the Soviet Union would fall to Nazi troops.
For much of black America, though, attention focused on the small, East Alabama town of Tuskegee. There, a racial barrier was falling.
Of blacks’ numerous contributions to Allied victory, perhaps none is as compelling as the story of the Tuskegee Airmen. Resisted by the American military at home and enemies abroad, they advanced the civil rights struggle in an area where many doubted they could succeed — in the skies.
Although the airmen’s names are seldom mentioned in war history, Baton Rouge resident Arthur W. Ward knows them well. Ward, a retired Southern University professor, went through wartime pilot training there.
“At the time that I arrived at Tuskegee, they had the first class to graduate,” Ward said. “Among that group, (Daniel) ‘Chappie’ James was one of them and so was B.O. Davis Jr. Both of them became generals in the Air Force.”
Their success was unthinkable before World War II. Despite the development of military aviation after World War I, there were no blacks in the Army Air Corps. Blacks were limited to two cavalry regiments and two infantry regiments and made up less than 2 percent of the Army as late as 1937.
That year, with the threat of war growing, the War Department drew up mobilization plans that included increased black participation. However, there were no plans to include blacks in the Army Air Corps, even on a segregated basis.
According to the 1994 book “Double V: The Civil Rights Struggle of the Tuskegee Airmen” by Lawrence Scott and William Womack, the Air Corps subverted congressional efforts to integrate the Air Corps. Congress funded civilian schools to train black pilots, but the Army Air Corps routinely turned down black applicants, saying there were no black units to assign them to.
Black leaders pressured President Franklin Roosevelt and Congress to change this practice. In 1941, the Air Corps announced it would build a training site for black pilots at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Black mechanics and other airplane specialists were trained in Illinois. Initial plans were for training 33 black pilots for a pursuit squadron.
Black leaders objected to the segregation, especially to building a separate black facility when adequate training fields already existed. They also protested the fact that so few black pilots would be trained at a time when the Army was lamenting a pilot shortage. But it was a start.
Training began in June 1941 and was highlighted that year by a visit from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. To dispel the popular notion that blacks could not be capable pilots, she arranged for a black pilot to fly her around the field in one of the training planes. A photo of her posing with the pilot was published in papers throughout the country.
Among the first trainees selected was Benjamin O. Davis Jr., who was the first black West Point graduate of the 20th Century and the son of the only black general, Benjamin Davis Sr. Davis had applied to the Air Corps previously but had been rejected. When 33 black pilots finished training in September 1942, Lt. Col. Davis became commander of the 99th Pursuit Squadron.
The 99th went to North Africa, Sicily and Italy. Its performance encouraged the formation of other fighter squadrons, and the Air Corps — now called the U.S. Army Air Forces — began training bomber crews, too.
Ward, a student at Kansas State Teachers College, passed the aviation cadet test but received a deferment in November 1942. He was called to duty in March 1943 and, after basic training at Keesler Field in Biloxi, Miss., reported to Tuskegee for five months of college work and nine months of pilot training.
The Tuskegee Army Air Field was about 13 miles from the college campus, Ward said. Each month, 60 cadets reported for training. Along with mechanical and support personnel, Tuskegee was a beehive of activity, albeit a segregated one.
“I didn’t see any whites except some instructors on the base who were white,” Ward said. “We didn’t have any whites on the base, and I think they lived somewhere else — in town, perhaps.”
Segregation affected the base in other ways. Since Tuskegee’s pilots would fly only in all-black units, positions were limited. Only a certain number of graduates were allowed.
Two weeks before Ward’s class was to graduate in May 1944, 45 of the 60 cadets remained in the program. Since the monthly graduation quota was about 20, Ward said, trainers began rapidly “washing out” cadets in his class. Although Ward had passed his instrument flight test, he was called to take it again.
The test required Ward to put on glasses that allowed him to look only at the instruments. From a height of 4,000 to 5,000 feet, he had to rely on instruments to return to the airfield. He was required to have the airplane at 300 feet when he reached the runway.
“I was about 15, 20 or 30 feet to the right of the edge of the runway,” Ward said. “I was at 300 feet but I was over the grass. They didn’t like that, so they scheduled me for another instrument check. The same thing happened. I wasn’t in the center of the runway, so that’s why they eliminated me.”
Ward received the option of being trained as a navigator or bombardier, but declined and joined a regular Army unit. He was in the Philippines when the war ended. Ward said he soon got over the disappointment.
“That probably saved my life,” Ward said. “A lot of the fellows were killed.”
Ward left the Army in 1945 and worked for a while at a Kansas City airport. That gave him his only postwar flying opportunity.
“There was a white fellow that had an AT-6,” Ward said. “He was parking it and … I asked him if he flew very much. He said, ‘Oh,yes, this is my business. It’s the only way I can get back home.’ He was building grain elevators.”
The man agreed to let Ward accompany him on a trip to Fort Wayne,Ind., and let Ward take the controls until it was time to land.
“I didn’t fly any more after that,” Ward said. “I thought about crop-dusting, because they used to fly the TC-17, which was the same plane I used to fly in the service. Of course, being a minority, they probably wouldn’t have hired me down there in Arkansas and Texas.”
Instead, Ward returned to school, eventually earning a doctorate. He taught at Southern University from 1955 until retiring in 1990. He died Jan. 11, 2017, in Florissant, Missouri.