A Tuskegee Airman Remembers:
‘Fighting On Two Fronts’
By Neil Earle
(This year 2018 will be an important year in race relations with Memphis, TN gearing up for the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jrs.’s death in April. In that commmemorative spirit I was asked recently by a church leader to revive an interview I did in 2010 with one of the last famed Tuskegee Airmen, Mr. Bill Hicks, still with us at age 97.)
At age 87 (in 2010) William “Bill” Hicks has a grace-filled demeanor and approach to life that makes you want to adopt him as your special grandfather.
Bill, a deacon with the Worldwide Church of God (now GCI) congregation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is a devoted Christian and a proud father and grandfather who considers the best day in his life was when a girl named Gertrude Melton dropped into his electronic repair shop. Under the pretense of a 45-minute talk about this young girl’s battery and radio cabinet needs, Bill knew he had found his true love. “I had her address because of the repair job,” he recalls with a fondness in his voice, “so that let me ask her to be my secretary, and later my wife.”
Four children and grandchildren later, it says a lot about Bill Hicks that family matters loom as the highlight of his life. It says a lot because William “Bill” Hicks was a ground crew mechanic for the 322nd Fighter Group of the U.S. Army Air Force in World War Two, the famed “Tuskegee Airmen” or “Black Birdmen” as the Germans used to call them.
The Red Tails
Bill’s story begins in 1920, born to sharecropper parents in South Carolina who moved to Pittsburgh for greater opportunities and to escape the stifling segregation of Jim Crow America. Young Bill Hicks was one of those fortunate people who knew what he wanted very early in life. He enrolled in a Trade School in Pittsburgh and learned the fine arts of the emerging new sensation called radio. “I was working in a factory when I was drafted and sent to Sacramento, California for six months and then to Lincoln, Nebraska to learn about aircraft maintenance.” He scored so high on his tests as an aircraft electrical specialist that his application was marked with the unusual footnote “White Man.”
African-Americans desperately wanted to serve their country but racism was endemic. Not until 1948 would President Harry Truman de-segregate the armed forces. Meanwhile the U.S. Congress overcame heavy legislative lobbying to call into being a special group of pilots and air crew from the black population. The prejudice was fierce. The War Department set up requirements for flight experience and levels of education that they expected would be debilitating. The policy backfired as qualified applicants poured in, one of them young Bill Hicks. “I was sent to Illinois and then to just outside Detroit for a group called the 100th Fighter Squadron. There are three squadrons to a Group so Captain Benjamin Davis was called back from North Africa to head up the 99th squadron in Alabama.”
Davis was the son of the first black West Point graduate. He was not easily deterred by such harassments as a “scientific” report by the University of Texas which purported to show that Negroes were of too low intelligence to handle such complex operations as air combat. Why they might jeopardize the war effort!
Bill Hicks remembers the famous moment when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt specifically asked to be taken up in a plane flown by a black pilot to combat the pervasive prejudice. “The G-Men assigned to her apparently called the President to protest,” Bill remembers, “but he just said my wife is a strong-minded woman, let her go.”
Reality Trumps Legends
In spite of official harassment and rank prejudice, Colonel Davis gathered three squadrons near Booker T. Washington’s prestigious Tuskegee Institute to form the 322nd Fighter Group. In 1943 the Tuskegee flyers were sent to North Africa and after being shunted around the Wing and cut off from advanced technical instruction on the new planes, they were given their first assignment – a bombing run to prepare for the Allied invasion of Sicily. Bill Hicks was sent to the European Theatre in January, 1944 where he ended up eventually north of Foggia on the Adriatic, servicing and repairing the planes that were guiding bombers over the Alps into Hitler’s Europe.
His fondest moment in the war was doing the seemingly impossible. “We were told there were no parts for our planes because of a strike back in the U.S. but I took units out of a P-51 back to my tent. I worked it over on my bench until I knew it was ready to fly. It was tested. When our unit of seven planes returned from their mission I saw the plane I had repaired was in the lead. That made me feel good.”
Bill is aware of the legend that grew about the “Red Tails” not losing a single bomber. Extensive research published in March, 2007 claimed 25 Allied bombers shot down under Tuskegee escort. “All I know is that I never knew of our unit losing a single plane,” “Bill replies. “It is true that bomber pilots would request us as escort.”
It is established that Redtail pilots’ rate of safe returns was high. Controversy aside, the 322nd statistics are impressive enough – 15,000 sorties, 1500 missions, 109 German aircraft shot down, successfully engaging three jet aircraft over Berlin, 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses. Of the 445 deployed overseas, 150 lost their lives.
The Good Years
War over, Bill Hicks reenrolled at school. This time he would study TV engineering at Chicago’s American TV Institute. When children came along this wiry veteran jokes that he would get sicker than his wife. “She was such a good, good wife,” Bill remembers. “After she died in 1974 I never felt the need to marry again.”
Before this time his wife was getting interested in the radio voice of an unmistakable 1950s radio presence, Herbert W. Armstrong. “He had a good message,” says Bill. “Maybe because I grew up in the South where we ate squirrels and rabbits I was attracted by his stress on good diet.”
Joining a local congregation in those peaceful years helped Bill and Gertrude to raise a successful family. This includes a chemist, a pipe-fitting engineer, a dress-shop worker and a county office manager. “Every one of them is involved in God’s Work and that makes me so happy.”
Here is a warm-spirited man who has few complaints about the way his life developed. “We are proud to have Deacon Bill as a pillar in our congregation and our community,” says his pastor Tom Smith. The pervasive racism Bill Hicks experienced hasn’t come close to shaking his faith in God or man, in spite of hearing Martin Luther King once called “Martin Lucifer King” from his own church pulpit. “Honestly, the best thing to do about race prejudice is to put your head down and plough though it. Don’t listen to everything and let it get to you.” If he has a word for black youngsters today it is this: “Don’t allow all those isms to stop you. We veterans could have given up. In World War Two we fought on two fronts – one over there, and one back home.”
Interviewed on WQED Pittsburgh for a documentary on the Tuskegee Airmen, Bill Hicks emotes that gentle graciousness and warm humor that helped see him through his two-front war: “It feels fantastic to finally be a celebrity.”