Standing on the shoulders of giants

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Dave Mason
  • 490th Missile Squadron commander
As you know, last week marked the beginning of Black History Month, an annual celebration that has existed since 1926 when it was only a week long and known as Negro History Week. This is an important time of year for all Americans, not just Black Americans, as we pause to honor the contributions of African-American pioneers who helped shape our great society and influence our way of life. 

In gathering my thoughts to draft this article, I thought I would expand upon this year's theme of "From Slavery to Freedom ... A History of Africans in the Americas," and highlight the contributions of African- American service members that helped defend America's freedoms and were instrumental in building a better way of life. 

"Standing on the Shoulders of Giants," honors our forefathers that were very influential in transforming a once segregated military into one that is at the forefront in providing opportunity to all its members. I can proudly say that I am able to serve with you today in this capacity because of the courage, commitment and service of African-American pioneers from years past. 

Pioneers like my grandfather, Jefferson Davis "J.D." Hayes. He was an Army veteran who served proudly for four years during the World War I era. I'm not exactly sure if granddad served in theater and I'm not exactly sure what his core specialty was, but what I am sure of is for four years, granddad served in the Army during a period when our country was clearly divided between black and white. Social inequities ran rampant throughout mostly every community on the home front. But despite the suffering, African-American males fought the biases to establish themselves as equals in hopes of being afforded the opportunity to fight the enemy and defend America's freedoms. 

The blacks that served during that period were assigned to segregated units and saw very little combat. Granddad didn't talk much about his time in the service, at least to me anyway. 

What I remember about granddad is he was a very proud man and a person of great conviction and integrity. If he told you he was going to do something, he did it no matter how large the task. He would always let me drive the tractor at age 6, and gave me my own small piece of his many acres of land so I could plant peanuts or grow watermelons. He was a successful entrepreneur, growing crops like tobacco, pepper and eggplant, and had a least two dozen people working for him at any given time. His employees absolutely loved working for him, and loved me as well, because I was the boss' grandson. But what stands out the most with me, and more now than ever before, is granddad was a military veteran and his service to our country helped blaze a trail for many service members to follow, me in particular. Mom still has a poster-size picture of him in uniform placed neatly on a wall at home and every time I look at that photo, I try to envision what it was like to serve during those times. 

History teaches us participation in the military was difficult for African-American soldiers during that era. While American policy was geared towards making the world safer for democracy abroad, our very own communities at home were unsafe for people of color and the fight for equality was truly neglected. Black servicemen were assigned to segregated units and were ordered to perform what we would consider menial tasks. Out of the 380,000 black soldiers, only 42,000 saw combat. For those that were afforded the opportunity to command, they only led black units. There were few opportunities to prove themselves, but when those opportunities came knocking, African-Americans stood tall and answered. 

Take for instance the 369th Infantry Regiment, also known as the "Harlem Hellfighters." The Hellfighters earned their reputation as a vicious warrior for any adversary to encounter. Because there was no official combat role for black soldiers during this period, Gen. John J. "Black Jack" Pershing assigned the unit to the French Army. In 191 days of intense frontline fighting in some of the bloodiest battles of the war such as Chateau Thierry and Belleau Wood, the Hellfighters never had any men captured or any ground taken by the Germans. As a result of their valiant efforts, the French Army awarded the entire regiment the French War Cross. The performance of these warriors helped tremendously in improving the reputation of Black Americans as very capable fighters even though it did not do much to change the perception at home. 

Another unit worthy of note is the "Triple Nickel" 555th Parachute Infantry Company. The unit was started during World War II and became the first black airborne unit. It was uncommon for African- Americans to attend jump school during this period so these men had to prove their merit in some of the more austere conditions imaginable as airborne firefighters. Just think, our first reaction to escape any fire is to get away as quickly as possible, but imagine being called upon to jump into hazardous conditions. This was definitely not the normal 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. job. Under this mission, these brave soldiers successfully fought more than 1,000 fires in the Oregon and California forests caused by Japanese incendiary balloons. Because of their actions, those trailblazers paved the way for other black paratroopers. In 1985, Gen. Roscoe Robinson, the first African- American commander of the 82nd Airborne, retired as a four-star general. The Triple Nickel will always be remembered as a unit that made the most of every opportunity even though their lives were in constant danger. 

These are but two brief examples of the many accomplishments of African-Americans in the history of military service. There was also a unit that contributes much to our rich Air Force history. The Tuskegee Airmen are well known for overcoming racial stereotypes and seizing opportunities to excel. They are so famous that Hollywood created a motion picture highlighting their distinguished history of military service. 

Many of you are versed in Air Force history and are familiar with the achievements of these Airmen and how they played a vital role in shaping the Air Force we serve in today. As Gen. Kevin Chilton, commander of Air Force Space Command, stated in one of his recent speeches, "These men showed us the importance of having the drive to contribute to a cause greater than one's self - a sense of selflessness if you will. And a determination to not take 'no' for an answer." These Airmen broke through the color barrier at pilot training and helped tear down the walls of segregation for good in our military. They were also tremendously skilled pilots and were well known for what seemed to be superhuman feats at avoiding casualty while performing bomber escort duties over the skies of Italy and Romania. Their record of never losing a bomber they escorted to enemy fire still stands as one of the great milestones of combat aviation. Their story defines courage, commitment and service. They had the courage to stand up to racial discrimination ... had the commitment to be the absolute best they could be ... and were dedicated to serving as part of something that was greater than themselves. Freedom is never free and these brave men fought for democracy abroad even when their own equality was never guaranteed at home. Their successes were legendary and I'm a firm believer that their efforts helped lay the foundation for all of us in the Air Force. 

We have made great strides since the days of the Army Air Corps. Our Air Force, made up of a culturally diverse team of dedicated Americans, has achieved unparalleled successes in the conduct of operations. The courage, commitment and service displayed by our forefathers are the same traits that will continue carrying us forward as a lethal warfighting team. 

Our efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places around the world have been carried out with tremendous performance and precision. I just can't help but wear a special smile for our African- American brothers who are continuing the rich tradition of performance established by those who have gone before. Our forefathers would be very proud to see how far we've progressed from the times of segregation. We have certainly come a long way in our Nation's journey. The future successes of the Air Force and of this wing remains tied to a continuing need to mentor and professionally develop all of our Airmen. Our successes will be measured by our ability to continue creating opportunities for everyone and having our Airmen fully prepared to seize those opportunities and succeed. 

As we all step back and take a look at America today, we see the great promise this nation holds for all its citizens. Sometimes I find it both amazing and embarrassing that our society would tolerate segregation and there would be such stark differences in the treatment of African-Americans and other minorities. We have made great progress over the past several decades, but there's more serious work that needs to be done. As we continue celebrating Black History Month, let's also remain committed to building a better society where equal opportunity is presented to all of our citizens. A few decades from now our children and grandchildren will likely recall events from our present day that will cause them to wonder, just as we sometimes find ourselves wondering about our sometimes dark history. Perhaps we in the military will be viewed as playing a vital role with moving our country forward with creating better opportunities for all, just as our forefathers are remembered as doing.