Before the Army
“I was born in 1919 and I went all through school in San Mateo – elementary on to junior college. When I was in elementary school we would have assemblies in the auditorium and some WWI veterans would come in and they’d have one arm or no arms, one leg or no legs and that really depressed me when thinking about their lives. And so the draft started for WWII. Before they were going to call my name, I said ‘I want to fly’, because I was a dancer. I was a tap dancer and I was crazy about it and show business. I remembered those amputated vets and I said, ‘I don’t want to go to war and wind up an amputee like they did’. I wanted to dance and you can’t dance with one leg too well! So the only thing I wanted to do then was join the air corps, because I knew if I got injured like soldiers were getting injured on the ground I’d be wiped out. But I knew if I was flying a plane and I got shot down, I’d die. So I said that’s what I wanted to be and that’s when I got interested in flying in a big way. I was crazy about dancing so I wanted to get into the air corps before they draft me. So I applied right after Pearl Harbor. They didn’t come around to draft me for a couple – three weeks and I says ‘Geez, I don’t know if the army recruiting station can get me in the air corps this quick. And they couldn’t. They weren’t ever going to get me in to be honest with you because I was black”.
You’re in the Army now
“When I went to San Francisco, they gave me all the tests and I passed them fine. I had already been to high school and two years of college and I was physically healthy and passed the mental tests, and I asked the officer there if he could get me into the air corps real soon because I’m subject to being drafted. He said we’ll try. He never tried, in fact I’m positive of that because I went back after the war and I was an officer and asked if they had any records on Leslie Williams. He said yes and pulled out a big envelope and across the front of that envelope in red ink was the word, ‘COLORED”. I was amazed they still had that file around. I tried to get it but they wouldn’t let me have it. So that meant I wasn’t ever going to be called to the air corps”.
“So I got drafted before going into the air corps. So I became an ordinary soldier in the kind of outfit where they put most colored soldiers – the Quartermasters Corps. The Quartermasters are full of people that are laborers, stevedores, janitors, cooks, etc. Any of the jobs that weren’t in the war. I figured that if I was going to war, I wanted to have an enemy in front of me and I wanted to see if I could best him - or not”.
“So I became a soldier and I was sent to a camp in Seattle in January of 1942 and it was on the docks where they loaded a lot of supplies and men on boats to go towards Japan. I became a worker. I wasn’t very proud of that. I had to go. One thing though, I was going to do what my country told me to because I was an American and I’ll always be an American”.
“I was terribly broken hearted because I knew I wasn’t going to become a pilot. But in the meantime here I was in this camp they called ‘1st Avenue Cantonment’. There was nothing but black soldiers and just a few of us were from California, about 10 of us. All the rest were from Arkansas and they were very poor farmers. So there was a whole lot of uneducated black people there and one white captain in charge of us. There were no other whites for him to associate with on the camp, so he’d show up very rarely. He went and got married not long after I got there. So he got an apartment for him and his wife, he wanted to be with her. He wanted to turn one of the soldiers into doing his job and run the place so he could honeymoon with his wife. He asked me if I’d like to be the boss of this camp. So I said, ‘Fine, what’s in it for me?’ I wasn’t dumb and kind of cocky. He said, ‘I’ll make you an acting sergeant,’ which meant I’d still be a private, but I’d be acting like a sergeant. I told him I don’t want that. I won’t get the credit for what you want me to do. So he thought about it and said okay, I’ll make you a sergeant. I said I want to be top sergeant. And he said okay, and I became a Master Sergeant. So I got three stripes up and three stripes down, got a lot more pay and more privileges and I took his place running the camp.
So for about 4 months I was the boss of the place. The Arkansas soldiers were the greatest guys I’d ever met”.
“Remember I was a dancer and had been working in a dance studio for several years before the war broke out? I found out some of the guys in the camp with me were musicians so we got a band and show together. I’d sing and dance. We’d borrow a girl from town that could sing and we’d use her. It got us out of a lot of work because we’d appear at the various Lions, Elks, and Masons clubs. Up at the Kaiser ship building port, Kaiser would throw a party on each newly completed ship to break it in. Any time he had a party, he used our orchestra to play for their dancing and entertain them. About the fourth ship we’d done this on, we were taking a break when here comes a general, General Denson, walking up to the grandstand, which is very unusual. We all pop to attention and he say, “Relax, I want to tell you that you boys are very good, I like your music, and I like the way you present yourselves and I want to do something for you. What do you want to be in the Army?” I said, ‘I want to be a pilot”. This was at about midnight. He told me to go into downtown Seattle tomorrow and tell them I sent you. I get down there at 8AM the next morning and they’d already gotten their orders from General Denson to pass me through. In less than a week, I was on a train on the way to Tuskegee, Alabama”.
Welcome to Tuskegee Alabama
Captain Leslie Williams
“Tuskegee was a black university that’s got its own little town with a few little stores, places where the professors lived, and dormitories where the students lived. It was a little place all by itself. Once you get there, you’re okay. But you step out of that university area, you’re in deep trouble. There was what we called “White Tuskegee” too. I made the mistake of going there once and that was all, because it was very clear to me that that was not the place to be. In town was the first time I’d ever seen a chain gang with iron balls on their ankles. The prejudice was very obvious there. Here in San Mateo the prejudice was there but it wasn’t very noticeable unless you were black. In white Tuskegee it was very noticeable. If you were driving there and you didn’t wait for a white to cross the street completely, they’d pull you out of the car and beat you up. I saw that. They wouldn’t do that in San Mateo. In San Mateo, even as a kid, I knew there was prejudice because the San Mateo Theater is on the west side of the railroad tracks. As a black person I wasn’t allowed nor any colored families allowed to live on the west side of the railroad tracks. So every time I’d go to a show with all my white friends, and I had only white friends because there were so few blacks, after the show, they would go west and I would go east and I knew there was something different. So there was prejudice. Somehow we learned that we couldn’t go into this restaurant, you couldn’t shop here, and you couldn’t try on a hat there. So I saw prejudice, but it wasn’t so blatant that it bothered us. We just thought that’s how people lived because I grew up with it. But the prejudice in San Mateo couldn’t hold a stick to the prejudice in the south. The prejudice in the south was very violent. Beating us up, hanging us up, turning us on fire, that was common in the south. It really told you that you had to act just so or else”.
“So I started ground school. The whole training to become a pilot takes nine months. If you wanted to be a Second Lieutenant on the ground it took ninety days but not in the Air Corps. So we started all our training. We had to learn navigation, the radio and Morse code. We had to learn a lot of things that don’t require an airplane. So about in the middle of that ground school, they decide to let you fly. I had never been in an airplane before and they took us by bus out to Moton Field and lined us all up to fly. Now a lot of the black pilots that I was with had already learned how to fly because just before the war there was “Civilian Pilot Training” and they allowed some black colleges to have that program and would teach some people to fly. So a lot of the guys with me had already flown. I had not. I hadn’t even seen an airplane close up at all. And so I said, ‘I’m not going to make it. These guys know what they’re doing’. So the first thing is they take you for an ‘orientation ride’ for you to find out how to fly. I got in this plane and I was shaking all over. It was a Stearman and they took us up to fly. These pilots taking us up were black pilot trainers. They weren’t soldiers and they weren’t officers. They were called ‘instructor pilots”. This was the only time I ever flew with a black instructor pilot. They weren’t prejudiced of course but they were very strict. So I go up for the first time in this open cockpit plane. One of the things that was very embarrassing, especially for the elite guys, was getting airsick over the side and it had splattered against the fuselage. We called it feeding the buzzards. I didn’t. And he’d put us through all kinds of things, loops, barrel rolls, upside down flying, and all kinds of stuff. I loved it and didn’t realize what I was missing! Some of these guys had a lot of flying and I thought, ‘maybe I’m on equal footing here after all’. After that first flight, you couldn’t keep me away from flying. I thought, ‘Wow, is that all there is to it?’
“Later on my instructor, who was black, had complained to the white higher ups that they shouldn’t put me through because I was cocky. Any time it is suggested that a student be put out, the student was given a check ride and that white instructor had the final say about washing out a student or not. So I took up the instructor and he had me do everything and I did them all. This officer was named Captain McGoon. McGoon’s record was 100%. Everyone who flew a check ride with him washed out. I was scared stiff. Of all the guys I got, I got McGoon. I thought for sure that was it. There was a black saying we had. Anytime you were scheduled to go up with McGoon, the saying was, ‘Captain McGoon has got him a coon’. So I was one of those coons. I must have done all right because he had me land in this big dirt field. He had me stop way out in this dirt field quite a way from the hanger and he got out. I asked him if he’d like to be taxied back and he told me to go around. ‘I want to see you take off and land’. So he started to walk away. This sure made me feel good because this was my solo. What started out as my check ride to decide to wash me out became my solo. Captain McGoon had told somebody that Williams was cocky and that fit his bill because he wanted his fighter pilots to be cocky”.
“Once we’d finished the basic training, we went to the army air field at Tuskegee and that’s when the trouble started. You see at the Tuskegee University, we didn’t feel like we were too much in the army. There were girls there and we had black instructors. But when we got to the army field there was nothing but white officers and most of them were from the south and they were very mean. I’m sure you know what the ‘N’ word is. Well that became my name for another seven months. Everyone was called the ‘N’ word and it was humiliating and disgraceful. So we all knew we either made it or we washed out. What I like about the situation was we all helped each other out. If one of our brother pilots was having a problem, we’d find somebody to help them. We’d stay up all night sometimes to help someone pass. We knew there weren’t going to be too many of us graduating. By the time I got there, the thirteenth class, and there were classes before me where out of 45 students, only 3 would pass. Out of the 43 guys in my class, only 29 graduated. There were a whole lot of guys going home, and that was sad”.
Switching to bombers
B-25 ..... (the same one I flew in!)
“Of this nine month program, for the first eight months I was studying to become a fighter pilot. Up to that time I’d been flying regular training planes like the PT-13 Stearman and BT-13 Vultee. But in the ninth month I started in the AT-6. I was practicing loops in the AT-6, which was a very fast plane compared to what I’d been flying, so the very first time I did a loop in an AT-6, I passed out. I fainted. I didn’t come to until I’d completed most of the loop. Oh, man, I cried because I knew when I came to combat I’d be doing loops all the time. If I faint, I couldn’t shoot that German down and he could shoot me down or I could die before he even gets to me. So I made a very hard decision at that time. I knew I had to quit. I knew if I stayed in the program I’d be killing myself. But at the very same time, the War Department noticed the black pilots overseas were doing very well. They were establishing great records over seas. Somebody got them to notice that if they can fly fighters this well, maybe they can fly bombers too. And so in the ninth month, they said ‘anyone wanting to fly attack bombers, like B-25’s and B-26’s, could change over’.”
“One of the reasons was that some of the fighter pilots overseas were really big, like 6’4 and 250# or more. Some of them were really uncomfortable in those little fighter cockpits. So some of them were all for flying a bomber where they could stretch out a little bit. Nine of the guys in my class chose to be bomber pilots and we all made it. So that’s when I joined the 477th and I was the very first colored man to be commissioned a bomber pilot in the United States”.
“I was very excited to go fight overseas but I didn’t want to go fight in Asia, where we were going. We were set to go to Asia and our bags had already been shipped out. We’d done an awful lot of over water flying even down to Havana when we were based at Myrtle Beach South Carolina but I wanted land under me. When you can’t see land from an airplane, you’re pretty far away from the shore. I’m not the best swimmer, and all that water bothered me. I’d trained to fly fighters and wanted to go to Germany but it had taken so long to get the complimentary crew people that the war in Europe was over”.
“We practiced every day doing short field takeoffs. Hold those rudders (brakes) down, step on them as hard as you can, and get as much power as you can with full flaps, and let your foot of the rudders and it pops up into the air. So this late in the war we were still training for taking off from carriers in B-25’s just like Jimmy Doolittle did in 1942”.
“I loved the B-25. It was a great plane and it could handle emergencies. With my single engine landing, I’d gone at least 80 miles on one engine. I’d flown the B-26 also but I much preferred the B-25”.
“I had two close calls after passing out in the AT-6. Two times I had an engine fire at night in a B-25 and I also had a time where the wheels wouldn’t come down. I had to do all kind of maneuvers to jiggle the gear down. I also had a time where I landed too close behind a B-29 and its prop wash caught me and we almost didn’t make it”.
“Going to bombers meant we had to do a lot of different training than with fighters. We had to learn skip bombing, over water flying and how to ditch, so they sent us to different places. The first place was Selfridge near Detroit to set up the place. We had to wait for other pilots to graduate, and then they sent us to Godman Field in Kentucky. I was always the flight leader which I enjoyed”.
“We had to wait for them to train flight engineers, navigators, radioman, and waist gunners. So we were flying every day waiting for the empty seats to get filled in the plane. So we got pretty skilled at flying the B-25. We’d go to other fields like Walterboro in South Carolina to do gunnery over water and all that kind of stuff”.
The Freeman Field Mutiny
“When we finally got us all together they put us at Freeman Field in Indiana near Seymour. Freeman Field was an all bomber field but it wasn’t all right because they still wanted us to use different facilities. They wouldn’t let us use their gym, officer’s club, the officer’s mess, tennis courts, and athletic fields. And there were maybe 20 times more of us then them. The white’s facilities were plush and ours were bare at best. Our officers club was an empty converted barracks and theirs had a bar and lounge, was very plush but they wouldn’t let us in”.
“So one night, April 5th 1945, we decided this can’t go on. So we went to see if they’re really turning us out of the officers club. We knew they were but we wanted to get proof. So we said we were going to go over in groups of three, three officers, and meet at night at such and such mess hall and stay away from the white officers, and we made all our plans. None of these plans included any violence or fighting. In fact we stressed – don’t touch anybody”.
“So we go over in groups of three to the officers club after duty and say, ’we’d like a drink’. The soldiers and the bartenders were ordered not to serve us and so I said we can’t drink here. Fine and we left. I went over with two other guys, Hatch Hunter and Hank Curry, and we sat at the bar and asked if you could serve us. There was a bunch of tables behind the bar and the white officers were sitting there listening to all this. But we all got kicked out. Roger Terry, who was one of us, had brushed against the officer who runs the club and was standing in the doorway on his way through. And that became know as “the shove” and charges were filed against Terry for assault on an officer. The very same day an order had been issued by the commanding officer, Colonel Selway, called Base Regulation 85-2, which told us facilities we couldn’t use. They presented this to every black officer on the base and asked them to sign it. Some did and some didn’t. But that became a very important thing, because they noticed that 101 had not signed it, they decided to arrest 101 men for insubordination. They decided to arrest these men and fly them to Godman field and put them in jail. I was not one of the 101 men who were taken”.
“The next day they flew these men to Godman and told the rest of us that this was no longer our base and we were to leave immediately for Godman Field. Now the weather was so bad even birds weren’t flying, but those transports came and took the 101 – and we had to leave now too. My wife was also pregnant and we had a car. I wanted to drive her but they said nothing doing, you’ve got to leave now. So I had a fellow officer drive my wife to Kentucky. They had terrible conditions with floods and bridges washed out but they eventually got there. So that was the end of Freeman Field but it became a big issue and it was tried in congress. They brought up a court martial against these 101 guys and all of them were given a bad mark on their record. Three were put in jail and Roger Terry was kept in jail. He was given a dishonorable discharge and as a felon, he couldn’t get a decent job but he managed to live through it. He deserves a lot of credit for enduring all that stuff for his whole life. The other almost 100 had their records cleaned and Clinton pardoned Roger Terry at one of our conventions”.
“Freeman Field was terrible after that because we were always being watched. I liked living there and my wife and I had found a doctor who’d take a colored pregnant woman and we were envisioning raising our child in this nice little Indiana town called Brownstown. But then we got sent back to Kentucky and she had to go to a colored doctor. We had a very nice white doctor in Indiana. But that was it. We hated to leave Freeman Field. They didn’t like us and they didn’t like us to come to town and shop there. But we were their economic base in Seymour”.
“After all this, I got out of the service. I wasn’t happy because I felt I should have been promoted. Promotions were coming very slowly and the war ended August 14th. And I just said I can’t stay a Captain all my life. I could have stayed but I got out”.
After the war
“I came back to San Mateo and started up a dance studio. It was very successful. I wanted to build my own dance studio on San Mateo Drive here in San Mateo. They didn’t want any black dance studio on San Mateo Drive. So I went through a whole lot of agony to get my dance studio built. But it so happens that I’d gone to school with the mayor and the city council was divided about letting me build it. The mayor had to break the tie and he did in my favor. The place erupted into an uproar. One woman threw her purse at me – and women don’t like to part with their purses!”
“Some people said they wouldn’t let me build my building and they’d break the windows and stop construction. Some people did all kinds of mean things. Someone put a noose on my tree in front of my house”.
“When I first opened my studio, which was a dance studio for kids with tap dancing and ballet and that kind of stuff, a whole lot of people came and said ‘We want to enroll our child. We don’t care if it’s a good dance studio or not, we just want to see you get started. We might take them out after a few years if we see you’re doing okay’. And they stayed. I’d get checks in the mail from anonymous people to help me get started”.
“The dance studio was very successful and I kept it for about 25 years. I could have kept it longer if I wanted”.
“Right after the war I went to Stanford. I always wanted to go to Stanford and now I could afford it. They had to let me in because I was a veteran, I’m black, and I’m older than most of their enrollees, so they had to take me! Thank goodness for the GI Bill, otherwise I couldn’t have afforded it.
For my undergraduate, I studied history and I did law for my graduate degree in the 70’s. I didn’t like it because after school I had to go teach dance so my days were very long. I liked Stanford but they were very prejudiced. They didn’t like me and they didn’t want me there. In 1947, at Stanford, there was only one other black guy at Stanford. When I went back to Stanford for my Law Degree in the 70’s, they had only had about 6 black students in it. I don’t feel like I’m an alumnus of Stanford”.
“I kept flying for a while with a club at San Carlos but it was very expensive. I took my family on a very memorable trip across the country but that was about it”.
“So that’s my life”
Les still lives still in San Mateo with his wife of over 60 years.
Interview by Evan Isenstein-Brand. Photos and editing by Tim Brand 7/11/08
Captain Les Williams and me!
I want to give special thanks to my friend Jay Richardson who set up my interview with Captain Williams. Jay is one of my airshow friends and is a regular photographer and writer for many aviation publications. Jay is a super guy.
I also want to thank my dad who spent hours helping me transcribe Les’ interview. It was really hard for him because he only uses two fingers to type!
And also thanks to my mom who can’t spell very well but knows her grammar and punctuation!
“The Freeman Field Mutiny is generally regarded by historians of the Civil Rights Movement as an important step toward full integration of the armed forces and as a model for later efforts to integrate public facilities through civil disobedience”. Wikipedia
In Flight USA printed this interview in their August 2008 issue!