Our stories are being written - then and now

HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah -- One day not long ago, as I was sorting through the mail, I noticed a large brown envelope. As I inspected it a little closer, I saw that it was from a family friend back in San Antonio. I opened the envelope and pulled out a spiral-bound notebook. On the front was a clear protective cover. On the page under the cover was a head and shoulder photo of my friend Jim in his Air Force uniform, complete with the now retired Air Force Service Cap. At the top of the page was the title, "Autobiography." Underneath the photo was Jim's full name with "Jim" inserted in parenthesis. Under his name was the date Jan. 6, 1921, followed by a dash. I studied the picture for a while. I saw the face of a strong, yet gentle, patriot who was obviously proud of having served his country. Little did I know of the details behind my friend's pride until I had read the story of his dash.

A quick skim through the notebook revealed several pages of photos and details of Jim's life. There were pictures of his grandmothers taken back in the 1800s all the way to a current picture of his wedding anniversary in 2010. The majority of the pictures were military and I could tell he was very proud of his military career. In a family photo taken in the mid-1950s, there were five male siblings standing. Five females sat around their mother, who sat in the middle. Jim was the tallest among the males and appeared even taller in his crisp military uniform with his head held high.

As I read through the pages, I began to get a picture of how Jim's life unfolded. I saw that he attended an all Negro elementary school where all grades were taught by the same teacher. The school was sponsored by the neighborhood because the state of South Carolina would not support it. He later quit high school to enroll in a newly opened vocational school where he excelled in patternmaking. He also garnered praise for his boxing skills in the amateur golden gloves ranks as a light heavyweight. Jim graduated from the vocational school and joined the Army with the 95th Engineers Battalion in 1941. Two of the greatest accomplishments of his unit were the building of the Alaskan Highway and repairing destroyed roads and bridges on Normandy Beach during the invasion. His unit was also sent to Germany during the Battle of the Bulge. When World War II ended, he separated and returned home to Philadelphia where his family had moved to join his father.

Shortly after returning home, Jim and three other veterans were invited to go on the radio to talk about their service careers and qualifications for employment. After the program, they were sent letters for a job interview as patternmakers. Once the employer learned Jim was black, they refused to allow him to complete the interview. Jim resolved to working part time for the post office. Some days, he was only given two hours of work. Three months after his discharge, he walked across the street from the post office and joined the Army Air Corps. The Air Corp was segregated at the time, and Jim's first commanding officer was Lt. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. (who would later become the first black general in the U.S. Air Force) at Fort Knox, Ky. Jim later transferred to McChord Field,Wash., where he completed his first accounting course at the University of Tacoma. He then applied for the Air Force Accounting School in Denver, Colo., but was denied. From all appearances, the denial was based purely on racial bias. Jim persisted though, and after several applications, was finally approved. In the seven months that followed, he completed both the basic and advanced courses.

While Jim was in Denver, segregation ended. He returned to his unit at McChord Field, but most of his black colleagues had volunteered for overseas assignments rather than face the racial hatred being fueled by desegregation. Shortly thereafter, he followed suit and received orders to Japan. Immediately after boarding the overseas-bound ship, Jim learned he would be the sergeant major onboard. Because the ship was largely made up of white soldiers, in order to calm the racial tensions, Jim sought out the assistance of a white master sergeant to funnel directions through. While en route to Japan, the Korean War broke out. Upon arrival in Japan, Jim learned his office in downtown Tokyo was just three blocks from Gen. Douglas MacArthur's headquarters. After a short time in Japan, the Korean War escalated and he was reassigned to Okinawa in support of the war. His next assignment was Ethan Allen Air Force Base, Vt., where he was first sergeant of a unit of 90 white and 12 black troops. The winters at Ethan Allen were extremely brutal and Jim requested a reassignment. After three years there, he was reassigned to the Tennessee State Reserve Officer Training Corps unit. His highlight of that assignment was meeting Maj. Daniel "Chappie" James Jr., who would later become America's first African-American four-star general. His next assignment was supposed to be first sergeant of a medical unit at Randolph AFB, Texas, but once again, prejudice entered the picture. After finding out Jim was black, the commander refused to accept his position as first sergeant. As a result of this, Jim eventually wound up at NATO headquarters in Paris, France, for five years during which time he fell heads over heels in love with the country. His next two assignments were Kelly and Lackland Air Force Bases in Texas before retiring in 1971.

Interestingly, Jim's story contained only three paragraphs about his life following military service. He is now ninety years old. Given the harsh realities he encountered in the military, you have to wonder why his cherished life story contains so much about the military and so little outside of it. My guess is that, despite the negative occurrences, he still loves his country and is extremely proud of having engaged in combat to protect the rights and freedoms of all Americans. Jim's story reminds me of the movie "Proud" in which the main character, about Jim's age, just wants the story of his military service, and those he served alongside, acknowledged and recognized. Having maintained integrity and professionalism through it all, Jim's military career would later pave the road to a new post-military career. His blemish-free record told potential employers that he was well-disciplined and had superb leadership abilities among many other desirable traits. Subsequently, his second retirement was as a successful realtor in 1986. Author and poet, Robert Frost, put it this way, "The best way out, is always through." Jim's dash was certainly a road through.

February is African-American History Month. The local theme chosen by the base's African-American History Month Committee is: "The Content of Their Character." I can think of no finer example of inspiring character than in my friend Jim's story. It's a story many people, both minorities and non-minorities, can relate to from long ago until even today. Prejudice and other injustices are still alive and well. I've always found solace in the bible verse, Genesis 50:20: "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done ..." If, in the end, we want to be as proud of our country and military service (or civil service) as Jim is of his, we must summon our inner strength and look beyond any current adversities or misfortunes to the day someone will read the story of our dash ... stories which are being written right now. Like Jim, we must stand tall, keep our uniforms crisp, our heads held high and continue to serve with "Integrity First," "Service Before Self" and "Excellence in All We Do."