Friday, April 06, 2007

Tuskegee Airman gets his due after 60 years

SARATOGA SPRINGS - The trolley cars rattled by Clarence Dart's childhood, carrying the residents of the 1920s through Elmira.
The young boy busied himself with his own dreams however, building model airplanes and a yearning to fly.
During the wartime of the 1940s, Dart realized his dream.
He volunteered for the Air Force and was accepted into flight training at the Tuskegee Army air field in Alabama. He piloted a P-40 fighter plane and flew 95 missions overseas during WW II, surviving two incidents when the enemy shot him down.

When Dart returned to a victorious America however, there was no parade that awaited, no heroic cheers welcoming him back. After fighting the enemy in the skies abroad, Dart came home to a different kind of battle raging in the streets.

"Back then, everything was judged by color," said the 86-year-old Tuskegee Airman, who has made his home in Saratoga Springs for more than half a century. "While we were there, a lot of us thought that when we'd come home, we would get jobs as pilots flying commercial planes, but, no, that didn't happen. You were denied certain privileges just because of the color of your skin."

That denial had been a fact of life for African-Americans long before the World War II fighter pilot's 14 months of service with the 99th Fighter Squadron began in 1943.

George Washington initially prohibited the recruitment of black troops when he led the Continental Army in the earliest days of the battle for America's
independence, even though history tells of blacks fighting young America's battles at Lexington, Concord and in Fort Ticonderoga in 1775.

By World War I, New York's first black National Guard organized at an armory above a cigar shop on 131st street in Harlem. The 369th Infantry Regiment came to be known as the Harlem Hellfighters. As the first all-black U.S. combat unit to be shipped overseas during World War I, they were transported to France in 1917 where they served with the French Army. Among them was Henry Johnson, an Albany native, who was posthumously decorated after fighting off a German patrol of two dozen men during a battle in 1918.

Despite black soldiers' efforts, the U.S. Army prohibited them from participating in the Bastille Day victory parade held in Paris in 1919.

More than 350,000 black soldiers served in WW I, although most were designated to non-combative units. It wasn't until the early 1940s, shortly after the U.S. Army Air Corps began training African-American pilots in Tuskegee, Ala., that the Navy began accepting black inductees from the Selective Service Board and the Marine Corps admitted African-American recruits for the first time.

"General Eisenhower lost so many men at the Battle of the Bulge, he called for volunteers from the black troops," recalled Oscar Osborne, who delivered supplies to front-line troops.

"There were 4,562 black soldiers that volunteered to go. I was one of them," said Osborne, who carried his M-1 with him across the Rhine Valley and into the Hurtgen Forest where he was wounded in battle. After wartime, he returned to the states where he worked as a clerk for the post office.

"We didn't stay in the same quarters as the white troops, but we were in the same unit," said Osborne, whose remembrances are part of the growing collection of oral history at the state Military Museum and Veterans Research Center on Lake Avenue.
Wayne Clarke and Michael Russert have interviewed 1,380 veterans to date, whose service dates back to World War I.

William E. Goldsborough, Sr.'s recollections are from the World War II.
Born in June, 1926 and drafted into the Army in July 1944, Goldsborough's great-grandfather, Noah, was a freed slave.
With a command of language and easy conversation, Goldsborough was selected by his company commander to deliver a weekly orientation to new troops Saturday mornings.
"You are fighting for the four freedoms," he remembered telling them, citing Franklin D. Roosevelt's speech to the US Congress on January 1941 - freedom of speech and religion, for economic well being and|freedom from fear.
"I was obliged to teach the four freedoms, but the irony of the situation was that I and my fellow (black) troops, didn't feel we were equal and free," he said.

E.G. McConnell entered service in May 1942 at age 16 after lying about his age.
He was a Boy Scout in an all-white Jamaica, Queens, troop where learned things like Morse code. He recalled the outset of war and how the buildings on exhibit at The World Fair in Queens were cloaked in black as a sign of mourning.
"I remember a newspaperman saying, 'Extree, extree, read all about it: Japanese attack Pearl Harbor.' There was so much fear, I'll never forget it," McConnell said.
"I was only 16, but I was so concerned, I had to do something. So, I went to the induction center to get an application and lied about my age. I took my (older) sister's birthday, so I wouldn't have any problem remembering the date," said McConnell, who also borrowed her eyebrow pencil to paint "a little fuzz" across his upper lip to simulate a moustache. He hadn't felt the color barrier growing up in the racial diversity of New York City. Going into military service was an eye-opening experience.

"We got to training in Kentucky and the blacks rode in the two forward cars. The whites were in the rest of the train and on the way to Kentucky the orders came to pull the shades down in the black cars. I was curious and wanted to know why," he said. "I asked the conductor and he grabbed a porter, a black man, who told me we had to pull the shades down for our own safety because some of the hillbillies down there fired their guns into the black cars. Can you imagine?"
After training, McConnell became part of the all black, 761st Battalion, which he refers to as the Black Panther Tank Battalion. They were the first African-American armored unit to enter combat during an assault on the French towns.

After the war, seven African Americans were belatedly awarded the Medal of Honor and numerous other awards. McConnell went back to civilian life where he worked a variety of jobs, from a a bus driver and a court officer to the lead mechanic of an auto repair business.

More than 30 years after their service, President Jimmy Carter cited McConnell's battalion for "extraordinary heroism in action" for their combat operations in the European Theater during the 1940s.

"Certain kinds of people tried to keep us buried, so to speak," said Dart of his experiences as a Tuskegee Airman. "They thought before we went over there that we didn't have the brains to fly a plane."
After his service, Dart worked for General Electric in Schenectady until his retirement in 1987. He moved to Saratoga Springs in 1948, where he and wife Mildred have lived for more than 50 years. It was in 1948 that President Truman officially desegregated the U.S. military, although segregation in places like restaurants, restrooms and hotels would continue for many years, particularly in the south.

"A lot of black people still don't get the jobs they deserve. If you're in the music or the movies you do alright, but the ordinary jobs, sometimes it doesn't work out that way," said Dart, relating the arrest a few weeks ago of a 71-year-old reputed Ku Klux Klansman from Jackson, Miss., who was charged in the death of two black teenaged hitchhikers in 1964.

"You look at something like that, like those two kids that were killed all those years ago, and it's still going on," he said. "It's still going on."

(On March 29,2007, a Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony was held in Washington, D.C. honoring the Clarence Dart and his fellow Tuskegee Airmen).

by Thomas Dimopoulos
published in The Saratogian, 2007.

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