Tuskegee Airmen Had The Right
Stuff For WWII And Beyond

By Delma J. Francis
Minneapolis Star Tribune

"Were you scared?"
Dr. William Morgan, a black pilot during World War II, was speaking at a school in Fergus Falls, Minn., recently when a boy about 12 asked that question.
He also "wanted to know if it was true that we were treated badly during training and couldn't go to restaurants," said Morgan, impressed that the students seemed ready to tackle tough issues of race, when "some of my older white friends won't talk about it."
Now Morgan is dedicating a large part of his life to talking about it, to setting the record straight -- because he lived it.
The retired Fergus Falls dentist, along with Ben Alexander of St. Paul, Joe Gomer of Duluth and Vernon Hopson of Minneapolis, were members of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen, cadets with the Tuskegee "Experiment" designed to determine if blacks had the intellect, courage and patriotism to fly. They did. Nearly 1,000 men trained at Tuskegee Army Airfield in Alabama. At the time, the U.S. military was segregated.
In missions over Europe as escorts on bombing missions, the Tuskegee Airmen never lost a bomber. Soon, white pilots were requesting their services, prompting the airmen to stencil "By Request" on their P-51 Mustangs. But the significance of their efforts didn't really register with them at the time.
"We were just 18-year-old kids," said Hopson, 77. "I just wanted to fly. That's all."
The airmen remember their military training and service with clarity. They recall the indignities they were subjected to with both humor and anger. All say their experiences -- both uplifting and humiliating -- served to make them the men they are today.
Maj. Joe Gomer
One day in 1944, Gomer stood in line with fellow officers to board a ship in Naples, bound for home. "The officers were in line to board first, and when I got up to the captain checking off names, he took a look at me and sent me to the back of the line. I was the last one on board. I've never been madder in my life. At that point I really knew I was on my way home."
Joe Gomer wore a wide grin a few weeks ago as he sat in the cockpit of a P-51C Mustang, a Red Tail like the one he flew in World War II. It had been 58 years since he was at the controls, and he was loving it.
Gomer, who grew up in nearly all-white Iowa Falls, Iowa, was indignant about the conditions for blacks in the South during the 1940s, conditions that were mirrored within the military. "We were a segregated unit. The only thing we shared over there was the sky."
During training, "we knew that we always had to be better than anyone else, but you not only had to be good, you had to be lucky," Gomer said. "They couldn't let too many of us succeed, so the least little infraction and they'd wash you out. They were graduating [white] people who were not as good as the [black] people they washed out."
Still, perseverance might be Gomer's middle name. Not only did he make it through training and fly 68 bomber escort missions, but he hung in there after the war, reenlisting and finishing his Air Force career as a major.
Along the way, Gomer married Elizabeth Caperton, and they had two children -- Tanya Rice and Phyllis Douglas.
"I used to say my military career, dealing with all kinds of people, prepared me for civilian life," said Gomer, who became a personnel and employment officer after retiring from the Air Force.
Working with the U.S. Forest Service in Minnesota's Superior National Forest, Gomer was once again in a white, male-dominated environment. "I'd been there, done that," he said. He helped to change things. When Gomer retired in 1985, Secretary of Agriculture John Block presented him with a superior service award for his work with minorities and women. "Our Superior National Forest had the only Asian female forester in the country. We were trying to undo the evils of the past."
Today, when he and his wife aren't working out at the YMCA in Duluth (three days a week), or bowling (twice a week) or working for their church, Hillside United Methodist, where he's a lay minister, he might be found speaking to schools and civic groups about the "experiment" of his youth.
"My primary objective is to bring long overdue recognition to the Tuskegee Airmen."
Lt. Ben Alexander
"To get into the Army Air Corps, we had to have two years of college. The white boys went in right out of high school."
Benjamin Alexander was a junior pre-med major at Langston University in Oklahoma when Uncle Sam came calling.
"I joined up then [1941] and was inducted into the Army Air Corps at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., in 1942." He went to Tuskegee the following year.
Lucky for Alexander, the rules had just changed, allowing Tuskegee cadets to be married. His wife, Jewell Mann Alexander, accompanied him to Tuskegee and became a secretary at headquarters.
The pressure was intense, Alexander said. White instructors kept the cadets under close scrutiny, he said, looking for reasons to wash them out of the program. "I knew in the South we were going to have difficulties. They had a bad attitude. I stopped for gas one day and asked the guy to check my tires. He said he didn't check tires for black people. Here I am in uniform, fighting for them to stay alive."
Things were difficult on the job, as well. "The rumor around was that this experiment with us wasn't going to work, that we weren't going to make it." He was grateful for his wife's presence. Unlike most of the other cadets, he had someone close to talk to about the struggle. And there was another bonus: "I could go home and have a decent meal," Alexander said with a smile.
After being discharged in 1945, Alexander spent three years as a streetcar motorman for the Chicago Transit Authority before enrolling at the University of Minnesota. There, he earned a degree in mortuary science and operated Alexander Hyde Park Chapel in St. Paul for 50 years. He and his wife had three sons, Ben Jr., Douglas Allen and Rodney Mann. Ben Jr. died of cancer in 1971. Jewell died in 1998.
Alexander carried his own lesson away from Tuskegee: "Don't give up. Whatever you set your mind to do, do it or at least try. People will throw stumbling blocks at you, but don't give up."
Today, Alexander occasionally helps out at funerals conducted by Estes Funeral Chapel in Minneapolis. He's past president of the Sterling Men's Club, a life member of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity and a member of Wheels -- a social club of people associated with the transportation industry.
What does the club do? Alexander laughs. Its members, he said, "play cards and lie."
Flight Officer William Morgan
"A group of us were on our way home on leave. We were hanging out together at the train station. A group of white enlisted men couldn't believe what they saw. We were wearing wings. They wanted to start something, and we were scared. We knew we were outnumbered. We were saved when our train was called."
"Are you kidding?" Morgan responded when asked whether he felt enormous pressure to succeed as a Tuskegee Airman. "If you didn't fly, you were going to carry a gun. That was the biggest fear of my life."
When Morgan enlisted and was accepted into the last cadet class, he had no lofty ambitions other than "just to satisfy a kid's dream to learn to fly."
Morgan had watched planes fly overhead in the small all-white (except for him and his widowed mother) town of Yukon, Pa.
"I learned a lot in the service," Morgan said. "I was a country boy, a black country boy. I must have had hayseeds coming out of my head. The most profound thing was that I got to know my race. Where I came from, I was the only one."
He became part of a close-knit group of five Tuskegee cadets who taught him to stretch for what seemed out of reach. All came from highly educated black families, and they gave him a glimpse of what could be.
When he left the service in 1946, he worked a few years in a trucking business and steel mill. He married Martha Butler in 1950, and they had two children, Susan and William Patrick.
But he never stopped wanting more from life, so he enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh to pursue a dental degree. The specter of racism was never far behind.
"They had a quota of three blacks per class, and I guess I owe the fact that I was accepted to my photographer. We had to submit a photo with our applications and this black photographer lightened me up a bit. I'm indebted to him."
He practiced dentistry for nine years years in a ghetto of Pittsburgh, counseling the young people who came into his office. "I told them, if you want something, there's always a way to acquire it -- the right way."
An avid fisherman, Morgan also is a ham radio operator and educational speaker, telling school groups about the Tuskegee Experiment.
This summer he plans to learn to fly a helicopter. Morgan, 80, said, "Don't give yourself excuses for not doing what you want to do."
Warrant (Flight) Officer Vernon Hopson
Rain lashed at the canopy of his plane and thick fog dangerously reduced visibility. Landing in Knoxville, Tenn., to wait out the weather, Hopson and seven colleagues gathered inside the airport. Hopson, dressed in his flight suit, was approached by a woman with a commercial airline. "Are you with the English Air Force?" she asked. "No," Hopson answered. "Canadian Air Force?" "No." "Our Air Force?" "Yes." Speaking earnestly, with no idea that what she was about to say would be insulting, she replied, "You're the first nigger I ever saw fly an airplane." Hopson replied, "Yes, and when this weather clears, you're going to see eight niggers fly out of here."
As a teenager, picking cotton in Lee County, Texas, Hopson watched students from a nearby flight school fly low over the fields, scattering the workers. But he wasn't fearful, just amazed. "I'd see the guys in town, dressed in their fancy uniforms, and I said, 'One of these days, I'm going to wear one of those.' "
With World War II, he got his chance.
"I had to go into the military, so this was an opportunity to learn to fly," said Hopson, settling back in the living room of the home he shares with his wife, Norma, whom he married a year ago. (His first wife, Gertie, died in 1995. They had no children.)
"I had never been in an airplane, but I wanted to fly."
Training in the latter days of the program, Hopson flew no World War II missions overseas, but logged his share of air miles in the States.
Discharged from the service after the war, Hopson struggled to find a job.
A woman at an employment office beamed with pleasure as she told him she had found just the job for him: washing C-46 cargo planes.
"Can you believe it? They wanted a pilot to wash planes."
Seething with anger, he employed a life lesson from his Tuskegee training: "Think about what you're going to do [or say] before you do it. If you think first, you'll make the right decision. That has been my theory in whatever I do," Hopson said.
Holding his tongue, he told the woman at the employment office that he wouldn't be taking the job. Instead, he reenlisted, spending the next 20 years in the Air Force and serving in Korea.
It was in those quiet ways that Hopson fought for fair and equal treatment of blacks. In the early 1960s, during the height of the civil rights movement, he was active military and had to keep a low profile. No marches. No sit-ins. No civil disobedience.
"It wasn't the thing to do in the military. You couldn't afford to go to jail," Hopson said. But even if he had been a civilian, Hopson says, he would still have worked unobtrusively for change because he couldn't have trusted himself to remain nonviolent as the movement dictated. "I'm not a cheek-turner," he said.
Following his military service, Hopson was an air traffic controller until he retired in 1987.
Although "I'm not a person who likes attention," Hopson said he does "go out and talk to various groups about Tuskegee." He wants to set the record straight. Highly critical of the HBO movie about the airmen, he said the writer took way too much license. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt did not go up with a Tuskegee Airman; she flew with a civilian flight instructor. The first class was depicted as having about 25 members, when it actually had about 13, graduating only five.
"Typical Hollywood," he said.
-- Tuskegee Airman Kenneth Wofford of Golden Valley was unavailable to be interviewed for this story. -- Delma J. Francis is at © Copyright 2002 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.


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