National Veterans Memorial and Museum
300 W Broad St,
Columbus, OH 43215
Written and Photographed by Doreen Dawkins
Tell me about your experience with the Tuskegee airmen.
About 10 years ago I had the opportunity to meet some of the old Tuskegee airmen. I purchased a picture of them for my granddaughter. It was signed by a few of the original Tuskegee airmen that were alive at the time. My understanding is Lockbourne Army Air Base was a gateway for them. Lockbourne is now Rickenbacker. There is a sign on 104 that lists the Tuskegee airmen. I guess it was a way to get to and from the base.
In 1946 the Tuskegee Airmen were stationed at Lockbourne Army Air Base (named changed to Rickenbacker in 1974).
After visiting the Veterans Museum, I started thinking about my grandfather’s service. My grandfather, Odell Dawkins, served in World War II from 1943 to 1945. He drove a truck. He was at the invasion in Normandy. He was on a ship to go to Japan, but the war ended. He was in shock when he returned home. Looking back, he probably had PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). As a youth I don’t ever recall him saying much, but he sure started talking later when we would go on golf outings.
I attend game night with a few Veterans. One game night I decided to start a conversation about their experience in the military.
Tell me about your experience in the armed forces.
I served in the Airforce from 1954 to 1974. I was a ground radio operator. Stateside I worked air ground traffic talking to airplanes. Overseas in Vietnam I was in SAC. I worked U2s (Lockheed U-2. A single jet engine aircraft).
I’m going to have to stop you there. I have no idea what a SAC is, and it sounded like to me you said YouTube and I know you didn’t say that.
SAC stands for Strategic Air Command in the Airforce. They handle all the bombers. U2 is a spy aircraft. When we were in Vietnam, we worked U2s and other so-called spy aircrafts, drones, and stuff like that. SAC has two bases there, so we handled the traffic between the two bases. While I was in SAC, I was assigned to downtown Paris because SAC had planes that went to the Paris air show. I was in Bermuda twice. I was in Fairbanks Alaska. I decided that if I ever did 10 years, I was going to go the whole nine yards and enlist for 20 to get the retirement. After Bermuda, I was assigned to SAC headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska. When I went to Bermuda the second time, the SAC squadron deactivated. I received my pay every payday, but they didn’t have any place to send me.
Did the Tuskegee Airmen pave the way or impact your experience in the military?
In most cases when people bring up the Tuskegee airmen, most people think about the flyers. Tuskegee airmen also had maintenance crews that were black. Knowing what I know about the Airforce, they had to have more than a few maintenance guys and other support people. We know the Tuskegee airmen had a remarkable record because white pilots were requesting them for escort. They are something that blacks in the Airforce can be proud of because they set the standard.
Back then overseas we were one big knit family. The same guy that lived next door to you overseas, probably wouldn’t live next door to you when you come back to the states.
I entered at a time where it had just become Airforce and it just left the army.
I wasn’t born in the continental United States. I was born in the Virgin Islands. The Virgin Islands had to sue the US government in order to participate in the service. It didn’t affect me because I left when I was eight years old. Gaum and Marianas were the same thing.
I went into the service as a mechanic. The first unit I was assigned to be part of was a maintenance company. I got attached to an Engineer brigade. They built runways. We took care of all the maintenance on the dozers and all the trucks.
Every work on any planes?
All the planes that were in the Airforce.
Sidebar: I know, I just showed my ignorance. But maybe you didn’t know that either.
When we went in, privates pay was $72 a month. When you made PFC (Private First Class) it went up to $78 a month.
Did people make the same amount regardless of race for the same position?
They asked for volunteers to try out for Airborne. Everyone’s first reaction was, “we don’t want to jump out of no planes”. We were told that it was an extra $55 per month in pay. When I heard that I said, “What the heck I’ll try. It is something different”. About 480 of us went to jump school; but only 125 passed.
I’m confused. They had you jump out the airplane to fix a truck?
Let’s say you go into combat on an island. You can’t drive there. When you are in an Airborne Unit, you pack everything up like your equipment and vehicles (small tanks and small dozier). We would jump in on the first pass. On the second pass, the planes would drop all the equipment. Then, they would build the landing strips so the planes could land and drop off supplies. The Airborne units were responsible for their own security.
When they dropped tanks, why didn’t the tires get flat? Did they just fly low?
The cargo chute for the vehicles are a lot bigger. You have one on the front and one on the back. As soon as the equipment hits the ground in a combat area, you must run and unhook it quickly. You must get in it and drive it away.
Did you serve in any combat missions?
A few… Vietnam.
How was the military from a racial perspective?
In the 1960s we could go to the movies at the Palace and sit wherever we wanted, go to the drug stores, go to eat, etc. When I went to the service it was all fine. When I got into Kentucky, they had the sign up right outside the base, “KKK country”. After I finished my basic training, they sent me down to Fort Bennett in Georgia, that was the first time I saw areas marked “colored” or “whites only”. Of course, the drinking fountain for the coloreds was rusty and bad looking. The one for the whites was nice.
The military was further advanced in integration than it was on the outside. The rule in the military was that everybody plays together, lives together, and stays together. Some of the clubs off base were segregated. The commanders would put the club off limits for the blacks and the whites. When the clubs started losing money, that forced them to integrate.
Once I was on a train going from Fort Campbell to Fort Bennett. A group of us were wearing our uniforms. I was the only black, there were two Puerto Rican guys and the rest were white. When we got to Birmingham, Alabama, the conductor told me I had to move to the back car. I ignored him. He came back a second time and said again, “You got to move to the back car”. I told him, “I ain’t going nowhere”. Everyone else started saying, “He ain’t going nowhere”. The conductor walked away and didn’t come back and bother me after that.
It was weird that here (Columbus, Ohio) we didn’t have any issues, but if you wanted to go to the movies in Kentucky or Georgia you had to sit in the balcony.
Tell me what you did in the military.
Most of the time I worked for the provost Marshall’s office which is kind of like the Sheriffs office.
I primarily typed reports, checked violations, processed tickets, and worked with the MPs (Military Police). I served on a task force where all four branches of the service traveled together.
Did the Tuskegee Airmen have an impact on your experience in the military?
I did not know about the Tuskegee Airmen until I got out of the military. I found out about them by meeting a few of the Tuskegee Airmen. From what I hear they didn’t lose any of the planes that they were guarding.
Did you see any combat?
No. We stayed in the jungle before the Vietnam war processing prisoner war camps. I got out right before that.
What years did you serve?
I served from 1955 to 1977.
What did you do in the military?
The first two years, I was in the Amphibious Construction Battalion, then the next eighteen years I served in the Seabees.
What is the Amphibious Construction Battalion?
These were the guys that landed the marines on the base.
I was a landing boat craft operator for about 6 months. I never got transferred because I got scared and put in for school and became a mechanic.
What are the Seabees?
The history of the Seabees is during the second World War. They needed construction people. They went out and got union people: electricians, plumbers, drivers, etc. That was the first formation of the Seabees. They need someone to get out there and build runways, huts, etc. for the marines. Blacks didn’t get into the Seabees until after 1948 when President Truman desegregated the services.
Have you seen the Tuskegee Airmen exhibit at the Veterans museum?
No, but I was reading about the Tuskegee airmen when I got out of high school. That is one of the reasons that I wanted to get into the Airforce. My scores weren’t high enough, so I never made it.
I didn’t take the right math classes in high school. I needed Trigonometry and Geometry. I also didn’t take ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) and two years of college.
Where did you serve?
In 1960, my first assignment was in Cuba. That is when Fidel Castro was doing his thing. We were building perimeter fences. After that I went to the South Pole. We were putting in a PM3A site which is a nuclear reactor plant. I did a tour in Vietnam. I went to Bermuda then Japan. I spent some time in the Philippines, England, and Thailand.
What was the private pay when you enlisted?
The pay was so bad that when a lot of guys got drafted in the service, their wives had to go on food stamps. The pay scales went up over the next 5 or 7 years to 60% of the rated civilian occupation (what you would be paid on the outside).
Did you experience any prejudice in the military?
I entered the military about 10 years after integration. Prejudice was still there because the civil rights movement hadn’t started. That was the late 1960s. Prior to that you were promoted by your commander. It was called command promotion. Most of the commanders where white so…. To make it equal they started making everyone pass tests.
My take: The Veterans Museum is thought provoking. It is an opportunity to learn about different stages in history and service and sacrifice of those who served and continue to serve. It can serve as a conversation starter to take time to hear the stories of those around us.
Here is my practical advice. If you plan to park in the lot closest to the museum, bring a valid credit card. Signs clearly state that is the only form of payment. On my visit, there were two people in front of me trying to get out of the parking lot who ignored the signs. I had to wait 10 minutes to get out of the parking lot.