Uncovering The Life My Parents Had in the U.S. Air Force
After years of writing, I’m close to finishing a book about my parents’ military journey, and I can say that my compulsive curiosity has served me well. I’ve had to conduct more research than I ever imagined in the 20 years since my Dad passed away. But that’s turned out to be a good thing because I’ve learned the importance of educating oneself, especially as it relates to history. And let me tell you, it’s been eye-opening.
I never asked Dad why he decided to join the Air Force ROTC while a student at Howard University in the late 1940s. I always thought it was an unusual move since he signed up only one year after he returned from World War II. He’d been drafted into the Navy and served in the Pacific Theater. During the war, the military was notoriously segregated and the Navy was known to be the worst offender of allowing blatant racism to go unchecked.
However, by tracing the historic events that followed the war, I can pretty much conclude what thoughts were swirling around in my father’s head. He saw hope for the future and new policies he was willing to take a chance on.
By 1947, word had it that President Truman was readying to sign an Executive Order that would desegregate the armed forces, thanks to the work of Civil Rights Leader A. Philip Randolph. Then, on September 18, 1947, the U.S. Air Force became an independent branch of the military after operating under the Army as the Army Air Force and Air Corps.
The nascent Air Force organization needed personnel and it embarked on an effective promotional campaign. In its recruiting efforts, the Air Force began to establish ROTC programs on several college campuses, including a few historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) like Howard University where many veterans, like Dad, enrolled using the GI Bill.
If you were a war veteran, you were required to complete a two-year program through Howard’s Department of Military Sciences (the program was four years for non-veterans) and cadets would receive $32 a week. That was pretty good money back then. However, the best part was, upon graduation, each cadet would receive a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant, meaning everyone entered active duty as officers.
In addition to the glamour and the leadership opportunities, I’m sure Dad welcomed the extra money. Although he was receiving a cost-of-living stipend through the GI Bill, it didn’t stretch very far since he was helping to support his large family. Every penny counted which is why he also took on jobs at the campus bookstore, at the old Griffith Stadium, and he even drove a taxi.
As far as the Air Force, expanding the ROTC program to a handful of HBCUs was a no brainer. During the war, the Army Air Corps had tremendous success with their training program for black pilots at Tuskegee Institute. These airmen later became known as the Tuskegee Airmen and they were one of the most highly regarded fighter groups of World War II.
Despite the accomplishments of the Airmen, many returned home after the war only to be denied jobs as commercial and freight pilots because of the color of their skin. As a result, they enrolled in college or sought teaching positions at HBCUs, like Howard. Needless to say, my father learned how to be an officer under the tutelage of some of the greatest American pilots.
During his time in the Air Force, Dad went on to train as a Weather Officer at New York University and he received his master’s degree in Meteorology at Pennsylvania State University. He and my mother were stationed overseas, in big cities, and in the Great Plains. Dad was also assigned to a remote tour in one of the most isolated places on Earth.
Over his career, he supported Air Force pilots by training them and developing flight plans. He had great success and a few crushing disappointments, all while dealing with the unique challenges that came with being a black officer. Ultimately, his work set the foundation for the computer flight planning that is used today.
My father’s story is inextricably linked to the U.S. Air Force and to the brave Tuskegee Airman. I guess that’s why the history of our military resonates with me. But it also makes me think about the many sacrifices that all of our military families make every day. They are to be celebrated even beyond Veteran’s Day.
And thanks to my parents — Alonzo and Betty Smith. I miss you more than words can say. Thank you for serving our country and for always living with integrity. America is in the midst of many challenges right now, but it’s a better place because you were here. ❤️