I dedicate this blog to my grandmother, Mildred Fischer Greene, as she was always the proud older sister of my Uncle Jimmie. She never stopped wanting to tell his story. I want to thank my aunt, Helen Singh, for sending me the documents she inherited from my grandmother. James H. Fischer, was, and shall always be, our Golden Aviator.
“On freedom’s wings bound for glory these intrepid men roamed the skies in defense of liberty for all men. Before the Air Force shattered the sound barrier, the Tuskegee Airmen shattered the race barrier. Their deeds will be forever etched in the annals of those who sought freedom and justice.”
—-The Original Tuskegee Airmen (1941-1949)
Prelude to Tuskegee: Hometown Roots in Stoughton, MA
Answering Uncle Sam’s Call
Uncle Jimmie graduated Stoughton High School in June of 1942 and World War II had already begun the December before. He volunteered to join the Army Air Corp after he graduated. He took a physical and went through all the Army Air Corp tests. He was then told that there were only a few spots for Blacks in the Air Force and that they would pass his name on to Washington. He was told to go home, with a 6-month deferment, and wait to be called. He never got the call. One day he was strolling through the town and saw someone who was on the draft board. That person was surprised to see him still around so my Uncle Jimmie explained that he was waiting to hear back from Washington. Ten days later he was drafted into the Army. He sent the letter below to the Army Air Corp Headquarters in Washington, DC asking for further clarification.
His letter was to no avail. In an interview, Uncle Jimmie remembered that a colonel, a doctor, typed on his record “Qualified Aviation Cadet.” But, the other officers looked at it and stamped “Infantry” on it. Segregation was not going to make an exception for him. So, off he went to Biloxi, MS for basic training in the Army. Uncle Jimmie was lucky though, because 8 month later, he finally got into the Army Air Corp. He said that you had to have two years of college to get in, but, if you passed a test, they would send you to Tuskegee University in Alabama for a 6-month university and flight training program. Needless to say, he passed the test. It was always his dream to be a pilot.
Heading south to Alabama was not his first time being in the South though. Growing up in Stoughton, MA made him a little naive about segregation. He was only one of 4-5 black kids in his high school and was treated like all the rest. When he was 14 years old, he ran away for a couple of months and ended up in Georgia which was an eye-opener for him. He would tell the story of how he hopped on a train and rode to New Orleans and worked for a few weeks. He then hopped back on a train and ended up in Georgia. He found work at a salad pantry and was told to get some suet at the butcher’s shop nearby one day. The butcher, who was cleaning chickens, told him to cut the suet off of a side of beef which he did, but Uncle Jimmie ended up placing the suet too close to a pile of chicken intestines. This set the butcher off and he started to call my uncle names, including the N-word. Uncle Jimmie ended up whacking the butcher in the face with a bunch of chicken guts. In Stoughton, MA, calling someone the N-word led to fist fights, but, in the South, he said that the N-word was used way too often. Whacking a White man in the face could have also led to my Uncle’s death though. When he was told to run, he had sense enough to run and kept on running. He ended up having to call his mother and have her wire him the $15 for a bus ticket home.
On Becoming A Tuskegee Airman: The Making of a Legend
Uncle Jimmie ended up at Tuskegee in the Spring of 1943. He was in the second or third class (44-G) of Tuskegee Airmen trained there. The Tuskegee Airmen included, not only pilots like my Uncle Jimmie, but also bombardiers, navigators, ground crews, medical staff, cooks, ambulance staff, and administrative staff. Most of the other Tuskegee Airmen were like himself — 18 and 19 years old.
All the flight training Uncle Jimmie received was done at the Moton Field (Tuskegee Army Air Field) at Tuskegee. In addition, Uncle Jimmie and the others took college courses at Tuskegee University which was a couple of miles away. As a Certified Aviation Cadet, Uncle Jimmie had a leg up on some of the other pilots. He had been hustling around the Brockton Airport for a couple of years by then. He was able to pay $3.50 for 15 minutes of flight time when the going rate was $12 an hour for flight instruction. He also bought aviation books in his quest for knowledge. His whole Brockton Airport experience taught him how to fly. But, at Tuskegee, he learned how to be a fighter pilot. Make no mistake about it, the Tuskegee Airmen knew they were up against the twin evils of racism and Nazism and they knew that they had to prove their naysayers wrong. They were Black excellence at its best and became the stuff that legends are made of during World War II. Failure was not an option for them and neither was it for the scrappy kid from Stoughton.
I also remember my Nana Fischer telling me the story of how she could only afford to buy a third class train ticket in the Colored section of the train to visit Uncle Jimmie at Tuskegee. She would tell the story of how the White train conductors would automatically assume she was White and tell her that a mistake had been made on her ticket. They would upgrade her to a First Class ticket and make sure she was in the White section of the train. She would always laughed because she felt she she pulled a fast one on them which she did. While my Nana Fischer could have “passed” as White, she never did.
Uncle Jimmie was part of the 332nd Fighter Group, the first black military aviators in the history of the United States Armed Forces, and a member of the 301st Squadron. The 332nd Fighter Group was deployed to Italy in early 1944 and their job was to fly heavy bomber escort missions. Uncle Jimmie arrived in December of 1944 and remembered flying P-51 planes. By this time, the planes the Tuskegee Airmen flew were named “Red Tails” as they painted the tails of their planes red and were easily identifiable because of that. I will never forget going to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC and seeing one of those rinky dink planes. I called Uncle Jimmie from the exhibit and asked him if he really flew one of those planes. He just talked about how cutting edge they were at the time and I just stood there in disbelief. Just seeing a plane similar to the one he flew gave me a greater appreciation of just how important the Tuskegee Airmen were to this country during a time of need.
My Uncle Jimmie was awarded a Purple Heart, 3 Bronze Stars with Two Oak Leaf Clusters, and a Distiguished Unit Badge for his service in World War II. He fought in the Battles of Rhineland (Germany), North Appennines (Italy) and Po Valley (Italy). He became well-known for having been shot down over Yugoslavia, an event that earned him a Purple Heart. In John B. Holway’s book, Red Tails Black Wings:The Men of America’s Black Air Force, Uncle Jimmie recounted his experience:
The son of a single mom, a tuberculosis survivor, and a teenage runaway, who managed to graduate from high school, my Uncle Jimmie had the deck stacked against him, but he was determined to live his dream of becoming a pilot—– fighting for a country that still saw him, and his people, as unequal before the law. Uncle Jimmie would tell stories of how Axis Sally would taunt the Tuskegee Airmen. He said he would laugh at the things she would say because they were true in terms of the overt racism that existed back then. Even so, he acknowledged that this country was the only country known to Blacks who have fought for it from the beginning. With roots in Boston, Uncle Jimmie had no problem reminding people of the bravery of Crispus Attucks.
Uncle Jimmie was given a week off at a R &R camp in Naples after his plane went down over Yugoslavia in April of 1945. World War II ended a month later. He spent the Summer of 1945 attending the University of Florence. Uncle Jimmie returned home in October of that year thinking he would stay in Air Force. He went back to Tuskegee and then to Lockbourne Air Force in Columbus, OH working various military jobs. In the Fall of 1946, he left the Air Force for good hoping to get a job as a commercial airline pilot.
In 1948, President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981 which led to the desegregation of the United States Armed Forces. The Tuskegee Airmen were no doubt one of the reasons that this order was issued.
Becoming Bitter: What Happens To A Dream Deferred?
My Uncle Jimmie came home and started applying for jobs at the major airlines at the time. Everything would be fine until he showed up for an interview. Then, he would be politely told that there were no jobs. Uncle Jimmie always said that getting into civilian aviation was harder than getting into the military because of racism. It would be in the 1970s before there would be Black pilots flying for the major airlines. The only pilot jobs he was able to get was a job as an instructor at the Brockton Airport, a pilot who towed advertising banners for a chain of drive-in theaters in Brockton, and as a crop duster flying pesticides over New England from Maine to Massachusetts. He was employed as a pilot for 3-4 years. And then his dream died a slow festering death before exploding into a sea of bitterness.
Uncle Jimmie left Massachusetts in the mid-1960s and went to California where his younger brother Sonny and his aunt Belle lived. He took on a variety of jobs to eek out a living without any government help. There is nothing spectacular to tell here about his life. His bitterness at not being able to be an airline pilot lingered for almost as long as he lived. He tended to look upon his WW II experience as somethimg that he did. But, at the same time, he would say that The Tuskegee Airmen were “just niggers who flew planes.” Those were HIS words and I will not sanitize what he said or how he felt. Now, he didn’t actually believe that because he knew what they had done and how important they were to this country. This statement was his way of describing how The Tuskegee Airmen were treated when they came home to this country meaning that they were good at being pilots only when the United Stares needed them otherwise they were just “n*****s,” a derogatory term that was, and unfortunately still is, commonly used to refer to Black people. He would often tell a story about how some Tuskegee Airmen were denied entrace to an American restaurant, but White servicemen allowed some captured Nazis to accompany them to the restaurant. It was not lost on him that, if he had been a White man with the military record that he had, he would have definitely been able to get a job working for a commercial airline.
We always heard about Uncle Jimmie from both Nana Millie and Nana Fischer. I remember meeting him for the first time in in 1981 at a family reunion. When my great-grandmother died in 1986, he came back East for her funeral. We had grown up knowing her youngest brother, my Uncle Sonny, because he brought his family back home often enough that we knew his daughters— two who were around my age. It was months after Nana Fischer died that Uncle Jimmie came home for good to help my grandmother settle her estate. By that time, he realized that he needed to be around family especially after he had a stroke in 1983 that left him with seizures. I always felt that my Nana Fischer sent him to us to ease the pain of her passing. We were also happy to have him back home with us.
For my siblings and cousins, Uncle Jimmie was a stark contrast to our grandmother. Whereas my Nana Millie was cautious with everything she said and was very proper, he was the exact opposite. He was very cantakerous. I usually refer to him as being a Black Archie Bunker in terms of his character. He spoke his mind and didn’t care how you felt. He was also that loving uncle who would give us lottery tickets at Christmas time, would celebrate his shared birthday with my cousin Mandi each year, would tell us the stories of his youth, and would send me subscriptions to The Smithsonian and National Geographic magazines. As a life-long bachelor with no kids, his nieces and great-nieces and nephews were surrogate children to him.
Once An Older Sister, Always An Older Sister
My Nana Millie was my Uncle Jimmie’s biggest and loudest cheerleader. She always looked after him. When he came back to Brockton in 1986, she made sure he got what was due to him from the Veteras Administration. She was also able to get him into a senior citizens apartment complex a few streets over from her house. She would take him shopping, take him to his,doctor appointmemts, and would cook for him on occasion. As the years went on, Uncle Jimmie came to rely on her memory of Word War II and her recounting all of his escapades because the stroke he had affected his memory. My Nana Millie loved telling his story and always added how she and others felt about the Tuskegee Airmen. She would also add her memories of the war as my Grandad also served in the Army in France. I am so lucky to have two transcripts of interviews they did together for a couple of books on the Tuskegee Airmen as well as for the Tuskegee Airmen Oral History Project. When I read the transcripts, I can visually see them talking to each other the way they always did.
When HBO premiered The Tuskegee Airmen movie in 1995, Nana Millie, Uncle Jimmie, and other relatives watched it. Though a fictionalized account, the movie brought The Tuskegee Airmen story to a much larger audience. Uncle Jimmie had no idea just how inspiring the Tuskegee Airmen were to many people until the movie came out. Caught up in his own bitterness, he didn’t know, or certainly didn’t realize, that the seeds he and the other Tuskegee Airmen planted took root and grew into a field of new dreams for others. Even if Uncle Jimmie didn’t become the pilot he wanted to be because of racism, he and the other Tuskegee Airmen were heroes to the generations that came after them who had full knowledge of the battles they went up against and how they still suceeded despite the odds.
I was lucky enough to be surrounded by my elders growing up. I was that fly on the wall who listened to their stories over and over again so that they became etched into my memory. I heard Uncle Jimmie’s story enough times from enough relatives that his story became OUR family story. We were proud that he was a famed Tuskegee Airmen. I also remember the pain, anger, sadness, and bitterness he felt at being denied the future he so wanted for himself. I couldn’t imagine what it must have felt like to have society dictate how far you could go in life and to have dreams that went unrealized because of the color of your skin and not because you didn’t dream big enough or bold enough. But, just because you were born Black in America. As a child born after the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-1960s, it was our generation that was the first generation that our elders placed their hope in for a better future that was unencumbered by the constraints of racism as they knew it. I’ve always been cognizant of the price my ancestors paid for me to live the life that I live today. They sacrificed so many dreams of their own hoping that their descendants would be able realize theirs. I have always felt that I couldn’t let them down because they were counting on me to do better than they had in life.
In March of 2007, I called my Nana Millie as I routinely did a few times a week. I was raised by my grandmother and had her around longer than I did my own mother who died at the age of 47. She was a second mother to me and we were very close. She didn’t sound like herself when she answered the phone that day so I asked her what was wrong. She said that Uncle Jimmie had received an invitation from Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) inviting him to the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor Ceremony in Washington, DC because The Tuskegee Airmen were being awarded the Gold Medal. She had told him about it and he said he wasn’t going. His bitterness still festering even after all these years. I immediately told her not to worry and that I was going to call him. He was going to go no matter what because this honor wasn’t about just Uncle Jimmie now. It was about bringing honor to our family by celebrating Uncle Jimmie’s wartime record and the legacy of the each and every one of the Tuskegee Airmen. It was about correcting an historical wrong and making it right—- even if it did come sixty years after the fact. Uncle Jimmie NOT going to this event was never an option. My Nana Millie wished me good luck in trying to get him to go. I told her that I would call her back after I spoke to him.
So, I called Uncle Jimmie. The conversation went like this:
Me: Uncle Jimmie, what’s this about you not wanting to go to DC?
Him: We were just niggers who flew planes. That’s all we were before and after.
Me: Uncle Jimmie, I hate to tell you this, but this is not about you anymore. It’s about family honor. You’re going.
Him: I don’t have any money to go.
Me: Everything is being taken care of so you don’t have to worry. This is a family affair.
Him: I have epilepsy [He didnt actually have epilepsy, but had seuzures from the stroke he had.] and I can’t go alone.
Me: I am coming to get you so you don’t have to worry.
Him: I don’t have anything to wear.
Me: I think Nana and Auntie said they were going to buy a new suit.
Him: OK, I guess I can’t get out of this.
Me: No, you can’t. It’s about family honor and you finally getting your due! Now, I have to call Nana back and tell her your going.
Needless to say, when I called Nana Millie back, she made a joyful noise unto the Lord. That proud sister felt prouder than she ever had in the past. If anyone, other than Uncle Jimmie, had waited for this day, it was her and I am glad they both lived to see this blessed day come to fruition in their lifetimes.
Washington, DC Bound: On Our Way to the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor Ceremony
I flew up to Boston on March 28,2007 to pick up Uncle Jimmie and take him to Washington, DC. He hadn’t been on a plane in decades and the post-9/11 changes to airline procedures took him by surprise. When asked to remove his shoes, he had more than a few choice words for people to hear. I remember passing the restrooms and asking if he had to use them and he near cussed me out. Ten minutes later, he said, “Doll baby, where is that bathroom again?” I knew then and there that it was going to be an interesting trip. My grandmother had warned me in advance how he was and she was right.
When we arrived at the gate, I went up to a crew member and asked if the pilot would make a special announcement that my uncle was a famed Tuskegee Airman who was flying to DC to be part of the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor Ceremony. I wanted my uncle to feel anything other than a “N-word who flew a plane.” To my surprise, no sooner than I had said “Tuskegee,” she had upgraded our seats to First Class. When I told Uncle Jimmie that we were flying First Class, he was happy. The look on his face when we made our descent into DC and the pilot mentioned that there was a very distinguished passenger on board named James H. Fischer, who was a Tuskegee Airmen pilot, and that he was heading to the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor Ceremony, was priceless. Believe me, he felt special when everyone on the plane broke out in applause just for him.
We arrived at the hotel that day and immediately were surrounded by other Tuskegee Airmen. Some instantly remembered my Uncle Jimmie. Lt. Col Harry Stewart made a beeline for Uncle Jimmie who remembered him. For the most part, Uncle Jimmie remembered some, but not all of the Tuskegee Airmen who came up to greet him because of his stroke. Another pilot who Uncle Jimmie remembered was Lt. Col. Leo Gray, the other Tuskegee Airman originally from Boston. When they both saw each other, they gave each other a big hug and stood there beaming. Robert Lawrence was another pilot who Uncle Jimmie remembered as well. Though Uncle Jimmie couldnt remember all of them, they certainly remembered him. I enjoyed watching him converse with his old friends. I could see it meant a lot to all of them that they were reunited one last time for this event. Uncle Jimmie for the most part was really enjoying himself just taking everything in minute by minute.
On the morning of March 29,2007, the day we had come to DC for had arrived. We started off going to a breakfast held in honor of The Tuskegee Airmen. At the breakfast, we watched a presentation about the history of The Tuskegee Airmen. It brought a lot of memories back to Uncle Jimmie and all the other Airmen. It was as if they were reliving their heyday. It was a great presentation with photos and interviews with Tuskegee Airmen, which featured Lt. Col Lee Archer and Captain Luther H. Smith. Captain Smith reminded me of Uncle Jimmie as he wanted to be a pilot in his teens.
We arrived at United Stares Capitol Rotunda for the 1 pm ceremony early. Uncle Jimmie and I were separated as they wanted all the Tuskegee Airmen to sit together. I tried to get a wheelchair for Uncle Jimmie, but he proudly refused one. I wasn’t going to argue with him, but I knew he probaby should have used one as he would be on his feet for a long time waiting to be seated. Sure enough, I saw him walk in holding onto the back of seats for balance. He later complained how his feet hurt. I could only sigh at that point.
The best part of the ceremony for me was when then President George W. Bush stood up and said, “I would like to offer a gesture to help atone for all the unreturned salutes and unforgivable indignities of the past. The Tuskegee Airmen helped win a war, and you changed our nation for the better,” the president said. “On behalf of the office I hold, and the country that honors you, I salute you for your service to the United States of America.” Almost immediately, hundreds of Tuskegee Airmen jumped up and saluted him back. They had waited a long time for this day to come.
After the actual ceremony, we went to the Library of Congress for the reception. We were able to see more of Uncle Jimmie’s old friends again. We met Lt. Col. George Hardy and Dr. Roscoe Brown. The press was out in full force because this was definitely an historic event. I could tell, by that time, that Uncle Jimmie was completely overwhelmed by everything.
After a long day, we returned to our hotel and the next morning headed for the airport. Once again, we were upgraded to First Class. This time, however, the pilot of the plane let us board before everyone in First Class. He came to our seats and explained that he was the ex-squandron leader of one of formerly all-Black desegregated Tuskegee Fighter Groups and considered himself to be a part of the Tuskegee Airmen history. He told Uncle Jimmie how proud he was of him and all the others. He also asked to take a photo with Uncle Jimmie holding his Bronze Medal. Uncle Jimmie obliged him, of course, and would only say,”Wow.” Like on the flight to DC, when we made our descent to Logan Airport, the pilot came on and gave Uncle Jimmie an awesome shoutout and told everyone about how special he felt about having Uncle Jimmie onboard his plane.
When we finally arrived home, I asked him what he thought of the ceremony. Never a man of many words, he said, “It was excellent,” as he held up his Bronze Medal of Honor. “It was one of those things, you know, it was about time. I’ll put it that way.”And I said to him, “You were always a hero and now everyone knows.”
I can definitely say that Uncle Jimmie never mentioned the N-word in reference to The Tuskegee Airmen after March 29,2007. Mission accomplished! I am so glad that I could accompany him to Washington, DC because it was an honor for me to witness history in the making.
While my great-uncle James Henry Fischer unltimately got his pension and due accolades at the end of his lifetime, I have to say that my heart still hurts for my 3rd great-uncle, James Henry Green, a 2nd Lieutenant who fought for the 29th Infantry from Connecticut during the Civil War. My other Uncle Jimmie applied for a government pension thirty years after his military service ended only to die in an unmarked grave somewhere in NYC before he received it. When I think of the Uncle Jimmie that I knew, I will always remember my other older Uncle Jimmie as well. God bless them both for their service to this country and may God bless each and every other veteran of color who fought and died for a country that did not honor them the way that it should have.
Arriving Home A Hero 60 Years Later
Four days after we arrived home from Washington, DC, Uncle Jimmie was featured on the front page of our hometown newspaper, The Enterprise. He had been interviewed the day before and held up his Bronze Medal of Honor proudly. In the last three years of his life, he would go on to reap more awards and acknowledgements for his WW II service this country. A salute long overdue indeed.
Our Last Goodbye: Honoring Our Golden Aviator
In closing, to the man I refer to as my Golden Aviator, you earned your wings on earth and now you can fly forever in Heaven. Say hello to all my ancestor angels and let them know that I think of them often. Fly on, fly on, fly on.. .
I will always love and remember you.
Your great-niece Teresa