Finding a heritage of heroism

  • Published
  • By Capt. Hans Decker
  • 501st Combat Support Wing

In the past few months, the national conversation has shifted to the painful legacy of racism in America. Our country was founded with an unresolved contradiction at its heart. The United States was built on the sacred principles of freedom, justice, and equality, but also maintained the institution of slavery, violating the fundamental rights of human beings solely on the basis of their skin color.

Our country has reverberated with this contradiction over the centuries, even as the best among us have fought to see those national ideals triumph over the harsh reality of these crimes. The military has produced some of these outstanding moral leaders, but as an institution, we have also often been troubled by the same problems as the society from which we are formed.

During World War II, the military was still segregated by race, and African American Airmen were pushed into supporting roles and rarely allowed to participate in combat operations. With dreadful irony, when the U.S. Army Air Force came to England to lead the bombing campaign against the racist regime of Hitler, we brought our racist Jim Crow segregation to England, where such concepts were foreign.

The Army had trouble enforcing segregation off base, and white Airmen often fought with the black servicemembers who should have been their brothers in arms. In the town of Bamber Bridge, the English population refused to comply with Jim Crow. Every single pub put up “blacks only” signs in solidarity with the segregated Soldiers from the local American 1511th Quartermaster Truck Regiment. These racial tensions erupted into a riot between white MPs and black Soldiers, leading to exchanges of gunfire in the village and several casualties.

After this tragedy, the Eighth Air Force leadership realized that they needed to address the racial tensions in their wings. America’s racism not only violated her ideal of equality; it damaged her effectiveness as a fighting force. The scattered segregated units were often led by the worst officers, because institutional racism marked those posts as career dead-ends. General Ira Eaker created a new wing, the nation’s first Combat Support Wing, grouping all the segregated African American units into one organisation and affirming their vital contribution to the war effort. Their new commander, Colonel George Grubb, recognized the core problem was the poor leadership and racism among the various units’ white officers, and he fired them all and replaced them with better men. He also racially integrated MP patrols to ensure a more equitable enforcement of regulations.

Although the 501st does not trace its history directly from this unit, we inherit its challenging legacy as the nation’s only Combat Support Wing, still stationed here in England. Our name reflects our awareness of how important those black Airmen’s service really was in the fight for freedom, but also recollects the history of racist segregation in the military.

The events of the past months have highlighted unresolved tensions in American life. There is still much work to do. But how is it helpful to reflect on the challenges in our own legacy as a Combat Support Wing? Two things spring to mind.

First, when we think about what it means to be an American, I hope we think of those principles of freedom, justice, and equality. These democratic ideals drove America’s fight against the evils of Nazism, and they are still why we serve today. But when I think about who embodied those ideals the most, I am struck by the example of those heroic black Airmen in the Combat Support Wing, who signed up to fight for a country that did not yet give them equal standing or opportunity. Those Airmen had a profound understanding of freedom; they saw that equality was essential for a just society, even when many of their national leaders did not. They represented the best among us, striving for the realization of those founding ideals in spite of their own inexcusable mistreatment. And when they beat Hitler, they brought the fight home with them. Those same veterans sparked the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, where they laid claim to the truth that all men are created equal. We inherit this exemplary American legacy from the black Airmen who are our military forebears. I hope we continue to follow their leadership as we strive for a more just and equitable society.

Secondly, I am struck by the way General Eaker and Colonel Grubb saw that they could only address these problems by fixing leadership. Thankfully, we serve in a very different Air Force; I am excited to serve under General Brown, our first African American Chief of Staff of the Air Force. But like Grubb realized, leadership matters. Not all of us are commanders or supervisors, but all of us are called to exercise moral leadership, regardless of rank or position. We can each make a difference—in our squadrons, our Wing, and our Air Force—but only if we embrace that responsibility. So confront racism when you see it. Do not ignore the problem or shy away from it. Listen to the insights of people who have different experiences from you. And invest in the strength that diversity brings to the Air Force. None of us may be able to resolve all of America’s racial problems, but when we work together, we can model the way forward. Only together can we “light the way.”