A hero in our midst
Apr 17, 2014 | 1895 views | 0 0 comments | 21 21 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Captain Les Williams-1943
Captain Les Williams-1943
slideshow
World War II Army Air Corps Capt. Les Williams is one of the few surviving Tuskegee Airmen, an all black Fighter and Bomber unit that was well decorated. The squadron is credited with helping break segregation in the U.S. Armed Forces and helped the Civil Rights movement two decades before it reached a fever pitch.Nick Rappley/Patterson Irrigator
World War II Army Air Corps Capt. Les Williams is one of the few surviving Tuskegee Airmen, an all black Fighter and Bomber unit that was well decorated. The squadron is credited with helping break segregation in the U.S. Armed Forces and helped the Civil Rights movement two decades before it reached a fever pitch.Nick Rappley/Patterson Irrigator
slideshow
World War II Army Air Corps Captain Les Williams, a hero from a bygone era, recently moved to Patterson from his lifelong home in San Mateo to be with his family during the sunset of his life. To live to be 94-years of age is remarkable enough, but his age is hardly the most interesting and honorable thing about him.

Capt. Williams was no ordinary Air Corps officer, however. He is one of a few living Tuskegee Airman left alive in the world today. As of 2010, as few as 50 were believed to still be alive from the original 996 pilots.

Tuskegee Airmen were the first African American aviators in the armed forces and suffered unthinkable discrimination. During World War II Jim Crow laws still existed—that is laws that called for the segregation of blacks and whites in the military. It is believed that Tuskegee Airmen, one of the most decorated units of World War II, was an early break of the color barrier.

Capt. Williams was a song and tap dance man from San Mateo in his early 20s when the war broke out in 1941. He was busy teaching tap dance when the U.S. entered the war.

“I tried to get around being drafted,” Capt. Williams said in an interview with the Irrigator Tuesday, April 8. He originally tried to enter the war was an Air Corps pilot in early 1942. His idea was that he didn’t want to get injured fighting as an Army infantryman, especially his profoundly talented tap dancing legs. With two years of college under him and passing all the fitness tests, he felt he met all of the requirements to fly back then, he said.

Alas, he was denied at the San Francisco Air Corps recruiting station. Later, after he was an officer, he returned to the recruiting station and found the original records to find out why he was denied. The paperwork was simply stamped, “Colored.”

Capt. Williams soon received a draft notice from the Army but he did not open it.

“I knew what it was and I wasn’t going to open it,” he said, and promptly tried to avoid the draft for months, moving to Chicago where he was working in the entertainment business.

Soon however, Uncle Sam caught up with him and, with the threat of an arrest looming, he entered the Army as an enlisted black man in late 1942. He was stationed with a group called the quartermasters—men subject to manual labor and sent to the Seattle Area to unload trucks all day long, he said.

Soon, however, the only white officer on base in charge of their entire operation was married, however, and the officer wanted to be with his bride. He placed Williams in charge and made him a Sergeant Major-the highest enlisted man on the base.

“I was in charge-I became a big shot,” he said. “I wanted to graduate to the highest rank you could offer me. They wanted to promote me slowly, but I didn’t have time to wait.”

He lasted a year there while also entertaining officers with his tap dancing on the side and got noticed by a top general. When the general asked where he would like to serve, Williams snapped up and said as a pilot.

“Once I was known to be under the hooks of General Denison, I got everything I wanted,” he said.

Soon he would have more than he bargained for, entering the deep south as a black facing unthinkable discrimination.

day long, he said.

Soon, however, the only white officer on base in charge of their entire operation was married and wanted to be with his bride.

He placed Williams in charge and made him a Sergeant Major-the highest enlisted man on the base.

“I was in charge-I became a big shot,” he said. “I wanted to graduate to the highest rank you could offer me. They wanted to promote me slowly, but I didn’t have time to wait.”

He lasted a year there while also entertaining officers with his tap dancing on the side and got noticed by a top general. When the general asked where he would like to serve, Williams snapped up and said as a pilot.

“Once I was known to be under the hooks of General Denison, I got everything I wanted,” he said.

Soon he would have more than he bargained for, entering the deep south as a black facing unthinkable discrimination.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two part story regarding the military career and life of new Pattersonite Capt. Les Williams.



Nick Rappley can be reached at nick@pattersonirrigator.com or 209-568-9975.

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