Danville Express

Cover Story - May 25, 2007

Remembering life as a Tuskegee Airman

Black aviators were the best and the brightest in the country

by Jordan M. Doronila

Tuskegee Airman Harold Hoskins experienced racism in both segregation and integration, but he never let it determine his fate.

"Having grown up with aunts and uncles, without a father, I always strived to do the best possible under the circumstances I was in - and I did," said Hoskins, 80, now a Danville resident.

The Danville Town Council will recognize Hoskins for his achievements June 5 at the Danville Town Meeting Hall on Front Street, said Mayor Mike Shimansky. Veterans from World War II and the Vietnam War will be attending the event.

In March, President Bush, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and former Secretary of State Colin Powell honored 290 Tuskegee Airmen and 10 widows of the Airmen at the U.S. Capitol. Currently, there are approximately 400 Airmen left, Hoskins said.

Shimansky said he read in media reports about the airmen being nationally recognized and felt it would be nice to acknowledge an airman from Danville.

"I'm really proud of recognizing what he did during the Second World War," Shimansky said. "One of the things unique about the Tuskegee Airmen group is that they were a bunch of fighter pilots and never lost a bomber."

"Unfortunately, the black airmen were not allowed to be integrated with the regular Air Force," he added. "So, they formed their own group. It was sort of the beginning of the integration of the armed forces."

The Tuskegee Airmen were black servicemen in the U.S. Army Air Corps who trained at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama during World War II. They constituted the first African-American flying unit in the U.S. Military.

Hoskins recalled dealing with racial separation growing up.

He was born Feb. 15, 1927, in Big Sandy, Texas.

"Back in those days, it was very much segregated," Hoskins said.

Hoskins noted he attended a one-room schoolhouse until his parents passed away. He was 6 when his father Maude died, and his mother Florence died the next year, when he was 7.

He had aunts in California and in Oklahoma who invited him and his younger brother Charles to live with them. Hoskins chose to live with his aunts in Los Angeles. His brother went with another aunt in Oklahoma.

Hoskins said the family was financially stable living in the Watts section of Los Angeles during the early 1930s, the time of the Great Depression. His aunts were domestic workers in Hollywood, and his uncle was a postal worker.

"Financially, there was no real problem," Hoskins said.

However, he said he was running around with bunch of boys who were involved in stealing cupcakes from a grocery store. Hoskins said he didn't need to steal, but he went along anyway. When his relatives found out, they sent him to live with his other aunt in Portland, Ore.

"My aunt told me that I was getting out of there to Portland on vacation in 1937," he said. "It was a one-way ticket."

Portland at that time had a population of 300,000 people with 1,500 being black. Hoskins went through integrated elementary and high schools, he said. Blacks ate at restaurants with no problem and did as they pleased.

"Up in Oregon, there was no segregation," he said. "You could do what you wanted to do. The majority worked as busboys and in train stations or in hotels."

But when they took jobs at the shipyard, racial discrimination ensued.

At this time, Hoskins met a black neighbor who was a Tuskegee Airman.

"The fellow was six years older than me," he said. "He was wearing pink and green. Oh, man. That really excited me."

Hoskins graduated high school, and at 18, he joined the Army and went to Fort Lewis in Washington. He got his medical shots and uniforms, then headed on a train to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

"That's where all the black pilots started out," he said. "All the instructors were black."

On the train, he heard the excitement and joy of flying from four white pilots who were sitting with him in one of the integrated cabins. But when the train crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, he had to move to a segregated car.

"In the dining room, there was a curtain," he said. "That was black folks and white folks (eating separately)."

He recalled stopping in Athens, Ga., when a white woman chastised him for drinking in a water fountain that was labeled for white people.

"You have to adapt to what the situation is," he said. "I was able to adapt. I learned how to cope with it." He added that having been part of an integrated community helped him talk to white people.

Upon arriving at Tuskegee, he was surrounded by some of the best and brightest black men in the country, he remembered.

"They had taken the cream of the crop," Hoskins said. "Some of the older fellows had master's degrees."

"We were living in dormitories on the campus," he added. "We did our schooling on campus. We ate in the university or the Institute's dining room."

He said the primary flying took place in Moten Field, which were five miles away from the Institute. He learned theory of flying, air navigation, weather analysis, Morse code and aircraft recognition, plus received physical training. Every other day, he and his fellow officers had to run five miles a day on the red clay roads.

The first aviation cadet class began in July 1941 and completed training nine months later. From 1942-46, a total of 993 pilots graduated from the Tuskegee Army Field, receiving commissions and pilot wings, Hoskins said.

Black navigators, bombardiers and gunnery crews were trained at select military bases elsewhere in the U.S. They flew 1,578 missions and 15,533 sorties and destroyed 261 enemy aircrafts, according to a Tuskegee article on PBS.org. Hoskins noted that the airmen were the first to sink a destroyer with machine gun fire.

"They were the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement," Hoskins said.

However, World War I ended before Hoskins joined the fighting. He was in the next to last class of the Institute, he said. When the war was over, he went back to Oregon and used the GI Bill to finance his studies at the University of Portland.

But money from the bill was running out and he didn't have a job, so he and a friend decided to enlist in pilot training in 1947. They trained at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, where there were four black cadets and two black student officers and 350 white cadets and 200 white student officers.

"We were an experimental class," he said. "My white instructors were good. My black instructors were good."

He graduated from the program in 1948 as a second lieutenant. Afterward, he went to Lockbourne Air Force Base to meet with all the black pilots in Columbus, Ohio. Shortly afterward, President Harry Truman issued an executive order that there was must be equal treatment of all races in the armed forces.

After the order, the band of black pilots scattered and integrated with the white flyers. In January 1950, there was a reduction of armed forces and Hoskins went back to Portland.

But the government called him back during the Korean War in 1953. He also served during the Vietnam War as a captain and as an advisor in Saigon in April 1963. He retired from military service in 1971.

During his journeys in the sky, he met his first wife Isabel, who was from Canada, when he was living in Michigan. With her, he had two children, Harold Jr. of Danville, and Lynne Thompson of Pleasanton. Isabel died in 1994.

He met Rose, his current wife, in Texas when he was visiting his brother and he married her in 1995.

Hoskins earned his bachelor's degree from University of Southern California.

After retiring from flying, Hoskins worked as an executive administrator for California State University, East Bay, where he implemented housing, was in charge of the school's student services budget and was director of career planning. He also earned his master's in public administration.

He retired in the early 1991 and plans to travel and enjoy life, he said. He is an active member of the Diablo Black Men's Group, the Bay Area Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, and the San Francisco Bay Opera Committee, which is dedicated to bringing more minorities to attend the opera.

He noted tremendous strides in racial equality, adding Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Barack Obama are examples of the great strides made by blacks.

"There is still room for improvement," he said.

Celebrating Memorial Day

* The Town of Danville and the Viet Nam Veterans of Diablo Valley will be holding a service for veterans on Memorial Day, May 28, at the All Wars Memorial in Oak Hill Park on Stone Valley Road.

The event will begin at approximately 10:30 a.m. The program includes patriotic songs, including the National Anthem, a color guard, and a speech by Roger Brautigan, undersecretary for the California Department of Veterans Affairs.

* Historical bombers will be flying into the Livermore Airport from May 27-29. They will be arriving at 3 p.m. on May 27, and be there all day on May 28-29. The event is sponsored by the Collings Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving historical airplanes. There will a B-17, a B-24 and a B-25. For more information, visit www.collingsfoundation.org/media.

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