|Death: ||Jul. 12, 2012|
Tuskegee Airman James Wilson, who taught math in Chicago for 43 years, died July
To the end of his days — and with a certain amount of satisfaction — Tuskegee Airman James A. Wilson never forgot the gasps.
The gasps of disbelief occurred when World War II bomber pilots met their high-flying escorts, the Tuskegee Airmen, who fended off the German Luftwaffe so the pilots could strike their targets.
Before the word spread about the skill and heart of the airmen, many of the Caucasian bombing aces didn't know their escorts were pioneering African-American fighter pilots, Mr. Wilson said in a 2003 interview with WBEZ's Richard Steele.
In fact, the Tuskegee Airmen were considered so expert that some of those white pilots requested escorts by the so-called "Red Tails," whose planes were tipped in red, Mr. Wilson said.
After some missions, "A few of the bombers couldn't get back home. They'd have to land at our airfield because [they] were shot up," said Mr. Wilson, who was primarily stationed in Italy. "They gasped when they walked into these tents — and here are these brown faces.
"Because they didn't know the Red Tails had brown faces."
"We were so careful about protecting the bombers that, after a while, the bombers in our area started asking their commanders to assign the Red Tails to cover them," Mr. Wilson told Steele, who interviewed him for a Wilson family history.
Mr. Wilson, who also was a math teacher in Chicago for 43 years, died July 12 in Fennville, Mich. He was 92.
He grew up in Marion, Ind. He was only 10 or so when a mob lynched two African-American men in a 1930 hate crime said to have inspired Billie Holiday's searing song, "Strange Fruit."
"My dad had all of us in the house with shotguns behind chairs," he told Steele. "Now, if those white people in Marion had come to our door, they were going to be shot, whatever happened to us, those people who tried to come in our door were going to be shot. I was sitting behind a shotgun; my dad was behind a shotgun. My older brother was behind a shotgun."
"He just said it was terrifying," said Mr. Wilson's daughter, Carol Wilson Saffold. During that era in Marion, less than 175 miles from Chicago, "They had to be so careful about the path they took to make sure they went through the right neighborhood, the right alley, basically to avoid the areas of town where they would be unwelcome."
Mr. Wilson's father, Faustin Wilson, was a janitor and painter. He and his wife, Helen, emphasized education. Nearly every one of their nine children received advanced college degrees, Saffold said. Faustin Wilson's father, Tucker Wilson, became the first African American to graduate from DePauw University, in 1888.
At Marion High School, a white teacher named Gladys Neal worked to get James Wilson a scholarship to Indiana's Earlham College. "She saw something in him," said Mr. Wilson's brother, Dwight. "He was very good in mathematics."
Earlham had a strong Quaker influence, and during World War II. Mr. Wilson considered becoming a conscientious objector. "I think the thing that turned me around was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor," he told Steele. "It was time to go and do what you can."
He had completed a year of graduate school at Howard University when he signed up for the Air Force. "They were starting this experiment at Tuskegee, so they were looking for people," he said in the interview.
At one point, he saw African-American military men under threat in their own country — even before they went off to war. A train was carrying them from Tuskegee, Ala., to Newport News, Va., where they were to be shipped overseas. There was no food on the train, so the African Americans stepped off, only to be met by gunfire from the locals, he said in the interview. The African Americans fired their machine guns in the air, his daughter said.
"The train stopped, and these machine guns were going every which way, because they didn't want these n - - - - - - coming up too, because the guys were going up to get some food," Mr. Wilson said. "They got that train going in a hurry."
During one mission, he recounted, his revolver saved his life: "This piece of flak tore through the side of the plane. It tore through my jacket and hit my .45. Now, if it hadn't hit that .45, it would have torn me open."
He had a theory about why the Red Tails were appreciated. "If there were two German planes coming toward us, four of us would break off and either shoot them down or drive them away, whereas the rest of the flight stayed with the bomber." Tapping his chest, he said: "The white boys were interested mostly in their reputation. You know, they wanted to get these various kinds of medals on their chest. We were interested in seeing that those bombers got their target."
He lost so many tent mates that superstitious pilots refused to bunk with him, he once told the Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper.
After the war, Mr. Wilson studied at the University of Chicago. He taught math for decades at Wendell Phillips High School and Kennedy-King College.
"He was so encouraging and helpful," said Charles Thomas, one of Mr. Wilson's students at Phillips. "He really was interested in helping you as a person, especially when he realized you were applying yourself."
Today, said Thomas, 75, "I can't remember anything about trigonometry. But I remember him."
In addition to receiving an air medal with two oak leaf clusters, Mr. Wilson and other Tuskegee Airmen were honored in 2007 with a Congressional Gold Medal.
He married Doris Dahlgren, a Swedish woman he met at the University of Chicago. They faced "tremendous difficulty" with discrimination, Saffold said. She died before him. Later, he married Bessie Davis. She also died before him.
After retiring, Mr. Wilson moved to his farm in Michigan, where he planted trees until he was 87, his daughter said.
He also is survived by a son, James; sisters Priscilla Warrick and Faustine King; two other brothers, Lawrence and Robert, and four grandchildren.
Created by: Never Forget
Record added: Jul 13, 2012
Find A Grave Memorial# 93541626