World War II brought out extraordinary feats of valor, service and sacrifice of everyday Americans. But during this time, many servicemen and women found themselves fighting for freedom abroad while at home they were denied the basic freedoms and dignities they had defended.
Tuskegee Airman and Stockbridge resident Val Archer served in the U.S. Army at a time when the country was a very different place.
In those days, even German prisoners of war were given more basic dignities in some ways than black Americans serving in the military.
"They could go to certain places on bases where we were training that we could not," said Archer. "(Prisoners of war) could go to the Base Exchange and the base theatre, and there were seating arrangements where they could sit where they wanted to, and we were either stuck in the balcony, if there were a balcony, or some segregated area at the movies."
Life in the 1940s was restricted for black Americans, especially in the more prestigious career fields and activities. And with a war ongoing and the boom of technology that came with it, there were few fields more prestigious than aviation.
A resilient and patriotic group, now known as the Tuskegee Airmen, had a small chance at the opportunity of the wild blue yonder thanks to an experiment by the U.S. Government to train blacks to become pilots.
In 1944, Archer was a 15-year old high school dropout who had just lost his mother and was looking for a path into adulthood. The opportunity to be involved with flight was just the thing.
Archer grew up in Chicago hearing and watching the glistening airframes of DC-3 airplanes flying overhead. He soaked in newsreels of American flyers in acts of heroism in World War II, read comic books of men soaring through the air and fell in love with airplanes. That childhood fanaticism, along with a country-wide patriotic duty to protect his home and a lack of finding anyone who was willing to hire a young black man led him to try and enlist in the service.
"For black people, especially young black guys, you couldn’t buy a job," Archer said. "Newspapers ran help wanted ads that, on top of each ad, would say ‘No colored or no Negroes need apply.’ The segregation was pretty blatant; I could see the injustice in it."
First Archer tried the Navy and Marines but they wouldn’t accept a 15-year old. Then one day he and his buddy were downtown and decided to stop into the Army recruiter. The Army accepted and processed them right there. The next day — after some numerical changes to his birth certificate — Archer became a member of the United States Army.
He was assigned to a combat engineer outfit called the aviation engineering squadron doing mostly construction and demolition jobs. Following that he was assigned to the Army Air Corps in the all-black unit, the 332 fighter group.
The group originally started out Rantoul, Ill., as an experiment. When it was approved to become the 99th fighter group, they were assigned to Tuskegee, Ala.
Since the Army was still segregated, the 99th fighter group had to have its own air base separate from whites and was moved to Tuskegee, because the Tuskegee Institute was one of six black campuses of the civilian pilot training program. From 1941 to 1946, the Tuskegee Army Air Field trained about 994 pilots and 15,000 ground personnel, of which around 119 pilots and 211 ground personnel are still alive.
Many people at the time, from civilians to academic experts to generals and politicians, assumed blacks were incapable of the skills, knowledge and courage needed for aviation and expected the group to fail.
Another common reaction, said Archer, when a black person tried to do something considered out of the ordinary such as enlisting in the service, was an attitude of "who do you think you are?"
But that didn’t deter Archer and his fellow servicemen, even if people sometimes asked why they were fighting for a country that excluded them from so many things.
"I would say it was much my responsibility as it is yours," Archer said. "It is my war as much as it is your war. My family is involved in this the same as your family.
"If the U.S. was going to get bombed ,they’re not going to say, ‘You black people stay over there. We’re only going to bomb someone else.’"
The Tuskegee Airmen took this abuse frequently and still prevailed. The 332, known as the Red Tails because of the unique paint scheme on their P-57s became one of the most elite groups in the war. Working as bomber escorts for the Army’s B-25, the Red Tails were often requested to ensure as few casualties as possible.
While Archer, a crew chief, and the Tuskegee Airmen were training to fly B-25s over Japan, the bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki went off and the war ended.
But that didn’t bring Archer’s service or the struggles of black soldiers to an end. Archer stayed in the armed services for 23 years, retiring as a technical sergeant.
It ultimately took about 20 years before the armed services became fully integrated, even after President Truman’s Executive Order 9981, given in 1948.
"On paper that is what the deal was, but in fact there was a lot of resistance to it," Archer said. "It just took a long time."
But eventually life became easier for blacks trying to defend their country, thanks to the path-breaking struggles and performance of soldiers such as Archer and the Tuskegee Airmen.
"America was a different place, almost like a different country, compared to what it is today," he said. "I’m proud as are a lot of people who were part of the change for changing the format for segregation to the extent that today the armed forces are a kind of model for what the society is and the way they have adjusted and accommodated desegregation of America."