The following was written by Matthew Camarda, one of 26 college students participating in the Knowledge Navigators program at the Library of Congress. The 10-week internship program is offered to students at the University of Virginia, Catholic University of America and the College of William & Mary. Camarda is currently a senior at the College of William and Mary, majoring in government with a minor in history. His job creating Initial Bibliographic Control records for the Library’s History and Military Section related to his own interests in American politics and history.
As a Knowledge Navigators intern, I was tasked with creating initial bibliographic control records for the History and Military Science section. This brought me into contact with hundreds of history and military books, mostly obscure, but also fascinating. What I encountered most were veterans’ autobiographies detailing their time in the armed forces.
One book in particular stuck with me: “Two Steps from Glory: A World War II Liaison Pilot Confronts Jim Crow and the Enemy in the South Pacific,” by Army Major Welton I. Taylor and his daughter, Karyn. What grabbed me were Taylor’s effective, powerful voice, his moral fortitude and an incredible life story.
Taylor’s personal narratives are also part of the Library’s Veterans History Project’s collections.
Born in 1919, Taylor spent the first five years of his life in Birmingham, Alabama. He and his family were forced to leave when his mother saw a klansman unhooded at a Ku Klux Klan rally and promptly yelled at him.
He grew up in Chicago, where he developed an interest in making and selling model airplanes. In his VHP interview, Taylor remembered his father telling him that no black men had ever been allowed to be a pilot in the Armed Forces, but that he should try anyway, saying, “Times change, things change, people change.”
Taylor attended the University of Illinois through scholarships from the black fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi, majoring in bacteriology and serving for two years in the ROTC’s Field Artillery, eventually becoming a second lieutenant (one of the first black officers at that time) just before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Serving with the Second Battalion of the 184th Field Artillery Regiment, he witnessed how even successful black units faced discrimination by the Army, who shipped away freshly trained recruits and skilled officers to labor outfits.
Beating the odds, Taylor was sent to flight school where he averaged a 98 percent in all his tests and fought to prevent the school from segregating his living quarters. In 1943, he was sent to the Pacific Theater, first to Guadalcanal and later to New Guinea and Mortai, earning seven Air Medals.
Even abroad, discrimination was rampant. In one instance, every white and black officer’s pay was docked $25 every month to pay for a new, whites-only officers’ club. Refusing to accept this, Taylor found a captain who helped him send his complaint to judge advocate general, which forced the white officers to either refund the black officers the money or allow them inside the club.
Returning home to Illinois from the war, Taylor continued to fight segregation. Recruited by the wife of Champaign’s district attorney, Taylor fought alongside black and white veterans to integrate restaurants and movie theaters.
Taylor and his wife, Jayne, later moved to the all-white neighborhood of Chatham on the South Side of Chicago. There, Taylor served in several community organizations and was even appointed to Mayor Richard M. Daley’s Commission on Human Relations. Despite the Taylors’ and other community leaders’ best efforts, white flight quickly flipped the town’s racial composition.
Taylor would go on to lead a distinguished career as a microbiologist. As an instructor at the University of Illinois’ College of Medicine, he wrote papers on the diseases that had killed soldiers during wartime – including diphtheria, tetanus and gas gangrene – proving that each could be cured by penicillin. Working as a microbiologist at Swift & Company and later at Children’s Memorial Hospital, he helped develop a new method for salmonella detection that is still used today.
Taylor also spent two decades consulting for hospitals, corporations and the Center for Disease Control, helping them address food-borne illness, Legionnaires’ Disease and AIDS. In 1985, the CDC named a newly discovered bacterium, Enterobacter taylorae, partially in his honor.
I had never heard of Taylor, yet the breadth and magnitude of his accomplishments are staggering. His skill as a pilot and a leader made a mockery of the Army’s segregation policies. Men like Taylor enabled President Truman to desegregate the Armed Forces, which was recommended by the President’s Committee on Civil Rights, currently on display in the Library’s Civil Rights exhibit.
Taylor’s life proves that you don’t have to achieve fame to make a difference; day-to-day hard work and perseverance can bring about gradual but monumental change. Further, it affirms the essential work of the Library of Congress (and the Veterans History Project), which not only compiles stories but also encourages people to tell theirs.
In recognition of the 70th anniversary of VJ-Day, the Veterans History Project has launched a major campaign to preserve the stories of World War II veterans residing in and around the nation’s capital. Select appointments are available through Sept. 2 to conduct interviews on site at the Library. In addition, training sessions for interviewers are being offered Sept. 25 and Sept. 26.
Sources: “Two Steps from Glory,” by Maj. Welton I. Taylor, with Karyn J. Taylor; Welton I. Taylor Collection (Interviewer: Thomas Murray)