In 1942, Stewart Fulbright was a man on a mission: he desperately wanted to become a pilot in the Army Air Corps. Just shy of the weight requirement of 125 pounds, he gulped down half a dozen bananas on his way to his physical exam, only to find out that a lengthy written exam was scheduled prior to the physical. The result was hours of gastric distress—and, after weighing in at exactly 125 pounds and passing both exams, receiving permission to fly.
I laughed when I heard Fulbright recount this anecdote. It reminded me of many similar stories I’ve heard in Veterans History Project interviews, of the tales of the lengths veterans went to in order to be permitted to serve their country. What sets Fulbright’s experience apart is what came after his induction into the Army Air Corps. Like many soldiers, he was not alone in his passion for airplanes or his desire to serve his country, but Fulbright’s struggle to demonstrate his worth to the Army Air Corps did not end with his entrance exams. As an African American serving with the 477th Bomb Group, one of the famed units of “Tuskegee Airmen,” battles against racism and segregation shaped his entire experience.
Fulbright’s story is one of 15 Veterans History Project collections presented as part of our newest installment of Experiencing War, created to commemorate the 70th anniversary of President Harry Truman’s landmark 1948 order that abolished segregation in the military. Entitled “Equality of Treatment and Opportunity: Executive Order 9981,” the exhibit explores the stories of veterans who served before, after, and in the midst of desegregation.
The purpose of Experiencing War has never been to present a comprehensive overview of a particular historical event, topic, or question. Rather, our online “web features” serve as an entry point into the vast array of narratives in our archive—in this case, the collections of over 1,200 African American veterans who served during World War II and the Korean War (and in many cases, in both conflicts). In curating this online exhibit, my goal was not to relate the precipitating factors that led to the Executive Order, or the history of African Americans in the military, but rather to explore what Truman’s instruction that the military ensure “equality of treatment and opportunity” within the United States Armed Forces meant on an individual level. For African Americans who served during World War II, what did it feel like to be part of the segregated military—particularly at a time when much of civilian life in the United States was also segregated? What were the immediate effects of the Executive Order on service personnel, and their day-to-day lives, in 1948? How did the experience of combat during the Korean War, at which point most units had been integrated, differ from that of World War II?
Each of the 15 collections selected for inclusion in “Equality of Treatment and Opportunity,” provide unique answers to these questions, and raise additional questions along the way. As a historian, I relish the way Veterans History Project collections demonstrate the nuance and complexity of history. While each veteran’s story connects to larger historical events and questions, no one collection, or even a set of 15 collections, can tell the whole story, and each of the profiled veterans shines a different light on the meaning of Executive Order 9981.
I hope that, in exploring these collections, you are as mesmerized as I am by these stories, and the wide breadth of experiences and opinions represented in them. Listen to William McDowell’s description of his first experience with Jim Crow laws while taking the train to basic training at Montford Point, North Carolina during World War II. Check out Ellis Ross’ collection of original photographs, which depict his jaunty sunglasses and his obvious enjoyment of sidewalk cafes in Paris and ancient ruins in Italy. Spend a moment with Odra Bradley as he discusses the respectful treatment he received from European civilians while serving abroad during World War II; in contrast, upon returning to the States and seeking employment after the war, he found that certain companies would only hire him as a janitor.
As for Stewart Fulbright, as he relates, life as a Tuskegee Airman made good use of the steely resolve that led him to eat all of those bananas. As he recounts in his oral history interview, like the other 14 veterans profiled, the challenges that he faced in serving in the segregated military yielded a lifelong attitude of perseverance:
“We all gained the idea that if we could survive these experiences, we could succeed in anything.”