Leslie Williams passed away a few days ago. He was 95 years old, and one of the few living members of a famous World War Two command known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
It was a bold and controversial experiment the American military embarked on in 1939. With war clouds gathering, in a day when the military and most of American society was racially segregated, Congress approved funds to recruit and train African-Americans as pilots. Leslie Williams was among the first to join. He and his fellow cadets learned to fly while they attended classes at nearby Tuskegee Institute. The best-known unit that came out of Tuskegee was the 332nd Fighter Group. They painted the tails of their P47’s and P51’s red and gained fame as the “Red Tails,” distinguishing themselves in combat in the skies over Europe. Their exploits have been chronicled in books and movies.
I’ve long been fascinated by the story of the Tuskegee Airmen – partly because of their distinguished military record, partly because of the racial discrimination they had to overcome, and deal with constantly, to earn the right to get in those cockpits. Leslie Williams, in an interview a few years ago, said, “In those days, no one had to salute blacks, but we could be court-martialed if we didn’t salute a white officer. The discrimination was bad.” But Williams and his fellow officers endured all that and prevailed.
In a much broader sense, I’m intrigued by that entire generation of young American men and women who lived through Depression and brought their nation through a conflict of staggering proportions. After World War Two, everything was different. Those young Americans changed the world, and the world changed them.
I knew some of them intimately. My father and three uncles served – two pilots, a soldier, a sailor. In the post-war years, when I was a child and youth, they spoke sometimes in passing of their experiences – never of the moments in combats when they were in grave peril, but of the experience of being uprooted from a small Alabama town and sent to the ends of the globe. In what they said, the memorabilia they brought back, in the letters to and from wives and girlfriends, I could feel their homesickness, their wonder at the places where they were stationed – England, France, Germany, Burma, China. I came to realize that the war had altered them irrevocably in ways I could only glimpse and suspect.
I have taken liberally from those men’s war experience in my writing. My first novel, Home Fires Burning, is set in a small southern town during the last year of the war – a story of the folks who stayed behind and supported the war effort, and the young men who came back, profoundly changed, to try to bring some order to their lives – to settle into jobs and raising families and being part of a community.
More importantly, what I sensed about my father and uncles and their time at war let me know that in all of us, there are things below the surface, rarely revealed, secrets of the heart, that nevertheless shape who we are and how we look at the world in vital ways. It’s that life-below-the-surface thing, the subtext, the rough edges, that interests me most when I imagine characters. As a writer, I can peer into my characters’ souls and feel things that are not obvious, but which are essential.
Leslie Williams survived the war and returned to his native California to become a successful businessman, and at age 60, finish law school and begin a 20-year legal career. My father and uncles settled in my southern town and made lives in business and public service. They were quiet lives, but they were meaningful lives. They had gone in harm’s way in faraway places and come home to shape my own life. I am forever in their debt.