JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas –
When most people think of the Tuskegee Airmen, they remember the pilots and the P-51 Mustang fighter aircraft with the red tails they flew. However, many people were not aware of the Tuskegee Airmen’s civilian force, who worked in the background and contributed to the now-famous Red Tails’ success.
This group of men and one woman, who are also considered Tuskegee Airmen because of their contribution to the legacy of the “Original Tuskegee Airmen,” began at San Antonio’s Duncan Army Airfield.
This story is about the 49 +1 Black civilians that supported the Tuskegee Airmen flyers, and most notably, about Wilber Miller, a Black man, and the team’s leader, who was responsible for recruiting the 50 civilian African American workers from Kelly Field to Alabama to support a new air depot at Tuskegee Army Airfield. Their jobs were to provide maintenance and admin support to Alabama’s African American fighter squadron during its primary phase of training on aircraft for the legendary “Tuskegee Airmen.”
Miller, a San Antonio native, was a U.S. Navy veteran of World War I. He also served with the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Regiment on the Mexican border in the early 1920s. After service, in 1935, Miller obtained a job as a mechanic’s helper (the only civil-service rating for which Blacks were eligible to work at the time) at the “air depot” at Duncan Field in San Antonio.
Although some people considered the aircraft mechanic a lowly job, they became known as the Air Force’s backbone for flyers.
A document titled “The role of the Airplane Mechanic” summarizes the mechanic's importance.
“In the popular imagination, the aircrew member, particularly the pilots, are the aerial warfare heroes. However, everyone familiar with the reality of the situation, especially pilots and their fellow crew members realizes that his dependence upon the less glamorous airplane mechanic, the lowly 'grease monkey.”’(1)
These soon-to-be mechanics were taught “on the job” at various army installations to furnish logistical, ground support, and mechanical assistance to the 99th Fighter Squadron currently in training at the all-Negro flying school. (2) The bulk of airplane mechanics were trained mainly at two Air Service mechanic schools; one was located at Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas, where Miller worked.
Finally, on April 24, 1942, under Miller’s supervision, the 50 civilians that were trained through the U.S. Civil Service Commission at San Antonio Air Depot’s Duncan Field were ordered to report to their new permanent duty station at the 309th Sub-Depot, at the Tuskegee Army Airfield in Tuskegee, Alabama. During that time, the airfield was under construction, and the home to the prestigious Tuskegee Institute, founded by Booker T. Washington, and the home of the first black pilots of the 99th Fighter Squadron and oddly enough; it was located within the heart of the Jim Crow South.
The 50 civilians continued their advanced training under white instructors as they established the new air depot at Tuskegee, providing ongoing maintenance support for the training aircraft used by the now legendary “Tuskegee Airmen.”
Upon returning from the war, the now-famous Red Tail pilots were recognized for breaking the military’s racial barrier and performing outstandingly during the war. Their missions took them over Italy and enemy-occupied parts of central and southern Europe. Their operational aircraft were, in succession: Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, Bell P-39 Airacobra, Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, and North American P-51 Mustang fighter aircraft.
The Tuskegee Airmen’s accomplishments did not go unnoticed by their peers and associates. They returned home bearing the honor they earned. According to the National Archives Foundation, “From 1941 to 1946, hundreds of African Americans successfully trained as pilots at the Tuskegee Institute, serving with distinction throughout the war. They flew 15,500 combat sorties, including more than 6,000 missions for the 99th Squadron before July 1944. Sixty-six pilots lost their lives and were killed in action. Thirty-two were downed or became prisoners of war. Moreover, they received 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 744 Air Medals, eight Purple Hearts, and 14 Bronze Stars among the outfit. On July 1, 1949, the 99th Fighter Squadron disbanded, and its members were re-assigned to integrated organizations.”
Their success was due partly to the support from the 309th Sub-Depot group working in the background.
Regrettably, without fanfare or recognition, the group of unsung heroes returned to San Antonio’s Kelly Field sometime around the 1940s. However, they came back to civilian government positions such as custodial or menial-type jobs, rather than positions they qualified for and performed at the Tuskegee Army Airfield as logistic aircraft maintenance personnel.
Notwithstanding, in September of 1992, the Black Heritage Association honored all 49 men and one woman (Virginia Porter), who sustained and provided ground support and maintenance for the Tuskegee Institute’s Pilot Flight School’s formation in 1943, during World War II, at a luncheon at the Kelly Air Force Base Officer’s Club. The event was documented in the San Antonio National Register, a weekly newspaper for the African-American community. (3)
“The formation of a flight school at Tuskegee was a major historical event. The pilots have received recognition, but this civilian support group has not been properly recognized, and the Black Heritage Association wishes to do so,” said event chair Ella Saine.
Miller’s contribution to the Air Force did not end with the Tuskegee Airmen. In 1944, Miller was recalled to San Antonio as the “Employee Counselor for Negroes,” due to racial tensions of the greatly expanded and newly diverse civilian workforce of whites, Latinos, and African Americans, which threatened to explode violently in the local community and the base. Miller was a member of Kelly’s multi-ethnic Morale Committee. He also chaired the separate Negro Morale Committee.
In 1995, the Kelly Heritage Foundation placed Wilber B. Miller’s bust, sculpted by Emilio Torres, in the “Ring of Honor” in Memorial Park at Kelly Air Force Base, now Port San Antonio.
Beneath the bust reads.
“In 1941, the War Department announced the creation of the 99th Pursuit Squadron, the first all-African American combat unit in the Army Air Forces. This unit trained at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Fifty African American Kelly workers of “49 men and 1 woman” left Texas to serve as mechanics and support personnel for the Tuskegee Flying School. The team leader for this “49+1” group from Kelly was Wilber Miller. The spirit and dedication of these trailblazers are a continuing legacy and a reminder of the heritage of service to our nation shared by all of Kelly’s African-American personnel. (4)
Currently, the bust of Miller and plaque has been moved and placed in storage due to upgrading the Ring of Honor Memorial. It will not be on display until further notice.
The 50 members’ names are Claude Ammons, Harry Barnes, Jessie Bonner, Thomas Butler, Jr., Amos Chandler, James Christopher, Bertha Coats, Vincent Collins, Lobiss Colman, Albert Colvin, Jessie Colvin, Clarence Dean, Charles Dearman Jack Dilworth, Clifton Dorn, Edward Doyle, Monnie Duncan, Walter Fielder, Marshall Fletcher, Arthur Gabriel, Pink Harris, Lloyd Harris, Leslie Harris, Admiral D. Howard, Herbert Johnson, Idell Johnson Jack Johnson, Emory S. King, Lorenzo Knowles, O.B. Lewis, Belton Littlefield, Clair Mathis, Willie Mathis, John Miles, Jr., Wilber Miller, Earlie McNeal, Virginia Porter (the only woman in the group), Norman Powell, Rufus Priestly, Coyle Rice, Lonnie Saunders, Simmons Shaw, Bunton Smith, Henry Stillwell, Jr., Otis Street, Ollie Watson, Vernon Wilborn, Thelbert Williams, and Clarence Wilson.