I Am Milwaukee
John is 92 years old and has been married to his wife Ella for 70 years. They have lived in their small, single family home in the Grasslyn Manor neighborhood since 1982. Today, John has limited mobility and Ella is confined to bed. Their children take turns caring for them so that they are able to remain in their home.
Recently, the family called Revitalize Milwaukee because the water heater in their parents’ home had stopped working. Their parents couldn’t afford to replace it and didn’t know what to do. Revitalize Milwaukee responded to John and Ella’s call for help. Within days, Revitalize Milwaukee replaced the broken water heater.
During a home visit to John and Ella’s home, Revitalize Milwaukee learned that John was a veteran. In 2016, Revitalize Milwaukee assisted 29 veterans and 41 families of veterans with critical repairs to keep them safe in their homes
John enlisted in the Airforce in 1943, joined the Tuskegee Airmen and eventually became a mechanic during World War II. The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-American military aviators in the United States Armed Forces. The name Tuskegee Airmen also applied to the navigators, bombardiers, mechanics, instructors, crew chiefs, nurses, cooks and other support personnel for the pilots.
John likes to share stories about his time in the service. He was part of the 99th Fighter Group, the first African American group of aviators to go to Europe. “They had such a good record,” says John. “We were real proud of our outfit.”
The army didn’t allow African American mechanics like John to serve with fighter groups in Europe. The Tuskegee Airmen were subjected to discrimination, both inside and outside the army. “The prejudice was always there,” said John. “I experienced it throughout my three years in the US Army Air Force.” Officers as well as enlisted soldiers called him and other black soldiers all kinds of names. He remembers one time while en route to Shepherd’s Field in Texas, the train stopped in Dennison, Texas. The residents routinely served meals to soldiers on transport trains, but they refused to serve soldiers on John’s train because they were black. President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a direct order to the residents to feed the soldiers.
Throughout the war, he flew daily training missions all around the country. “I didn’t go overseas. The army told us they didn’t have time to desegregate,” John said. “We flew all over the United States every day. We were ready. We were super ready.” Toward the end of the war John’s group received word that they would join the fight in Japan, but then the Japanese surrendered.
John also likes to share the irony of his discharge. On his discharge papers, he is identified as white. As a clerk processed hundreds of other soldiers, all white, for discharge, he never looked up when John stood before him. The clerk typed white in the category for race. John didn’t request a change to the record. He laughed and said, “I decided I’m gonna stay white,” says John. So his discharge papers still today identify him as white.
Of the Tuskegee Airman Group John remarks, “I knew most of pilots and bombers.” They did such a wonderful job. We brought down so many barriers. I knew I was a part of something special and historic.” After his discharge from the military in 1946, John returned to Milwaukee and married Ella. He landed a job at the Pfister and Vogel Leather Company, where he worked for 20 years. He then worked for the US Postal Service until his retirement. John and Ella raised five children and have a host of grandchildren.
Revitalize Milwaukee is grateful for the opportunity to serve those who have served our country. We are happy to have been able to replace John and Ella’s water heater and help allow them to remain safely in their home.
Excerpts of this story were taken from a story about John written by Mark Nepper. Photo credit of John at 92 – Mark Hines