Tuskegee Airman recounts AF integration story for 919th SOW

  • Published
  • By Dan Neely
  • 919th Special Operations Wing Public Affairs
An original member of the famed all-African-American World War II flying unit, the Tuskegee Airmen, visited 919th Special Operations Wing reservists here July 10.

Retired Chief Master Sgt. Walter Richardson, a highly decorated, 30-year veteran and career aircraft maintainer, ate lunch with several fellow chiefs at the base dining facility before speaking to a mass audience in the base theater.

Wearing a vivid red suit , the tall, burly-voiced Pensacola native and current Fort Walton Beach resident spoke, often humorously, about the trials of being among the first group of African-Americans tasked to begin integrating a then-fledgling U.S. Air Force.

"Today I stand before you having completed what I consider the work I was assigned to do," he said. The remark summarized completion of the integration challenge he and 1,500 of his fellow Tuskegee Airmen received from their commander, Col. Benjamin Davis Jr., who eventually became the U.S. military's first African-American general officer.

Leaving behind the relative comfort of camaraderie with his fellow African-American military brethren at the Tuskegee Airmen's home station near Columbus, Ohio, Mr. Richardson began his first assignment at a non-integrated base in Japan.

"There I was, a little boy from Pensacola, never had been part of integration, dumped into a Quonset hut with 24 white boys who didn't know how to pronounce the word negro -- but you know what they said," he recalled.

The veteran related how his first military duty there immediately challenged his composure as well as his resourcefulness. Ordered by his first sergeant to mow the headquarters lawn -- without a lawn mower or any hand-held implements -- Mr. Richardson responded with unique resolve.

"I found an old rotting wood barrel with the metal rings falling off," he said. "I took one ring and used a large coral rock to sharpen one edge long enough and wrapped a towel around part of it to make a sling to cut that grass."

Singing a stanza from the Irish tune, "Danny Boy," Mr. Richardson elicited laughter and applause when he told how his ability to sing while laboring so impressed the first sergeant, "he let me clean the latrines."

The retired chief said building a successful Air Force career in his earlier environment of racial hatred meant drawing on his deep faith in God and the encouraging words of loved ones back home.

"I'll never forget what I was told by my elementary school teacher, Ms. Lillie James. She told me, 'Keep your bags packed, because you never know when the door of opportunity will open for little colored boys and girls.' So, here I am!"

Mr. Richardson, who retired in 1979 and resides with his wife, Helen, has since moved on to become a deacon in his Catholic church and a highly respected civic leader and businessman. In April he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller for his pioneering service as a Tuskegee Airman.

Following his speech, Airmen in the audience eagerly shook hands with and snapped photos of one of their military role models.

"Hearing the true story of how Chief Richardson was able to help integrate the Armed Forces during the times when African-American people were considered one-third of a person was very, very, very inspirational," said Master Sgt. Derrick Richardson [no relation], superintendent, 919th SOW command section. "It was great to see a true pioneer who was willing to keep the oath and endure so much disrespect and other terrible things to ensure opportunity for others to serve in future."

Technical Sgt. Tiffany Prophet, NCO in charge of the 919th SOW command section, said the chief brought a renewed spirit and energy that many Airmen needed and could relate to.

"He represents what can happen through putting your faith first, keeping your family second, and persevering through whatever challenges you face in life," she said. "No matter what background anyone in the room came from everyone was able to relate to something he said and was able to respect the humility that this man endured."

Chief Master Sgt. Michael Klausutis, 919th SOW command chief, said he was strongly motivated to invite the guest speaker after witnessing his Congressional Gold Medal ceremony, as well as spending time with him at a historical observance at Eglin Air Force Base.

"It meant a lot to me that Chief Richardson would accept my invitation to have lunch with our Chiefs Group and speak with the members of the wing," he said. "I feel truly honored for having had the opportunity to bring him to Duke Field and introduce him to the 919th SOW. After the short few hours with him on Saturday I left reinvigorated and reminded of the awesome responsibility I have as a chief following in the footsteps of men like Chief Walt Richardson."