in the military
A long uphill climb toward a level playing field
Taken prisoner in World War II after his plane was shot down over Germany,
George Iles thought his German captors would be exceptionally harsh with
him because he was African-American. Recalling his mistake today, he laughs
"I went through several POW camps," he says, "but the
Germans treated me and the other black pilots just like the white pilots.
My friends and I thought it was very ironic, because everywhere else we'd
been, we were segregated and treated as inferior. We had to get shot down
to be treated as equals."
Iles (SMG'48) was one of America's first black fighter pilots, serving
in the storied Army Air Corps regiment known as the Tuskegee Airmen. The
segregated fighter group destroyed hundreds of enemy aircraft and won
more than 850 medals for valor, silencing racists who had insisted that
blacks could not be trained to fly.
Blacks have served in every war the United States has been involved in
since the Revolution, and until the 1960s and 1970s, history books largely
ignored the numerous examples of their heroism. Few children learned,
for instance, about the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, a volunteer group
of blacks who fought during the Civil War, or the Harlem Hellfighters,
a National Guard outfit from New York City that earned the Croix de Guerre
from France in World War I. The 1952 film Red Ball Express has been widely
criticized for downplaying the role of blacks in World War II's Battle
of the Bulge, where as truck drivers they risked their lives delivering
badly needed supplies to U.S. troops in France.
Today blacks make up approximately 10 percent of officers and 30 percent
of enlisted personnel in the Army, and about 5 percent of officers and
more than 15 percent of enlistees in the Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force.
Yet it was just 53 years ago that President Harry Truman signed an executive
order ending segregation in the armed forces, and all branches of the
military were not fully integrated until the Vietnam War.
Herein, Iles and two other black veterans describe what it was like to
serve their country during that time of transition. A fourth man, an Army
major who completed BU's Reserve Officer Training Corps program in 1988,
adds his perspective on how times have changed in the military.
Segregation in the airIles enlisted in the Army in the early 1940s, when
he was halfway through his undergraduate studies at Quincy College in
Illinois. He was one of about 1,000 black pilots whom the Army Air Corps
(predecessor of the U.S. Air Force) trained at an isolated boot camp in
Tuskegee, Ala., in an endeavor then referred to by the government as the
Tuskegee Experiment. Graduates of the program went to Europe and formed
the 332nd Fighter Group. Their commanding officer was Benjamin Davis,
who later became the first black general in the Air Force.
"Many people thought the Tuskegee Experiment would fail, but it didn't,"
Iles says. "Colonel Davis was a very stern taskmaster because he
knew that the future of blacks in aviation was riding on our success."
Iles completed his Air Corps training in May 1944, and participated in
23 strafing missions over northern Italy, Germany, and Austria before
he was shot down and taken prisoner in February 1945. American troops
liberated him two months later. "When I returned to the United States,"
he says, "there was still only one base that would accommodate black
pilots, and that was Tuskegee."
He stayed on at the base for a year, until he received a commission in
the regular Army. A fortunate side benefit was the chance to continue
his college education tuition-free. After graduating from BU in 1948,
Iles returned once again to Tuskegee and served as an instructor pilot.
The same year Truman issued his executive order desegregating the military,
which opened up a number of career paths for blacks. Iles attended an
intelligence school in Denver and eventually rose to the rank of colonel,
serving in the Korean and Vietnam wars before retiring in 1973.
"By the time I served in Korea, the Army was accepting blacks in
almost any position you could qualify for," Iles says. "In Vietnam,
of course, things had progressed to the point where there just wasn't
"I was always very proud that the first element in American society
to integrate was the U.S. military," he says. "I think the Tuskegee
Airmen had a hand in hastening the integration of blacks into the civilian
world, because we proved during World War II that we could do the job
as well as anybody else."
The French connection
James Teele, a CAS professor of sociology, was drafted into the Army in
the summer of 1950 and attended intelligence school in Fort Riley, Kans.,
expecting to serve in Korea. Instead he was assigned to an engineering
battalion in Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., for a year before heading to Verdun,
France. This was the first time France had allowed American soldiers back
into the country after World War II.
"President Truman prevailed on France to let us back in," Teele
says. "He was afraid that the Korean conflict was a diversionary
tactic that the Russians had designed to get us to send a lot of troops
and men to the Far East while they attacked Europe through Germany. Our
job was to build a supply route and a rear base in France to back up our
troops in Germany in case they had to retreat."
Teele was a noncommissioned intelligence sergeant for his battallion.
He was chosen for the French mission partly because of his familiarity
with the culture and language: he had studied for two months in and around
Paris as part of his undergraduate program at Virginia Union University.
Apart from top-secret duties he's still not at liberty to discuss, Teele
was in charge of maintaining good relations between the U.S. soldiers
and the local French population.
"I organized a big party at an outdoor café," Teele says,
smiling as he recalls the riverfront bash. "I put an announcement
in the local newspaper inviting the whole city of Verdun, because the
colonel said we should have some women there to keep up troop morale.
I knew the only way to bring girls to the party was to invite their parents,
aunts, uncles, and grandparents, too."
After 14 months, Teele was promoted to the rank of sergeant first class.
His fellow troops were all black and fewer than half the officers were
white, despite Truman's 1948 executive order. The battalion wasn't integrated
until Teele had completed his tour of duty. As he was leaving, an officer
encouraged him to stay and make his career in the military, but by then
Teele had already made up his mind to pursue a graduate degree in sociology
at New York University.
Yet his experience in the Army was positive. "It was the most democratic
organization I'd ever been part of," he says, "because I grew
up in Virginia and had to sit on the back of buses to go to school. The
Army rewarded you on the basis of merit, and for the most part, I was
a good soldier."
Service in the service
W. Norman Johnson, BU's vice president and dean of students, witnessed
the integration of the Navy over a period of three decades, eventually
attaining the rank of rear admiral in 1983. Born and raised in Roxbury,
he enlisted in 1956, when the civil rights movement was just getting under
way. He frequently confronted racism when he ventured outside his boot
camp in Perryville, Md. In one instance, he tried to buy a sandwich at
a restaurant near the base but was informed he had the wrong skin color.
"My answer was, 'Take a look around this place -- it looks like they're
all sailors to me, and if you refuse to serve me I'll go back to the base
and say you're not serving sailors,'" Johnson recalls. "It was
unmitigated gall on my part, but they served me."
After boot camp, Johnson was determined to become an officer. By the late
1960s he rose to the rank of lieutenant commander on a destroyer.
"Most blacks in the Navy were in service functions when I joined,
such as laundrymen, cooks, and stewards," he says. "But as the
Navy realized we had something more to offer, blacks were allowed to attend
school and earn some of the critical ratings, such as sonar men, radio
men, and machinists. The black officers I knew and some of the fellows
coming out of the Naval Academy were getting better assignments. But it
was a hard nut to crack when you think of the history of the U.S. Navy
and how long it was truly segregated.
"A lot has changed in the military as a result of the work of civil
rights lawyers and the NAACP, as well as the Supreme Court decisions ending
segregation," he says. "These are the sorts of things that made
the playing field tilt a little more toward level."
"Totally different Army"
Jason Vick (SMG'88) began his career as an Army logistician not long before
Colin Powell, now secretary of state, was named chairman of the Joint Chiefs
of Staff in October 1989. Powell has been just one of many inspirational
figures for Vick, who studied business and management information systems
while completing the Reserve Officer Training Corps program at BU.
Vick served as a platoon leader in the Gulf War and worked as a logistics
officer for several years. Now he's pursuing an MBA at Baker University
and a master's degree in military arts and sciences at the U.S. Army Command
and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth.
Much has changed, he says, since two of his uncles were in the armed services
between the Korean and Vietnam wars. "Their impressions of military
life are a lot different from mine," Vick says. "They didn't believe,
and it wasn't commonly expected, that black men could advance in the military
or in society. But when I graduated from high school in 1984, I felt I could
do or be anything I wanted. And in the Army I haven't seen my race as being
a limiting factor for my potential.
"Back in my uncles' time, in the 1950s, you could crack racist jokes
or make offensive comments in the Army, but you can't get away with that
now," he adds. "Even profanity by and large isn't the norm. More
important, there's an inspector general at every installation, and if someone
believes he has been a victim of discrimination, there's a way to address
"If you talk to some of the guys who served during Vietnam and are
now sergeant majors and generals, they'll say this is a totally different
Army than we had back then," Vick says. "The Army and other branches
of the military have been a model for integration in the rest of society."
By day, she's Ruth Mason, a mild-mannered academic administrator. By
night, she's Ruby, a sultry-voiced blues crooner who appears in some of
Boston's hottest nightclubs.
Mason, director of ENG's department of manufacturing engineering, has
maintained this dual identity ever since she started working at BU 15
years ago. She sings with a popular local band called the Sky Blues.
"I've wanted to perform live music ever since I saw the Beatles on
the Ed Sullivan Show," she says, recalling the Fab Four's television
debut in 1964. "It's a really hard business sometimes, but it's also
exciting and wild."
Mason and her husband, guitarist Bill Mason, have performed together since
the early 1980s. As a duo or with a band, they have produced four critically
acclaimed CDs and warmed up for several famous artists, including David
Crosby and Jonathan Edwards. They have played major clubs in New York
and Boston, including the House of Blues and the Hard Rock Cafe.
Yet at times Mason finds a small neighborhood bar a welcome change of
pace. One of her favorite venues is O'Leary's in Brookline, a Beacon Street
pub just a few blocks south of her BU office. The narrow, deep dining
room has no space for a keyboard or drum kit, but she doesn't mind.
"It's a really fun, interesting night because we have to take a totally
different approach to our music," she says. "It's all acoustic.
I spend the night playing harmonica and melodica [a wind instrument with
a keyboard] and singing. The music takes on a simpler, bare-bones quality
that I like because you can capture the essence of a song that way."
A farmer's daughter from the tiny village of Graham, Mo., Mason was a
soloist in her church gospel choir and later studied voice and piano at
Northwest Missouri State University. The Masons met and joined a band
while Ruth was working at the University of Arizona, and subsequently
the entire group moved to New Hampshire. "It was a whole different
scene back then," Mason says. "There were a lot of big clubs
in the resort and ski areas that paid very well, and we did a great business."
After four years of touring the Northeast, that band broke up, but Ruth
and Bill found their niche in Boston's thriving blues-rock community.
Meanwhile, in 1986, Ruth resurrected her career in academia, taking a
job in the dean's office at the College of Engineering. The couple launched
the Sky Blues in 1991 with two former bandmates.
Today the Masons produce their CDs in a recording studio that Bill runs
at their Roslindale home. They have a large circle of talented musician
friends, who annually attend a giant summer party at the house.
"It's an all-day and into-the-night jam session," Mason says.
"We invite the whole neighborhood, people of all ages. Even the local
politicians show up."
Like those gatherings, the Masons' club performances are filled with improvisation.
"You have nights where everything goes well and the audience is so
supportive that if you were to die tomorrow, it's OK -- you've had your
night," Mason says. "There are also nights where you're playing
in unbelievably seedy clubs. Sometimes the whole place breaks out into
a brawl, and you're not sure if you should keep playing or get off the
stage. These kinds of things happen, although not as often as when we
were starting out."
Outdoor music festivals are usually an ideal venue, but there are exceptions.
"Once we were performing at a big show in Englishtown, N.J., for
5,000 people," Mason says. "We were paid lots of money and it
was a great gig by any musician's measure -- but it rained the entire
day. There was mud everywhere, and we had to lug heavy equipment through
it and our shoes were sinking in it, so by the time we finished the set
we were exhausted and covered with mud from head to toe. So much for the
glamorous life of a musician."
At the moment the Masons are preparing to release a new CD, with guest
appearances by members of the Tar Box Ramblers, the Roys, and other well-regarded
Boston groups. The band will also announce its new identity: the artists
previously known as the Sky Blues will become Bird Mancini, named after
a fictitious third performer the Masons invented back when they were performing
as a duo. Ruth Mason has tested the name out on some friends, who tell
her it connotes jazz saxophone legend Charlie "Yardbird" (a.k.a.
"Bird") Parker as well as pop composer Henry Mancini.
Mason likes the handle, she says, because it "covers a wide, undefinable
genre." She and her husband both grew up listening to the Beatles,
intrigued by the style-mixing that made the band hard to categorize as
purely rock 'n' roll. The Masons and their bandmates, Sven Larson and
Dave Roy, likewise incorporate diverse musical traditions. Along with
the standard blues instruments, they improvise with violin, accordion,
and gangkoqui -- a type of East Indian drum.
Their new CD, which Mason hopes will be released before January, also
offers a taste of bossa nova and Western honky-tonk. There is even a touch
of the old-time gospel she learned back in Missouri. But through all the
band's music runs a common thread that she calls "bluesy, jazzy,
"We just want to write good songs and present them in the best way
that we possibly can, without trying to fit into any particular genre,"
Mason says. "There's still a lot of blues going through our music
and it's still the base of what we do, it's just that we're going in a
"It's too bad the music industry feels the need to categorize,"
she adds, "because we don't feel the need any more. If the industry
wants to catch up with us sometime, that's fine. We'll just put it out
For upcoming concert dates, visit www.lollyland.com/skyblues. For more
information, call 617-325-0604, or e-mail email@example.com.