In January 1945 the American effort in World War II was reaching a climax. GIs in Europe had turned back the last German offensive on the Western front at the Battle of the Bulge, and in the Pacific Theater U.S. troops were recapturing the Philippines from the Japanese. While military operations were reaching a fever pitch overseas, back home in Indiana activity was winding down at a military installation that had awarded wings to approximately 4,000 airmen—Freeman Field, located near Seymour.
Although the U.S. War Department had placed Freeman Filed on an inactive basis on January 27, 1945, the air base soon became a proving ground in a different struggle—not against fascism on the battlefront, but against racism on the home front.
Denied access to the base’s officers’ club on account of their race, about sixty officers from the all-black 477th Bombardment Group, which was receiving bomber training at Freeman Field, were arrested on April 3, 1945, when they attempted to enter what the Indianapolis Recorder referred to as a “swanky and modern officers club set up by the outfit.” After the dust had settled, three officers—Roger C. Terry and Marsden A. Thompson, both of Los Angeles, California, and Shirley R. Clinton of Camden, New Jersey—faced a court martial, and approximately a hundred men from the air group were jailed at Godman Field in Kentucky.
The calm atmosphere of a small Civil Aeronautics Administration emergency field located southwest of Seymour changed following the Japanese attack on the American base at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands, plunging the United States into World War II. On May 6, 1942, the War Department announced that the Seymour CAA field had been selected as a site for an advanced aerial training center for bomber pilots, to be designated as Seymour Army Airfield. The base, renamed Freeman Army Airfield on March 3, 1943, in honor of the late Captain Richard S. Freeman of Winamac, Indiana, included more than four hundred buildings and was built at a cost of $15 million. The 2,550-acre facility the federal government created in Jackson County was “the epitome of military airfield design,” according to Louis Osterman’s 1986 history of the base. The installation had an immediate positive financial impact on a community still reeling from the Great Depression.
Officially activated on December 1, 1942, under the command of Colonel Elmer T. Rundquist, the base welcomed its first group of soldiers just seven days later. The added population proved to be a boon for area businesses. “The stores were open on Saturday night then, and the sidewalks were packed from curb to store with townspeople, the farmers of the area and their families, and soldiers in their wool, khaki uniforms and jaunty overseas caps,” Seymour resident Carolyn Mahon told Osterman.
To help meet the soldiers’ recreational needs, the city had been planning, even before the first troops reached the base, to open a United Service Organization center. City officials organized a USO Council and obtained the use of the former Greeman Furniture Store. The club opened in December 1942 and was the scene of several dances and other activities for soldiers. The club, however, did not provide services to all military personnel stationed at the base. On January 21, 1943, the first members of the black 320th Aviation Squadron arrived at the Seymour field. The some six hundred squadron members were used primarily as service troops, performing such duties as cooking in the mess hall and tending the base’s twenty-acre garden.
Segregation was widespread in the armed forces during World War II. In fact, it was not until January 1941, after pressure from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other groups, that the Army Air Forces allowed blacks to become pilots. After being threatened with a lawsuit, the War Department established an air unit (later designated as the 99th Pursuit Squadron) for African Americans near the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. The Tuskegee Army Air Field, however, was completely segregated at the outset, with fliers commanded and trained by white officers.
Opportunities for blacks in the Hoosier State at the start of the war were little better than those offered by the military. “It was nearly impossible to find in Indiana a public place, institution, or group where whites accorded blacks an equal and open reception,” historian James H. Madison noted in his history of the state from 1920 to 1945. Although there were no actual statutes on the books, in many towns blacks encountered so-called “Sundown laws,” forbidding them from staying in the city after dark. In most aspects of their daily lives, from eating in restaurants to attending movies, African American Hoosiers faced discrimination and segregation.
Jackson County was no different from any other Indiana community in the 1940s “in that segregation and insensitivity to civil rights issues were accepted facts of life,” Osterman noted. Because black troops stationed at the airfield could not use the white USO club in Seymour, the USO Council established a separate facility for them on West Tipton Street, which was dedicated on February 14, 1943, in ceremonies held inside the center because of severe weather. Reverend John L. Prentice, Jackson County USO Council chairman, formally presented the club to the city “as a channel of service for the citizens.”
Segregation continued to be a problem for the next black troops stationed at Freeman Field, the 477th Bombardment Group, which was part of the First Air Force. Under the command of a white officer, Colonel Robert Selway, a West Point graduate and Far East veteran, the unit “had traveled a rocky road since its activation in January 1944,” according to Colonel Benjamin O. Davis Jr. The first black graduate of the U.S. Military Academy in the twentieth century and a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, Davis took charge of the 477th during the height of the Freeman Field controversy.
The first black squadron to be trained in multiengine aircraft, the 477th had been originally stationed at Selfridge Field, located near Detroit. The field had a history of racial conflict. On January 1, 1944, some black officers who had attempted to enter the base’s officers’ club were blocked from doing so by the field’s commander, Colonel William L. Boyd, and another white officer. The refusal of service flew in the face of the armed force’s own rules, specifically Army Regulation 210-10. According to the regulation, officers’ clubs and other social organizations were mandated to offer “all officers on duty at the post the right to full membership, either permanently or temporary.” Alan Osur, who studied race relations in the AAF during World War II, found, however, that the military had “dogmatically pursued a system of segregation that was almost impossible to maintain. It even went so far as to violate War Department regulations in order to prevent the mixing of whites and blacks in officers’ clubs.”
Afraid that black “agitators” in the Detroit area might incite trouble with the airmen at Selfridge Field (race riots had broken out in the city in June 1943), the AAF moved the 477th to Godman Field near Fort Knox, Kentucky. At the new airfield black officers were able to enjoy the full use of the officers’ club. Racial relations, however, were not as harmonious as they seemed. While blacks used the officers’ club at Godman, their white supervisors used the facilities at the segregated Fort Knox. Osur pointed out that black airmen were powerless to protest the situation; since they were not assigned to Fort Knox, they could not use the facilities there.
Other problems plagued the black fliers at the Kentucky AAF base. Along with bad flying weather during the winter, the field suffered from a lack of proper hangar and apron space and the absence of an air-to-ground gunnery range. On March 1, 1945, the 477th moved from Godman to Freeman Field. Trouble, however, soon broke out between blacks and whites. The difficulties were not with Seymour residents, who, according to Captain Earl D. Lyon in his study of the bombardment group’s war service, “were less openly antagonistic” to black officers than residents of similar small towns located near army airfields. Instead, the racial trouble broke out on the base about a familiar issue—the officers’ club.
In attempting to keep black and white officers from using the same facilities, Selway, with the support of Major General Frank Hunter, took advantage of a loophole in army regulations by designating one officers’ club at Freeman for supervisory personnel and a second one for trainees. The issue came to a head on the night of April 5, 1945, when nineteen black officers, disregarding an assistant provost marshal’s order to stay out, entered the whites-only club. Shortly thereafter, two other groups of African Americans totaling seventeen officers joined the original group; all thirty-six were placed under arrest by the provost marshal. The next day, an additional twenty-one black officers were arrested when they tried to enter the club.
Through its public relations office, the command at Freeman Field attempted to place its own spin on the issue. It released a statement to the Seymour Daily Tribune to the effect that in the case of recreational facilities, it had “been a long standing policy which applies throughout the United States which maintains that it is unwise to have personnel in training utilizing the same recreational facilities with those who train them.” Although the two groups might use the same instructional facilities—classrooms, training equipment, airplanes, etc.—after normal duty hours “each . . . selects its own recreation and entertainment separately, on order that they may relax from their official status.”
Despite the air base’s best efforts, the outcry about the incident did not die down. First Air Force legal officers were soon on their way to Freeman Field to investigate the incident. They found that Selway’s original order was “inexact and ambiguous as to its meaning or purpose,” and all but three of the black officers were released (Clinton, Terry, and Thompson remained under lock and key for allegedly pushing the provost marshal when they entered the club). A new directive from the base commander Selway, however, sparked more protests and resulted in even more arrests.
Selway, with Hunter’s assistance, drafted an order for black officers to sign outlining what facilities different personnel could use on the base. The directive also included a place for black officers’ signatures indicating they had read and fully understood the order. Even when that designation was stricken from the order, and the black officers were asked merely to signify that they had read it, some continued to defy the authorities. A total of 101 blacks—who became known as the 101 Club—refused to sign and were flown to Godman Field and placed under arrest awaiting court martial.
Quentin P. Smith, who grew up in East Chicago, Indiana, and learned to fly while living there, was one of the 101 black officers arrested for refusing to sign the order. An Indiana State University graduate and former flying instructor at Tuskegee Institute, Smith, due to his large size, had to transfer from fighter aircraft to bomber duty. First Lieutenant Smith and the other black aviators did not receive a warm welcome when they arrived at Freeman Field. Smith remembered that Selway informed the group that, along with the officers’ club, the base’s tennis court and swimming pool were also off limits to them. The airmen did not greet the announcement favorably: “We booed the colonel loud and long,” Smith recalled.
The Hoosier native had a more direct confrontation with his white commanding officer after the officers’ club incident. Called into Selway’s office and asked to sign the new directive, Smith replied in a clear voice, “No, sir.” Even when threatened by the colonel with Article 64, stating that failure to obey a superior officer’s direct order could result in the death penalty, Smith stood firm.
Organizations throughout the United States, including the NAACP and black newspapers, swung into action on the officers’ behalf. The War Department received several letters of concern from lawmakers, including U.S. Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg from Michigan, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell from New York, and Congressman Louis Ludlow from Indiana. Congresswoman Helen Gahagan from California even telegraphed Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson urging that the officers be released. All these efforts paid off; in mid-April charges against the 101 black airmen were dropped and they were freed.
Charges against the three officers accused of pushing the provost marshal, however, remained. By the time the three came to trail, the 477th had a new commander, Colonel Davis, former leader of the black 332nd Fighter Group. An all-black court martial acquitted Thompson and Clinton of all charges, convicting only Terry for “offering violence against a superior officer.” He received a $150 fine.
The Freeman Field situation deeply troubled Davis. Although he could understand the underlying feelings of prejudice shown by white officers from the Deep South, he could not understand “putting the issue of segregated facilities ahead of the need to prepare the group for war; nor the decision to move the 477th from one airfield to another, which halted progress toward combat readiness for several months.” The 477th never had an opportunity to prove itself in combat, as the group was still at Godman Field when the Japanese surrendered to the Allies on August 14, 1945.
Although Freeman Field was place on the inactive basis shortly after the officers’ club fiasco, its role in America’s war effort had not ended. In June 1945 the War Department selected the base to serve as a testing ground for captured enemy aircraft. Once again airplanes filled the skies over Seymour. Two years later, the War Assets Administration gave the facility to Seymour, which used the base as a municipal airport.
Despite its crucial role in training aircrews for combat, Freeman Field’s greatest contribution to America’s fight against fascism was the incident with the black officers, which, as Osterman pointed out, “caught the attention of the military and forced a re-thinking of its policy of segregation.” That policy, however, remained in place for a few more years after the war ended. In July 1948 President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 8891 mandating the armed forces to integrate.
Truman’s order, however, could not instantly strip away the legacy left by the years of discrimination in the military. Perhaps reflecting the feelings of the hundreds of thousands of black troops who battled prejudice during World War II, Smith lamented, “Nobody wanted us.”