Charles DeBow: an Original Tuskegee Pilot

Lt. Charles H. DeBow, image appears in September 1942 edition of the Indiana Alumni Magazine
Lt. Charles H. DeBow, image appears in September 1942 edition of the Indiana Alumni Magazine

“…I’m flying for every one of the 12,000,000 Negroes in the United States. I want to prove that we can take a tough job and handle it just as well as a white man.”

So said Charles DeBow, one of the first African-Americans to be commissioned in the United States Air Force. He was trained at the Tuskegee Army Flying School in Alabama, making him one of the first five African-Americans to receive his wings. He was also an alumni of Indiana University.

The archives are home to the Indiana University War Service Register records that dates from 1920-1946. The collection, created by the Alumni Office, includes records and correspondences relating to the men and women of the university who served in World War II and was used to compile the original Golden Book. The records tell us how some students juggled their education, marriages, and careers with their promise to Uncle Sam, postponing everything for the sake of serving their country. Charles DeBow was not unique in that aspect; his father pushed for Charles to pursue a career in medicine. But the important milestone he set for African-Americans all over the country is what makes his record a fascinating find.

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DeBow’s file includes his correspondence with the alumni office, a couple of newspaper clippings, and an article featured in the August 1942 edition of The American Magazine– a periodical that sometimes published articles about the lives of interesting American people–narrated by DeBow himself. In it, he explains his struggle with the race boundaries found both in life and the U.S. army. DeBow expressed that his dream of flying, although unrealistic, developed at a young age.

“…Negroes didn’t become aviators. They became elevator operators, and janitors, and porters like Dad. I knew all that with my head, but I kept my dreams in my heart.”

Putting those dreams aside, DeBow enrolled at IU after high school. As stated previously, his father insisted that he study medicine– a profession that could allow anyone, white or black, to make a good living. But DeBow was convinced that he would never be successful in the medical profession, and so he transferred to the Hampton Institute in Virginia to study business. That’s where he first learned to fly. The government selected twenty African-Americans (out of around three hundred applicants) to learn the art of aviation. Afflicted by what DeBow referred to as “the flying bug,” he elected to drop out of college and eventually enlisted into the United States Army after months of working various jobs to save money. The glorious day had finally arrived when the War Department announced their acceptance of applications from African-Americans interested in the Air Force. It was finally a triumphant “yes” after years of hearing that same phrase “no Negroes” in the theater, in his career–in nearly every aspect of DeBow’s life.

The first five members of the graduating class at the Tuskegee air school. Charles DeBow is featured in the bottom right.

Charles DeBow became one of five members of the first graduating class of the Tuskegee army flying school in Alabama on March 6th, 1942. The other men in his class included: Ben Davis Jr., graduate of West Point and the son of Benjamin Davis, the first African-American to become a general in the U.S. Air Force; Lem Curtis, policeman from Hartford Connecticut; George Roberts of West Virginia, and Mac Ross of Dayton, Ohio. The commanding general of the South Eastern Air Force Center, General George E. Stratemeyer, delivered a speech for the ceremony. DeBow’s parents looked on proudly as winged pins were placed on each graduate’s chest. By the end of his narration in the American Magazine article, DeBow was still in training at Tuskegee. He had not yet seen the war front, but he was ready.

“Personally– just personally– I hope I get a chance to tangle with a Jap or a Nazi. Soon. I’d like to be the first Negro to bag one. I’ve waited a long time.”

That’s where the article leaves us. The Alumni Office at Indiana University sent DeBow’s father a congratulatory letter after the publication of this article and shared that they planned to release a feature story for him in the Alumni Magazine. But what happened after?

According to his obituary, which was published in the Indianapolis Star in 1986, DeBow commanded the 301st Fighter Squadron, flew 52 combat missions in the European Theater, and flew support missiodebow004ns for the Italian and D-Day invasions. His military career proved impressive and extensive, and his “wild, fantastic, impossible” dream had come true.

DeBow returned to Indiana University after serving in the Air Force and received a Master’s degree. Additionally, he
received a Master’s from Butler University, taught English for ten years at Thomas Carr Howe High School in Indianapolis, and became an associate lecturer in English at IUPUI throughout the remaining years before his death on April 4th, 1986.

If anything, the story of Charles DeBow and the other Tuskegee Airmen is one of true American patriotism: overcoming hardships and fighting boundaries in order to recognize and achieve one’s dreams. DeBow certainly broke the threshold the day they pinned on those golden wings– not just within the army, but for the entire basis of racial interactions in the United States.

Sincerely Yours – The Dwyers and V-J Day: “That was our celebration.”

With the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and the swift entry of the United States into World War II, the Indiana University Bloomington campus quickly transformed itself to participate in the war effort. On December 13, 1941 President Herman B Wells addressed the anxious students of the University saying:

In this crisis, every patriotic American wishes to make a contribution to the defense of the nation and victory. In keeping with the tradition established in other wars, the students of the University are naturally eager to do their share….Some of you will be chosen for service in the army as rapidly as needed…But most of you will have to serve elsewhere….Most of you, therefore, can serve best through devoting extra time to the matters at hand. Study a little more, use the library a little more, use the laboratory apparatus a little more, learn a little faster….

University administrators, faculty and staff joined the Indiana Committee for Victory and the College Civilian Morale Service to encourage widespread participation “in all types of military activities” and the University quickly adopted a three semester academic plan so that the traditional four year program could be completed in two and two-thirds years in an effort to graduate as many students as possible before they were called to active military duty. By the end of 1942, U.S. Navy yeoman, WAVES, SPARS, and Marines were training on campus and the in 1943 the University signed a contract with the the US Army for an Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) unit. In addition, hundreds of men and women affiliated with IU (either current students or alumni) were called to active service in the various branches of the military.

Dwyer005Between 1941 and 1945, Margaret “Meg” Shaw Dwyer (BA Psychology 1941) continued to correspond with her university days mentor Frank Beck (advisor to the Student Religious Cabinet and the Town Hall Club) to share personal milestones and heartache of she and her husband, Robert “Bob” Arthur Dwyer (BS Business 19Wedding_Page_142). These included the announcement of their wedding, birth of their child, and the glorious news that Bob, presumed dead after being shot down over France, had been released from his POW camp and that the couple had been enjoying a recuperative vacation in Vermont when they heard the news of the war’s end on September 2, 1945.

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The Dwyers lived an active and full life filled with family, work, travel, lifelong learning, and even glider flights following the war. Meg passed away at the age of 95 in 2014. Her beautifully written obituary gives us just a taste of the woman she had become.

Mail Call: Correspondence at IU during WWII

“Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on that strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter.” — Sir Winston Churchill in My Early Life: A Roving Commission

War is never easy, especially for those serving in the armed forces and those they leave behind. Throughout the various wars in our short history, our military members and their loved ones have made countless sacrifices in order to defend our country and protect the freedoms which we all enjoy so dearly. Separation from our loved ones can be a particularly difficult thing to bear during these times of conflict.

But whereas we now have email, skype, and various other methods of communication to keep in touch with those on the battlefield, there were no such luxuries in the Second World War.  People relied on snail

“Mail Call” from the 1944-1945 Sycamore Logbook

-mail to receive news from the frontlines which, in some areas, could be less than frequent. Letters could easily be lost in the mail as well.

Letters to and from the front lines were a lifeline for service men and women fighting in WWII. One can imagine these soldiers clinging desperately to photos of their loved ones and sitting in their shelters or in the trenches reading and rereading those letters from home dozens of times over. All the while sitting. Waiting. Hoping for the end of hostilities so that they can once again return to their former lives.

It was no different for those at home. One can be sure that many individuals sat by the mail box waiting with bated breath as the postman came up to deliver the mail, hoping to hear some news from the front. Students at Indiana University seem to have been no exception to this rule. While I was processing a set of scrapbooks from Sycamore Hall (when it acted as a women’s residence hall), I stumbled upon this little gem embedded in Volume 5 of the Sycamore Logbook from the 1944-1945 academic year whose faded pages revealed what was going through many a young woman’s mind here at IU when it came time to receive the mail during WWII.

The following is a transcription of an account written by one of the copy editors of the Sycamore Hall dorm logbook:

Residents of Sycamore Hall, 1945 Archives image no: P0044228
Residents of Sycamore Hall, 1945
Archives image no: P0044228

Mail Call

Mail Call is the most important event in the day for almost all of us girls at the University. Even on days when we could sleep late, our alarm clocks will usually be set for ten a.m.

We jump out of bed, dress in a flash, and dash downstairs. In each of our hearts there is a solemn prayer that, maybe, today is the day a letter will come from the most important man in the Army, Navy or Marines.

Each of us goes downstairs with a happy look of expectancy written on her face. Some of us come away smiling and happy; others leave the mail boxes depressed and sad.

The conversation each morning rambles on something like this:

 “Hi, Kelly, is that a letter from Bob?”

“Yes, he got his wings yesterday, and he’ll be home next week. Barbs, you had better dust off the Wedding March because we are going to be needing that song.”

“That is grand, Kelly,” comes in a chorus from the girls.

There is a scream of delight as Kay rushes for her mail box, which is packed full of letters. She stands there laughing and crying at the same time, as she counts twelve letters from her Bill. Bill is a Navy flier, and he is in the South Pacific; mail from him comes only every six or eight weeks.

Cluching [sic] the letters as though her life depended on them, Kay dashes for the big chair in the living room. Incoherent phrases tumble from her lips.

“Jeepers, and gee, he is still my man! Oh, his is wonderful – – twelve letters!  Happy day, oh happy day!”

 “Darn! Just a letter from Carol,” comes the disgusted words from Ruthann.

“That’s my luck, too,” replies Donna.

“I know Dick is busy, but – -“

“Cut it, Ruthann; there is Janie, and she did not get a letter again today.”

No, I must not forget to tell about Janie. She is a little thing and pretty as a doll. She is the pet of every girl in the house. Her Marine is in the Philippines, and she has not heard from him since Manila was taken. Janie does not say anything about not hearing from him, but we know how worried she is; we sense the heartbreak she feels when she looks at her empty mail box. I guess she realizes we would all “crack up” if we put our feelings into words.

She saw us looking at her and smiled.

 “Everything is all right, chums; Jack is all right, and there is always tomorrow.”

Julia Ann Bookout

Little did these ladies know that they did not have long to wait for their loved ones to return. The war would soon come to an end with the Japanese surrender on August 15, 1945 with the formal surrender to follow on September 2nd (which is known today in the US as V-J Day). We can only hope that Jack returned with the rest of his brothers in arms to US shores to celebrate the Allied victory with Janie and the rest of his family and friends.

“From War to Peace in 1945 Germany: A GI’s Experience”

From War to PeaceIn 1953, Malcolm “Mac” Fleming joined the Indiana University School of Education and the Audio-Visual Center of Adult Education, where he began as an instructor and acting supervisor of motion pictures. What students may not have known is that their young instructor had been taught the trade by Uncle Sam.

Originally from Oregon, once the Army heard Fleming knew his way around a camera, they transferred him to the Signal Corps Photo Center in New York to be trained as a combat photographer. Billeted near Times Square, Mac practiced his craft on the streets of Manhattan, capturing shots of the busy metropolis, the results later reviewed and critiqued by his trainers. At his next stop in England, Fleming was told the Army needed motion picture photographers, so “[the sergeant] quickly taught me how to load a one-hundred-foot roll of 35 mm motion picture film into a handheld Eymo camera and I became a cinematographer overnight.”

In the belt pouch meant for a first aid kit, Mac instead carried his own small camera so that in addition to the official Army photos, he could capture shots of scenes that were of personal interest. In a field notebook, he documented these images just as he did the Army photos and films, and what resulted was a rich record of one young soldier’s experience in the European Theater. The destruction, the refugees carrying what possessions they could, and village life that went on as it could were all captured by Fleming’s little camera.

Fleming's caption typed on reverse side of image reads, in full:
Fleming’s caption typed on reverse side of image reads, in full: “Ruins now lie at the feet of the iron figure of Kaiser Wilhelm. A German living in a nearby room amid the rubble showed me this viewpoint. Looking at it while I took the pic he said that Hitler had gotten what he’d been pleading for–total war.” July 9, 1945, Nuremberg, Germany.

Now in his 90s, Prof. Fleming has donated his extensive collection to the University Archives, but not before collaborating with the IU Press in a gorgeous book, “From War to Peace in 1945 Germany: A GI’s Experience.” The book which includes his original notes, partnered with updated captions and a foreword by James H. Madison, IU’s Thomas and Kathryn Miller Professor Emeritus of History, and an afterword by Brad Cook, Curator of Photographs here in the Archives, is a must have for anybody with an interest in World War II.

“Can’t be done–This is war!”: The Admission of Japanese Students During World War II

Tucked away in a seemingly innocent folder labelled “Correspondence, 1941-42” in the Training Course for Social Work collection is a reminder of a dark time in the history of Indiana University.  Amid memos detailing billing statements and curriculum plans is a notice from the Office of Admissions to various deans and directors, including the Director of the Training Course for Social Work.  The letter is dated June 12, 1942 and begins with, “In view of the present uncertain military status of the southern Indiana geographical zone in which Indiana University is located, the trustees of this University have decided that Japanese students should not be admitted to Indiana University at the present time.”

Outcasts! The Story of America's Treatment of Her Japanese-American Minority by Caleb Foote, 1942
Outcasts! The Story of America’s Treatment of Her Japanese-American Minority by Caleb Foote, 1942

In the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which led to the relocation and internment of thousands of Japanese Americans living in established military zones.  In compliance with this legislation, universities along the West Coast discharged all students of Japanese descent.  Church leaders, university officials, and the YMCA-YWCA responded by establishing the National Japanese Student Relocation Council.  The organization assisted displaced students in applying to inland universities and finding housing in potentially hostile environments.

On April 26, 1942, the University of Minnesota set a precedent in the Midwest by refusing to accept relocated Japanese-American students.  The president of the University of Minnesota, W.C. Coffey, wrote to his peers to express his hesitancy in admitting Japanese students until the US government could address the issue and outline a clear course of action.  The admission question came to a head at IU on May 2, 1942 when the Department of Botany and Bacteriology received a request from UC Berkeley to admit two Japanese-American graduate students.

One week later, on May 9, 1942, President Herman B. Wells addressed the Board of Trustees: “There is this to be said about the situation–when the casualty lists begin to come in–even though they might be loyal Americans as anybody, feeling is going to mount very high and you might have disturbances on the campus.”  One Board member responded by stating his fear that Japanese students “would get into subversive activity whenever he would have a chance.”  The Board swiftly disapproved the admission of Japanese students.

The Board’s decision did not end the debate.  The director of the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council sent a letter on August 14, 1942 to Frank O. Beck, Executive Secretary of the IU Committee on Religion with information about the program stating that “among the evacuees are approximately twenty-five hundred American-born Japanese students, who were enrolled in college.  These young people are not ‘aliens,’ but Americans by birthright, brought up in our American schools, eager to demonstrate their loyalty to American ideals, and go on with their education in preparation for useful service and still fuller assimilation into our national life.”  Officials at IU argued that they could not admit Japanese students based on overcrowding of native Indiana students, “important laboratory research on war problems,” and the proximity of the Naval Depot for the Atlantic fleet.

Anonymous Responses to the question "Should an American citizen of Japanese ancestry be deprived of his university education?"
Anonymous responses to the question “Should an American citizen of Japanese ancestry be deprived of his university education?”

In October 1942, Bloomington residents and IU students held a Town Hall to discuss the question “Should an American citizen of Japanese ancestry be deprived of his university education?”  The responses to this question were mixed and included the following:

  • “Bring ’em here – they’re just as much American citizens as I am.”
  • “Can’t tell about loyalty even tho FBI investigated them.”
  • “Can’t be done – this is war!”
  • “A university education does not have anything to do with Japan’s policies.”
  • “I wouldn’t want to room with a Japanese but it’s all right with me if they come here to school.”
  • “Ought to lock them all up”
  • “Essential that it be done to show the practicality of democracy even in war time.”

You can read all of the responses here. A writer at the Indiana Daily Student offered some wise words in response to the chaos: “We mustn’t lose our heads in the case of hating our enemies.  We should not exclude a chosen few from the periphery of the Japanese and condemn all that has any part of Japanese of any other aliens just because we happen to be warring with their patterns of living.”

Letter from Japanese Nursing Student
Letter from prospective Japanese-American Nursing Student

A year after the town hall meeting, in October 1943, a 19-year-old Japanese-American woman wrote to Kate Mueller, IU’s Dean of Women.  She explains, “I am…greatly interested in applying for entrance into Indiana University for a year or so to take up a Pre-nursing Course.  At the present, I am employed at the Medical Center, Robert Long Hospital in the Nursing Division.  I am one of the millions of people who are engaged in an essential war industry and realize that I am contributing towards the welfare on the homefront.  However, I feel as though I could do more if I could become trained for the profession that is so vital at this time.  My parents are still at a War Relocation Authority Camp in Hunt, Idaho but are all for this plan of mine….I hope and trust in God that you will aid me in every way possible.”  Although, the Dean of Women passed along the letter with a plea to President Wells, she was forced to comply with university policies and reject the application.

Three honorably discharged veterans managed to change the prevailing attitude of university officials.  In late 1944, the Japanese-American veterans submitted letters to the Office of Admissions to request enrollment at the University.  The Board of Trustees revisited the issue of Japanese enrollment on December 13, 1944.  After reviewing the veterans’ qualifications and patriotism, the Board “approved the recommendation of President Wells for the admission of honorably discharged veterans of Japanese-American ancestry on the same basis as American citizens of any other ancestry.”  In the same meeting, they also approved the admission of Japanese-American students from the state of Indiana.

Victory in Japan was celebrated on August 15, 1945 with a formal surrender ceremony following on September 2.  The Board of Trustees finally repealed the decision to deny Japanese students admission to the University on September 21, 1945.  However, reminders of such grim wartime decisions continue to haunt many of IU’s collections.