William White says he and his fellow members of the famed Tuskegee Airmen fought two battles during World War II: one against America's enemies and another against racism. White is sure he and his mates helped win the former on the battlefield, while he clearly has won the latter in his heart.
"That group played a big part in bringing the war in Europe to an end," White said of the Tuskegee Airmen, immortalized in "Red Tails," a 2012 motion picture. "I'm real proud to be a part of it, because they made history as far as I'm concerned."
White, 86, was honored for his service in the all African-American aviation unit during a ceremony at Smithfield High on Saturday morning, when he was honored with the Congressional Gold Medal and received his bronze replica. He and the other four surviving Hampton Roads members of the Tuskegee Airmen were scheduled to be honored Saturday evening at Langley Speedway.
White grew up and still lives in Smithfield, where he was second baseman for his high school baseball team at the Isle of Wight Training Center. He says he learned about the attack on Pearl Harbor on the radio at his church, Little Mount Zion Baptist in Smithfield. Following high school, he was drafted and soon assigned to the Army Air Corps (now Air Force).
He would spend his two years in the service supplying materials for those who maintained the planes flown by the Tuskegee Airmen, the nation's first African-American military aviators. Stationed at a series of bases in Massachusetts, Texas and Ohio, he often encountered discrimination on base in the strictly segregated military of the time and in nearby towns, but did not succumb to bitterness.
White credits his elders in Smithfield for giving him the resolve to persevere.
"I liked being in the presence of older men and women, because as I grew older, I saw what they told me came to pass," he said. "One older gentleman told me, 'You never win a battle by backing away from it, so push forward,'" White said. "Others would tell me, 'You don't ever give up. If you have a goal, keep working to achieve it.'"
White says his time in the service taught him that there were good and bad people of all kinds. He recalled that a white officer inspecting his unit at a base in Texas once challenged a black private to a fight for no reason. Turns out the black private, James Bass, was a former amateur boxer.
"He beat the devil out of him," White said.
White also remembers being at a restaurant that refused to serve him near his base in Texas. He says the white soldier with him said that if they wouldn't serve White, he wasn't going to eat there either.
"Everybody wasn't bad," White said. "You're going to find civilized and uncivilized people in every race."
During his time at Fort Bevens in Massachusetts, White observed that the German prisoners were given kitchen duty and the Japanese prisoners were forced to do manual labor such as digging ditches.
"That was discrimination right there," White said. "I felt sympathy for the Japanese.
"I disliked what they had done (in attacking the United States), but to me they were human beings, too."
White was most offended by the stereotype that blacks lacked the intelligence to become capable fliers. He believes the Tuskegee Airmen helped debunk the myth and advance the cause of black civil rights.
"If not for World War II, things might not have happened as fast as they did with (diminishing) racism," he said.
The fighter pilots trained in Tuskegee, Ala., during the war flew 1,578 combat missions and 179 bomber escort missions, with losses of only 27 bombers. They are credited with destroying 112 enemy aircraft in the air and another 150 on the ground.
White — who worked after the war as a butcher at Gwaltney in Smithfield for 27 years and at the Norfolk Naval Supply Center for 20 — is proud of the determination the Tuskegee Airmen displayed during a time when discrimination within the service, and Jim Crow laws in the country, made succeeding difficult for African-Americans.
"I feel good about it, because we know the struggle we went through," said White, who has been married for 63 years to wife Elsie, with whom he fathered six children. "When you're trying to accomplish something, and you have someone trying to hold you back or pull you down, you have to prove yourself.
"I enjoyed my time in the service and feel I was blessed to be part of the Tuskegee Airmen."