CMSAF Thomas N. Barnes
Thomas Barnes was born on 16 November 1930 and raised in the small town of a Chester, Pennsylvania, where his father was the minister of the largest black Baptist church. He was fond of the small town. As a teenager, following his father’s death, he worked part time for a local shipbuilding company to help support his family. However, in 1949, at the age of 18, he boarded a train for San Antonio, Texas, to begin his long Air Force journey.
Barnes received what he calls, “the shock of my life” when he reached Lackland AFB, Texas. Base administrators immediately split him from his white friends and held him in casual status until enough black recruits arrived to form a flight. He was in one of the last flights that year to experience the complete and total segregation of basic training.
During his 28-year career, Barnes served as an aircraft maintainer, flight engineer, flight chief, and senior controller. He was promoted to chief master sergeant on 1 December 1969 and was selected as the Air Training Command senior enlisted leader in October 1971. In 1973 he was a graduate of the Senior Noncommissioned Officer Academy inaugural class. That same year, Gen George S. Brown selected him to be the fourth Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. Barnes would be the first African-American to serve in the highest enlisted post in any of the services.
Barnes worked for equal opportunities for all minorities during his tenure. He also worked to solidify the enlisted professional military education system. Following the initial two-year tenure, Gen. David Jones extended him for one year. He was later extended for an additional year, becoming the first Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force (CMSAF) to serve four years in the position. Barnes retired in 1977 but stayed close to the Air Force through speaking engagements at military functions. He succumbed to cancer on 17 March 2003.
The Air Force Historical Research Center interviewed Barnes in November of 1980. During the interview, Barnes discussed his experience as a black Airman in a newly integrated Air Force, the nation’s response to the Vietnam War, and the challenge of serving with a large family. The complete interview can be accessed on the Air University Library online research center. Portions of the interview are printed below. The order of some of the questions and answers has been adjusted to depict a chronological reflection on the life and career of Thomas N. Barnes.
To begin the interview this morning, Chief Barnes, I would like to ask you a few questions about your early family life.
I came from a family of four children. There were two sisters and one brother. The two sisters were older, and the brother was a year younger than I.
My father was a Baptist minister. He pastored the largest black Baptist church in Chester, Pennsylvania. As a matter of fact, his name is still in the cornerstone of that church, which is named Providence Baptist Church. It is at the corner of Second and Pennell Streets. The neighborhood, as I saw it last, is quite rundown, but the church is very prominent in it and still has a relatively large congregation. He died in my early teens. I was 14 as a matter of fact. My mother was not in good health; she had had a kidney removed right around the period of his death and was unable to work, but she was, nevertheless, very encouraging to my remaining in high school, at least, and then to keeping the family very close until we could all sort of get out on our own. She passed during the late 1960s after a long illness.
By the time I graduated from high school, given my family situation, that is my father having passed, my mother’s insistence that I stay in school to finish at least high school, a need now to provide some things for the family, and certainly being of age to do that, I had worked part-time jobs, night jobs, and all. They were relatively easy, I might add, because those were the war years in the 1940s. I worked as a supply man in a shipyard, some shipbuilding company in Chester.
So I worked a short time after my graduation from school at the shipyard, and then I went to a recruiting office, and because some friends had gone in the Navy, I really enlisted in the Navy. The day I was to go to Great Lakes Naval Training Center, before my swearing in, I got sick with strep throat. I had a fever of 105 and got admitted to a hospital, and the last thing I remember, really, about that was being placed in a tub with alcohol and ice to break this fever, sort of a little out time there. Upon coming around, much to my sorrow, whenever I got to where I could comprehend things that were going on, I had missed my training period at Great Lakes and had to wait, they told me. I said, “Oh, hell, I didn’t want to wait.”
In this same building, which was our downtown post office building, were, like in most towns, the Navy recruiter, the Air Force recruiter, the Army recruiter, so I went to the Air Force recruiting office and told them I had taken a physical. I had done everything but swear in for the Navy, and they couldn’t take me until the next opening came at Great Lakes. The guy said, “Oh, hell, that’s no problem for us. We can send you right away.” I said, “Okay, I think I’m ready to go,” and I took an Air Force entry test, having done all the rest of the work. The physical and all was administered at Scoop Hill Hospital in Philadelphia. That was the entrance and examination station, and I left home on 14 April 1949. That was Easter Monday.
When I left home for Lackland [AFB, Texas], I left with a number of other people from my own neighborhood, two friends as a matter of fact, and several others in other towns in Pennsylvania, but we left on a train journeying to San Antonio, good long train ride. It made a good opportunity to be friends. I learned a couple of new card games en route. As I say, there was plenty of time for that. But then I got the shock of my life, I guess, at that point in arriving at San Antonio, being picked up from the train station and trucked out to Lackland and ran into a segregated basic training situation. Today, when I talk about that, I find many people look very strangely and say, “Well, I never knew the Air Force was like that.” But it was. I was one of the last flights in that year that experienced a complete and total segregation of basic training. So the friends that I had gone with I lost. They were on the other side of US 13, as you know, the loop runs through Lackland. White trainees were on one side of that and black trainees on the other. Very few people remember that about Lackland. But each time I visit it, and I do have the opportunity fairly frequently, I often look at what now is left to kind of identify where I was down there.
How long was your basic training during that period?
Thirteen weeks, 13 weeks to include bivouac. I look back on that. I have discussed it, obviously, a number of times with people who think basic training today is not adequate. You hear that. “Oh, they are not giving us any training.” I think that probably is not true. I think all that happened was they shaved off the fat of the training program, not that it was wasted at that time, but rather there were a number of things basic trainees did in the actual course of training that Air Force people as a mission never really got into. One of those was the bivouac situation. There was a requirement to go bivouac. Hell, Air Force people don’t bivouac unless they get special assignments, and if they do, then the bivouac training comes as a result of that special assignment preparation in the field as opposed to a thing in basic training. These were some of the principal changes.
We spent a great deal of time dry and wet firing weapons. At that time there was a need for the disassembly, the assembly of the weapons, both hand and long weapons. There was a great deal of time in the dry fire, and then, of course, a great deal of time in the wet fire to actually qualify. The bent was, other than the periodic requirement to fire again, never really having a job that put you in contact with a firearm. So I think the changes in basic training were smart changes. They recognized this time factor and concentrated on the actual things that people are going to do today when they get in the field.
There is discipline. If you go to Lackland and watch basic trainees, you won’t find a one who doesn’t address you snappily as “yes, sir,” “no, sir,” or “yes, ma’am,” or “no, ma’am,” and they know where they are, and they know left from right when they come out of there. That kind of deteriorates perhaps in the field. This is not uphill. It may even begin to deteriorate slightly at the tech school level, perhaps a little less tightly controlled there. I think there is a marked difference, however, in the TIs [training instructors]. I think these guys were selected sadists. There was no hesitancy to inflict great disciplinary punishment on people who offended the system. I think there was merit in that. It made you wish not to offend the system. It was memorable to that degree. I think it was a lasting kind of thing. It, however, fell into the area today as abuse and/or an intrusion of civil rights, so to speak.
I would like to be specific about some of the kinds of things that took place. At lunch hour and quiet [hours], noise in the barracks often were not identifiable, and you would never find who laughed in the middle of the night. This often caused us all to have to fall out and get dressed. It caused us all to have to get scrub brushes and buckets and go around those old dormitories that were over in the 3080 area and scrub the sides of these damn things until they were actually white, and the floors were like toothpicks in there from scrubbing. You would actually take out the cots and take out the footlockers—and that was all you had. There was a little hanging rack behind the bed that your clothes stayed on—and you got down on your hands and knees and you scrubbed the thing, and you took buckets and rinsed it down, and then your bedding was outside and everything, and you put it back in.
You know, you soon got sensitive to not screwing up, really. The old octagon soap bars, and I’ll never forget them, seemed to never wear out. There was always plenty of that around. Then there were forced marches, with packs. There were the actual duck walks, which were some things where a formation was left at rest while the TIs stepped away.
Since the TIs were black, we were black, there was certainly no discrimination, and all you could say was, “This guy was the meanest bastard I ever saw.” They were sharp. They wore blue helmets with white stripes around them, as I remember. They wore white gloves, and some of the starched, most perfectly pressed fatigue uniforms and highly polished shoes I ever saw, and they were good. They could instill rhythm in a marching group. They could instill great pride, and we won the drill competition because, I think, of this heavy discipline. I was very proud of that achievement at the end of the 13 weeks. It certainly welded a bunch of people with different ideas into a pretty doggone good group.
I left Lackland with many fond memories, needless to say, and I went on to Chanute [AFB, Illinois], and I went into tech school, into Aircraft and Engine School, and I worked on the kinds of class 26 airplanes that were there at that time, which were P-47s [Thunderbolt fighter aircraft], and we had one F-80 [Shooting Star], an early jet. Obviously, it had some damage, so they class 26’d it and brought it there. We learned the ejection system on the jet airplane from the F-80. There was a lot of classroom work, a lot of academic exposure. Everything was in the old lockstep method of technical training at that time, irrespective of the capability of the students to grasp it and go ahead. There was no way to handle one that went ahead, so he was lockstepped in with the slow learner, and it kind of got to the point that if you were abreast of what was going on and you did your studies at night, class could get a little bit boring in that regard.
Was the training at Chanute still segregated?
No. The training at Chanute was mixed, training at Lackland was segregated, training at Chanute was mixed, placement at Camp Stoneman [California] was in waiting for an assignment overseas, and the integration order had come. There were a number of organizations in the Air Force at that time without blacks in them. The 4th Troop Carrier Squadron, 62nd Troop Carrier Group, at McChord AFB [Washington], was one of those squadrons. I went as the first black in the 4th Troop Carrier Squadron, which was an experience I assure you.
How long was the school at that time?
Quite long, nearly a year with the specialty added on to the end of it. Some of the courses now, if you were in just one element of the aircraft and engine course, was about six months, I think somewhere, eight or nine months. If you got the basic aircraft and then the engine portion added and then a specialist’s school on the back end of that, then it kind of extended. Some went into rigging specialties that dealt expressly with that; others went into engine specialties and really became specialized in engines. It was a good system then. It is a better system, I know, now by far, but it was quite good and, I think, adequate for the preparation that was needed. It just tended not to be sensitive to the many different things that make up human beings. That would be the major difference I would have to cite between then and now.
Anyway, upon going to McChord, a new experience took place. This was a troop carrier organization. It was an organization that had C-54 [Skymaster four-engined transport] aircraft. Having now a hydraulic specialty, I was assigned to the hydraulics shop, and I worked at night doing inspections on C-54s and maintenance. My shop chief was named Roy Arquello. Roy was a staff sergeant and probably one of the sharpest hydraulic mechanics the Air Force ever had. He taught me an awful lot about the system, but because the C-54 had the kind of emergency system it had—it had hydraulic wipers and all, not too unlike other airplanes but, nevertheless, it differed slightly—I went to Great Falls, Montana, to specialize in C-54 hydraulic systems. They specialized on the C-54, so I got a further specialization in, now, not only the system but the airplane.
Then I went back to McChord and got the shock of my life because by then Korea had gotten to be a boiling issue. I got back on Tuesday, and we had a meeting the following day in our hangar where the commander informed everybody to prepare for a 90-day TDY to Japan and settle all the things you needed to settle right now, if you had some that were pressing, because the first airplanes would leave Saturday morning. So I left with my organization going over to Ashiya, Japan. Some of the airplanes purely carried personnel, others carried maintenance equipment.
We made a stop at Wake Island—I was on a heavily loaded airplane so we made a fuel stop—and another airplane that landed there had a brake problem, a leaking brake. Well, that was of little moment. They took all the people off of it, and we had jacks and equipment on it, and I had an opportunity to practice my hydraulic expertise en route, so I did some brake maintenance and cleaned that up. It was just a normal thing. Then we went on.
I got over to Ashiya, Japan, and we landed, unloaded our airplanes that night, started loading cargo on, and the crews turned right around and the next day were flying missions in Korea, just nonstop. From then until I came back to the States, the shifts were 12 on and 12 off. So my introduction into that life early was one of hard work; it was one of great effort, and then of some learning because there was a need to do other things now than my specialty.
Barnes describes his personal training to become a flight engineer...
In my 12 off, I could do what I pretty much pleased. I got an okay from the operations people to fly on an airplane and learn what a flight engineer does, and I watched [Crew Chief Leon B.] DeGarmo. He had confidence in me. He put me in the jump seats. His pilots, the pilot and copilot, accepted that on his say-so and let me do the takeoff and the prelanding check, and it began a training program for me. I knew the hydraulic system, and I had mechanic friends who were engine people, who were APU, auxiliary power unit, people, who were electricians, who were airframe people, and I spent time with them in the inspection dock, sharing hydraulic knowledge with them, gaining propeller knowledge from them.
After 11 months of extensions in this initial 90-day TDY that I mentioned to you awhile back, the squadron moved from Ashiya, Japan, to Tachikawa, Japan, and changed designations on paper. The 4th Troop Carrier Squadron went back to the States, on paper, and the 14th Troop Carrier Squadron came over. The people and equipment stayed in place. The 4th picked up C-124s [Globemaster II heavy-lift cargo aircraft] back at McChord, and the 14th stayed with the C-54s.
By now, I was a flight engineer, budding flight engineer, but no checkride. The checkride was a matter of a pilot certifying this in the form of an engineering officer. That’s where I ran into [a] blockage, a refusal to certify. I flew and never got certified. It was very heartbreaking for a good while.
Then one day, as a matter of mission necessity, all of the flight engineers were tasked for a max mission, so they couldn’t be used for the test flights, and the test pilot had to take me with him. Here is where I had had the blockage before, and here is where he and I came to grips in that airplane on a test flight, getting it ready to put into a mission lineup. What I am saying here . . . is that often in the face of things for the country—that was, in essence, for the country—comes some other things. It came, that realization in the air, doing engine featherings, doing retractions, doing some free falls, doing stalls, where his dependence upon me doing what I should have done made the safety of that test flight what it was and vice versa. I think there grew an interdependence in that situation.
We got on the ground; he looked me straight in the eye, and he said, “I had no intent for your certification, but after today’s workout up there, I see no way to deny that.” And he pinned the certification for my flight engineer status on.
Barnes describes his deployment in support of the Korean War...
By the time I had completed my tour over there, the accumulation of 750 hours, I had some interesting times over in Korea.
During one of these learning things I had, I had an airplane that encountered an accident and kept me over there for about, I guess, 19 days doing a salvage job on it, taking off everything I could get off, and they had other airplanes landing sending it back. This got to be one of the most interesting things that happened to me over there. It happened at Suwon [Air Base, Korea] in February 1951, as I recall. It was cold. It was miserable conditions. The Army had just taken the Suwon strip, and there were no permanent structures on it at all. There was a big mess camp, and there was a medical tent that they did emergency surgery and repair of people who were wounded and injured in preparation for flights back to Japan to the hospital. There was a tent in which the ambulance drivers stayed and ambulatory patients. I stayed in this tent at night when I couldn’t work on the airplane. I could see many, many, and sometimes very few, of our troops come in, Army and Marine people come in wounded. As a matter of fact, a couple of guys died in the tent next to me during one night. It was an awakening experience for a young guy, I can assure you.
I got back to Japan. Obviously, things were a hell of a lot better. I had a chance for some milk runs then—milk runs being what few dependents were in that area moving from Japan down to the Philippines. Then you would stage crews down there, that is, you would fly a crew down, and they would bring your airplane back, and you would stay five days. Another crew would come down. You would bring your airplane back, and they would stay. This gave you a little break, a little respite from that kind of thing. I appreciated the break at that time.
Then one of the most trying points in my career took place. I was in a dining hall, and just like the cases in many dining halls in an occupied country and some in status of forces countries, the indigenous personnel girls who were serving on trays milk, coffee, and tea and whatever else, and the ugly American surfaced in the presence of a guy who reached out and grabbed one of these girls by the buttocks as she went by. Like any self-respecting woman, though she was Japanese, she turned around and showed her dislike for that. He leaped up and slapped her. He said, “Shut up! You sons of bitches shouldn’t have started the war. Moreover, you shouldn’t have lost it.” She broke down and cried. She just cried and cried. I didn’t really understand wholly what I saw. Just a little bit later, I did. When I say a little bit later, that was after my marriage and my own children. What I saw was, but for my being over there and the commitment of many, many other Americans in overseas places, however the discomfort be, was that situation in reverse. The feet of foreign soldiers on our soil and that being my daughter or your daughter or my sister or maybe even somebody’s wife, that was the turning point in a solid commitment for me, and that was before the end of my first enlistment. Enlistments were three-year enlistments then; they were not four years. I was committed to a career because of the kinds of things that I saw.
I finished my time over there by the accumulation of 750 hours, and I rotated back to the States. By then the assignments process had gotten away so much from unit assignment, and I went all the way to Springfield, Massachusetts, to Westover [AFB], to what then was the 1253nd Air Transport Squadron. It had C-54s, and its mission was NEAC, Northeast Air Command, flying up into Argentia and Torbay, Newfoundland. I was, of course, in my flight engineer duties there. They got designated the 30th Air Transport Squadron and identified to receive C-118s [Liftmaster piston-powered transport aircraft], which was a nice airplane. It was a new bird, not that much different but significant differences, too, when you really got down to looking and comparing the two airplanes, much different engines, different propeller system. It was a one-prop control and a sync button as opposed to four-prop controls, just a beautiful airplane, the C-118 versus the old C-54. If you looked at the two airplanes and didn’t know airplanes, they would look very much alike. I appreciated that.
Then came the opportunity to volunteer for some duty with the 1308th Ferry Group headquarters which was at Kelly Field here in Texas, and I did that because I knew a few of the guys who were in the troop carrier squadron had gone to the ferry group down at Kelly, and I found that interesting. So I volunteered. I went down there.
By that time, I had married and I had kids. If you remember the old commissioning system, one of the criteria for that was no marriage. Today, and this is what I meant by an intrusion into today, hell, you can’t deny a guy flying because he is married or commissioning. The idea, however, was the pay of a cadet didn’t support a family at that time. You had to buy books and all. You just couldn’t support it until there was some substance. Well, that’s a personal thing today. That would be an intrusion into your personal life whether you had the money. You know, this is just like getting permission to get married. Hell, if your commander didn’t think you could handle it, he denied you the privilege, or the first sergeant for that matter. It’s the power of men in positions. I say that with some underlining.
First sergeants were hellaciously powerful. They controlled your destiny. You had to actually request permission to get married, and if they reviewed your financial status and said, “Jim Hasdorff, you are a screw up. You don’t manage your money well enough, hell, no,” you didn’t get married.
You mentioned...that when you first got to McChord, you were the first black Airman to be assigned. What was the nature of these problems when you first arrived there?
Well, I think, initially, the myth thing was the biggest problem, in an open-bay barracks, the myth that blacks would steal. You know, everybody was a little guarded about their stuff. Or they smell and they don’t wash regularly. Nobody really wanted to bunk above or below me. I had a little problem finding a place to get, initially. I think a little reluctance on the part of officials to intercede because they didn’t understand either what was to take place. Those were the initial kinds of problems. They would be hard to detect unless you were experiencing them yourself, which I think underlies a lot of the system where there were people attempting to investigate or look at things that were allegations of mistreatment, and not understanding what mistreatment is and how it comes about. I think, while that’s not pleasant, it helped me to be able to understand what was actually happening to and around me.
In instances before that, I had experienced a few things, as an example, with cross-country trips with my crew, at a stop and an attempt off an installation one evening, as a crew, to get a bite to eat. We went in an and we had a waitress come and take the orders, but say, “You will have to pick yours up around at the back. We can’t serve you here.” My crew demanded, “Just what the hell do you mean? We all came in together.” She said, “I know. I don’t make the rules here, but I work here, and we can’t serve him in here. There is a window around back where he can go pick it up.” And they said, “Bullshit, if he can’t eat, we won’t eat.” “But you have already ordered.” They said, “That’s your problem.” So we got up and walked out, and then, obviously, it was a matter of what had been ordered now and nobody would pay for it. In an attempt to leave then, an attempt by the management and two or three bystanders to get this taken care of, giving them as much guilt as I had, so it became an exciting few moments. We were able to literally scuffle our way free of that.
I think this is indicative of many of the early struggles in having listened to some of the kinds of problems that our people had at different places. I think these are not too unlike how it begins. I think how it ended, often—some tragic endings—was probably the key to handling it or not. I was thankful for whatever elements of patience there was to not have things turn out that way, and it later became an asset at dealing with that kind of thing in helping the Air Force and other people.
I would like to ask you a question in regard to your various promotions. Did you feel that your promotions through the various grades were equitable, or were there any long periods where you didn’t see a promotion?
I think they were quite equitable, particularly during my first enlistment, which was a three-year enlistment. At the end of that enlistment, I was a staff sergeant. That was pretty fast moving for a three-year tour, but I think it was largely in tune with the work volume. I mentioned in some earlier discussion that during much or most of the overseas work in two 12-hour shifts that I worked my normal functions and then a flying function and slept somewhere in between there. While I didn’t always see it, it was clear that the recognition for that in promotion was very fair and just. I had no problem with that.
There was a very long period, however, not just for myself but I think, for the entire enlisted force, as it sought to reduce what was called the “Korean Hump,” and there was quite a lengthy time between staff sergeant and tech, as I recall. From tech on to chief, I think, were fairly normal time spans. I do, in all fairness, say that I think there may have been a little acceleration because of the Vietnam War. I think my promotion to senior was quite unexpected at the time it came, and then certainly later to chief at the time it came. I just anticipated, because of how the cycles in time had been prior to that, that it would be a longer period.
WAPS [Weighted Airman Promotion System] was implemented in June 1970 after extensive research by the Air Force Human Resources Laboratory. From your own experience, how successful has that program been?
WAPS has been very successful. It places the burden of responsibility directly on the shoulder of the individual, the necessity to prepare for the testing, knowing what the scores are. The factors that are weighted are, in all but a few cases, directly at the control of the individual. Now, there may be a necessity at some point to change a factor or two, expressly points given for decorations, for example, which I believe are still included. I profess a mild ignorance here in that I have not looked directly at WAPS over the last few years, but it was a weighted factor. If you were in a career area that never exposed you to the opportunity to get a medal, as an example—and I used to use this example in talking about that need to change a weighted factor—if you look at an Airman or NCO [noncommissioned officer] working in a synthetic trainer system, a simulator, great technical capability, but there are none of those overseas, so there is never going to be an overseas opportunity to go do that job. Then the attainment that some of the ribbons or medals that carry point value are not going to come that way, so this guy feels shortchanged of this skill because of their duty type. In that regard, there would need to be some offsets in other things with your extremely high point value that would offset the absence of a medal.
On the other hand, where there is a well-rounded utilization of the AFSC [Air Force Specialty Code], overseas and point values for ribbons and medals become a factor or the opportunity for getting the different kinds of medals exists more in some career fields than others, then there appears to be some little offset there. But beyond that, I think WAPS has done a splendid job, and I think, by and large, it provides a means to see, really, where you are, especially if there is a missed cycle in preparing for the next.
I think there are some cautions to utter. Those cautions are, however, the point values awarded for attendance at PME [professional military education] schools when they used the school basically for the attainment of the points. The significance here is that there are points given for correspondence and in-residence, and the feeling is, “Well, if I can get the points for correspondence, I won’t go to school,” which leaves to me something lacking in how this is done. I would think that school may necessarily need to be a by-product of the promotion. You get promoted and then you get the opportunity to go to school. I think it would turn that around and discourage any proliferation of the achievement of points by virtue of that kind of a system. That may be backwards. I always had a little trouble with that anyway.
I think our PME process is badly needed and certainly having worked hard to get it on line, across the board that is, I support the fact that it shouldn’t be abused in anyway. I think there is some abuse to the system in that regard.
In your move from Laughlin to Randolph [AFB, Texas] as a senior enlisted advisor, from your perspective, what was the difference in your position from one place to the other?
After moving to the Air Training Command Headquarters, it was immediately clear that Air Training Command did so much more. It was responsible for the basic training. This is the initial introduction of people from a civilian sector into a military role. The same thing applied for officers through the OTS [Officer Training School] function. That was a thing that Air Training Command [ATC] did. But Air Training Command also had the total technical training responsibility in all of the career fields, so right away my role both enlarged or expanded and changed to include methods of assisting my boss in the regard of all that Air Training Command did.
It became obvious that we needed to do some things with casual time at our tech schools, both in the preschool and postschool sense, where students had arrived early and not able to start class with casual time on their hands. This is the area that was very, very critical in which the discipline instilled in the basic training tended to decline. The basic training was very tightly controlled, and once in the tech school, it was very tightly controlled, after you started the class. The casual period, however, gave leeway for “Well, what the hell is the use? They hurried and got me here, and now I am not doing anything.”
On the other end of that, when the graduation was done [if you finished early], you had to wait on your class. We were able to spot the great decline of interest that took place in this casual period, waiting for the rest of the class to catch up. This guy had time on his hands. If they used him, then there was not what was called productive usage. It pissed him off, to be very honest, or pissed her off to be used in some menial sense, to be just a gap filler, waiting for an assignment action.
We had excesses in a number of career fields, if you recall, and we forced cross training. We forced people out of some career fields into others, irrespective of their abilities to do this. Many times, they were there, but they were spinning their wheels. This shed some light on that through spying it early on in a technical preparation for that particular career field. So we were able to resolve a great number of problems in this respect.
The needs for some consideration of new quarters and better studying conditions in quarters. If a student is required to study, then the study conditions should be as best [as] they can [be] to enhance that. These were some things that resulted, I think, in many of the quarters improvements that took place at all the installations, to include Lackland.
The testing for AFSCs was developed at Lackland, as you know. Great groups of noncommissioned officers came and spent days and hours pouring over items that would eventually become test material. They were doing this in non-air conditioned facilities for audio capability, and it was just atrocious to try working under those conditions. These were some of the things that were ultimately improved, because you were there, and you were hearing the direct input. You spent time with basic trainees; you had a good feel for that program. You had a chance to visit OTS; you had a good feel for that program. You had an opportunity to see the difference in NCOs passing through the commissioning process and coming out as an officer, or those who had strictly an ROTC background going directly into a commissioning process and coming out as an officer, and there was a marked difference, because here was a guy, having had the enlisted side of the fence, now with both sides of the fence under his belt.
All right. Let’s talk about how you were elevated to the job of Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. How did you first hear about it, and what were the circumstances surrounding your being selected?
I was at Air Training Command as the senior enlisted advisor when announcement of the incumbent Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force’s tenure was coming to an end and that considerations were being made for his replacement.
After the names were all submitted to the command headquarters, they held a screening to come up with a command nominee or two in case there were two authorizations. Those were then submitted to Air Force. The total of those kinds of submissions were 33 in the year that I was under consideration. The next step was for those persons to convene at the Air Force Military Personnel Center at Randolph, and I was there, of course, on Randolph, so it was sort of a walk-across-the-street thing for me. The purpose of the Personnel Center was to eliminate that down to three finalists, and this was over the course of two days of interviews there.
I must say that when I was selected as one of the three finalists, I really began to realize what I was in from both a momentum and a magnitude standpoint, having seen 30 people eliminated in the process. Then the three finalists being submitted to Air Force were required to go to Washington to the Pentagon for interviews with the DCS/P [Deputy Chief of Staff, Personnel] who at that time was a tough, very demanding guy. I moved then to the Vice Chief of Staff and then, ultimately, an interview with the Chief of Staff, who talked to all three initially and then went back to the individual interviews and then made his selection.
The two competitors that I was with I knew well. I knew one of them from a previous association in a similar career area. This was Chief Conrad Stevens. Conrad was in the 6th Troop Carrier while I was in the 4th, and we ended up, as a result of a storm, as transients in a transient barracks one night, sleeping above and below each other. The other was a guy named Jim Marlow, who had reached, I thought, the epitome of security police superintendent duties and first sergeant duties. He was just a prince of a guy and a good friend. Those were the two other finalists during my tenure.
I was, as a matter of the things I did as a senior advisor, over at Lackland, and I had brought in all of the first sergeants and many noncommissioned officers from one of our bases for a visit to the basic training center. We stayed in a recruit training and housing building. These guys hadn’t been in an open bay dormitory, let alone a dormitory, for years. They had no concept. They enjoyed it. We, at night, even did an old tight blanket card game that used to be the mark of the old days, and they enjoyed sleeping in the open bay bunks and a gang latrine. They had gotten up two mornings with the trainees. They were awakened in the middle of the morning with the trainees falling out to the response of a whistle and said, “Jesus Christ, these guys really moved.” They were surprised and pleased at how the basic trainees responded. I, as the senior advisor for the Training Command, was proud to display that. We had them go through facets of what they got academically, an overview of the training program by the people there at Lackland.
In the middle of all this, I got a phone call. I left it, and it was Gen. [William V.] McBride, who then was the commander of Training Command, who said, “I want you back over here right away. You have got to go to Washington. You have been selected as the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. You have to be in Washington tonight.” A helicopter came to the Wilford Hall helipad to pick me up. I had to leave my vehicle, which my wife got later. They had advised her: she had clothes ready. I landed at Randolph, and a car picked me up, whisked me by my house, and they had already told her what things I needed. She had those in a bag and threw them right in the car window. I didn’t even have time to get out and say “Hi” to her much, went back to the line to a T-39 [business jet], and on the way to Washington. I changed my uniform in a car from the Andrews [AFB, Maryland] flight line en route to the Shoreham Hotel. The official announcement was made at the AFA [Air Force Association] Outstanding Airmen of the Year dinner in the 1973 AFA Convention. Of course, I must say that was the fastest day of my life. I sound a little breathless now. I kind of relived that excitement, and that is literally what happened as a result of that.
I read recently where (this question) has created a great deal of psychological problems, not only for blacks but for all minorities, that the question always lingers in their minds, “Am I getting this because I really deserve it, or am I window-dressing?” Not only does it create problems for the minorities, but it will tend to demoralize the Anglo majority because they think somebody is getting something for nothing. So you see it from both ends.
Obviously one of the first things that came up following the initial selection was, “Do you think this happened because you were black? As rigorous as the competition was, my answer to that was, “No.” But then the follow-on question was, “How do you intend to do that without having it come out that way? How do you intend to do the job?” I addressed that, and as I recall...first off, I would be naive not to believe that that’s the assumption on the part of many people, but that I know for a fact there are three identifiable categories of people now that I have to deal with.
There is a category that, certainly, believes my selection was because of my race. Certainly, there is a category who do not believe that, and then thirdly, there is a category who don’t care but who say, “We’ll wait and see what this guy does.” The only thing I don’t know is how big either category is. So I categorically said, “I really now have to do the job and then let the people judge that.” At the end of what was considered the normal tenure of two years, as you recall, I was extended a year by Gen. Jones, which was unprecedented, and at the end of that year was again extended, which was certainly unprecedented, which gave me a total of four years in the job. I think at the end of the second year, most of the questions concerning the race issue and my selection had subsided in that new issues were on the horizon and [that] the continuity of my involvement in those was principally the reason for the extension. I think the Chief of Staff had that prerogative to do. He felt comfortable with my involvement with the kinds of things that were now coming forth—certainly the newness of women in the nontraditional jobs or roles. I understood that very well. More than that, the very great and grave difficulty as a new administration and some new directions set upon us.
You were the first black to have ever held this position as Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. Did this put any initial strains on you, knowing this, when you first took the position?
It did. I knew there were people watching to see just what would happen. I knew there were people who felt now will come a flood of things for blacks. The time will be spent with blacks on visits to installations and that the whole thing will advance to the Chief of Staff, information that was more beneficial to blacks. All of those things were made. I had some anonymous letters and phone calls that so much as told me that. So, yes, they put some additional strains on me, a little of that. Places that I went where that was common knowledge, one of those being the Ebony Magazine interview. There were some questions surrounding that in a later visit to Johnson Publications in Chicago. I went there for an in-depth interview with their editors. Then, of course, the media was there, and I consented to an interview in which this was the foundation of questions as a black. I had to discount the fact that being black had anything to do with the selection or, in fact, my conduct of and in the job. It carried even a little larger stigma because I was the first in any of the services, period, and I answered some questions from, principally, uninformed people about the other branches. I had to limit my answers there. “Will they or are they going to appoint a black to one of their services?” And, hell, I had no way of knowing what qualifications were for it, not just because I knew they couldn’t do that, but where there were people qualified, I would think their opportunities were to go—so it did place considerable stigma and strain particularly for the first year and a half.
What do you consider to be the single most significant accomplishment that you had while serving as Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force?
I believe that to have been the solidification of the program of enlisted inclusion in the planning process. I think, if you recall, the assignments process took on some new meaning. I think these were all some things that fell out of that office, the ability to gear some things towards the senior noncommissioned officer force. They were in a series or in a package of items that were being worked on, and while there was not one, there was a series of things. I think, if you recall, there were some changes in the allocation of housing. There were some changes in the TOPCAP [Total Objective Plan for Career Airman Personnel] order of the day that allowed selective extension beyond 30 [years of service]. There were a series of things that took place that I would consider the most significant. So, those things that were contained in that package, I think, were the most significant thing—the advancements made for the enlisted force and, certainly, a locking in of the professional military education system at all levels.
While the Senior NCO Academy was certainly already in being, the plans for its further inclusion into the Air University complex [remained]. It is still intended, I would hope, to eventually move that from Gunter [AFB, Alabama] over to Maxwell [AFB, Alabama] and include it in the academic circle. From some standpoint, I hope, that is still in being. Those were some things that were even downstream that were included and, certainly, all the levels of PME.
So with those having been factors as they were, I think—there were some other things that were of a little different nature that were requirements for me to do, both under General Brown and General Jones, that I think resulted in my two extensions, which were unprecedented. These were some very delicate areas that had great bearing on how much and how fast the Air Force pursued some elements. These were the inclusion of women in nontraditional roles and some feedback to the chief.
Did you have complete access to the Chief of Staff anytime you needed it?
I had access when I needed it. Both of them—I must say this now. I am not able to speak, obviously, for my predecessors or successors in that regard, but the access to the Chief, the Vice Chief, the Assistant Vice Chief, and the DP [DCS/P], or the Air Staff for that matter, I considered really unbelievable initially. In working through the exec for the Chief’s time, you learned the best times to see him. It is important—and I don’t know whether anybody else discussed this with you, officer-wise, who had dealings with the Chief of Staff—each time you could see the Chief of Staff, conversationally, was not necessarily the best time to surface something you would like him to accept or buy. There is great meaning in that. If you were really trying to push or sell a program, just because you had access to him that day may not have been the time to present it. Often there were times to wait that were better than others in which to sell. There was often a need to try some things out on the Vice Chief and the Assistant Vice Chief before you went. These people were magnificent in providing that type of assistance and that kind of guidance in, “Today may not be the best day to sell that. Let me call you when the time is right.”
What do you consider your most unforgettable experience while you were in that position?
I consider the most unforgettable experience—well, there were several in that they were good and bad experiences. Certainly, the two extensions were most unforgettable. I think there was no way to put that down at all in any sense of priority. They were unprecedented, and they were an experience to have it said to you by the Chief of Staff, I plan to keep you around for another year, certainly was an unforgettable experience. In essence, I believe the opportunities to wholly represent the Air Force in testimony at the House and Senate Armed Services Committees had to be the epitome of experience. I think perhaps that same statement will embody the most difficult decision in how best to convince the Senate and House Armed Services Committees that there was genuine union interest. I think the validity of that testimony had a lot in it for what took place in a legislative way later on, in having commanders not deal with unions. I think those were some very critical times and probably some of the darker days that I remember when there was something akin to doldrums hanging over the Air Force enlisted element, with the feeling that there was nobody in house who could do anything for us—the secretary, the chief—there was just a complete loss of confidence. I think, in coming back in and talking about unions to the boss were some of the tougher times that I had, and how to be convincing in that in saying to him, when I knew he had done his best, and the conditions perpetuating it were beyond his control, that a lot of our people had interest in a union. I think that had to be some of the most difficult periods. It is tough to say, “Boss, they don’t believe you or the secretary or anybody can do that, and they want a union.”
We had very, very grave situations facing the Air Force, as about 35 percent of its people were interested, seriously, in joining a union, because they saw nobody else able to help this erosion that was taking place. I testified before both the House and the Senate Armed Services Committees on the union issue. I testified before the House committee in conjunction with my counterparts from the other services, and I testified alone before the Senate committee as far as that was concerned, but along with General [Bernard W.] Rogers from the Army and a representative from the Navy, in that particular hearing, and Senator [John C.] Stennis [D–MS] and Congressman [Richard C.] White [D–TX] from El Paso were the chairs of the two committees, and each of them had the question, “Is there a bona fide and genuine interest by people wearing uniforms in unions?” And the answer to that was “Yes Sir, there is.” Then the follow-on question was, “If the nickel fell on the grass today, how many of our people would join the union?” The answer for me was, “About 35 percent.”
Has this desire for a union abated any, or is it about the same?
I think, while you don’t hear it as much, it is simply because we have a provision to keep it from occurring. As you know, the legislative issue made it a constitutional point of view, and it got into the issue of constitutionality. You could not prohibit or preclude anyone from joining a union, but you can preclude a commander from bargaining with the union, so that defanged the union issue. Since there is no bargaining capability, why join? That is what sort of defanged the union issue. The legislation was passed that prohibited it for a commander to bargain with a union. He cannot do that.
Has the Community College of the Air Force been more helpful to Airmen entering civilian life?
Helpful to Airmen entering civilian life? In the long run, yes. It records and equates to civilian status those courses that are given a technical nature or, I guess from the beginning, from basic training, which has a significant portion of it dedicated to physical training, physical fitness. Physical conditioning is a scoreable school item. It is, therefore, given a mark and then equated to its civilian counterparts. It begins with that, and everything from that point forward is recorded pretty much automatically. For those people who believe it didn’t help them, myself included—although I always understood the program because it developed in ATC while I was there—the community college went back to my basic training and plucked out the physical conditioning aspect. All the tech schools have scoreable meaning. All I needed to do was provide them the completion certificates. I would say if it is too far back, it is of little value. My school being in a reciprocating aircraft and engine feature and today everything is jet, it would have little value of equation, but it does have the capability. I think where there are requirements for in-house educational standards, the community college serves that very useful purpose also. It is an encouragement to people on active duty to better themselves academically, which means much in their own career advancement inside.
Then of course, it is invaluable in a record that you can carry right on out to the civilian community with you. So, while it serves both sides of the fence, I think it has, in its long term, a profound effect in an outside use.
What was your feeling toward going to the all-volunteer force?
Initially, and I heard it from a different level, perhaps, than many people in this way. That was one of the advantages of the senior enlisted advisor duty in that major commanders, in preparation for putting that to their commands, were talking about that some time before it began. An all-volunteer force became a factor. As it was described and as it was provided for monetarily at its onset, it looked to be a workable solution. Early on, however, the dangers of what were the Moskos theory or Moskos philosophy about jobs or professions, et cetera, became a factor in, can you buy this kind of allegiance and alliance and have it whole, or do you, at best, create a job?5 I think there was a danger of that early on. As a matter of fact, I think there was some discussion about that danger. In other words, is money all it is going to take to buy a good, strong military force?
The needs that were identified were being worked on right away—the needs in housing, the needs in upgraded equipment on installations—and as you know, all of this was taking place. Then all of a sudden, the money dried up and benefits began to disappear, the GI Bill being one of the bigger ones. It was just considered wholly unacceptable by military people that there was an interference with that, a breach of promise, so to speak, is how was interpreted, to be very blunt.
Then the other kinds of things that sort of fell by the wayside started us on the downhill decline. You couldn’t buy from the community as the economy had jobs going fairly well at one time. You couldn’t attract by the kind of money we offered people to come. As the economy changed, retention became the problem instead of recruiting.
Things that became socially acceptable conflicted with our inner workings of the system as much as disciplines were concerned, and the modification of our disciplinary process and the inclusion of some of the kinds of things, judicially, that took place had an impact on just the military scenario, period. Many commanders and many noncommissioned officers considered it a weakening of the process to allow certain things to happen without what had formerly been...just punishments for those things happening. I think we really didn’t approach that well until there was some look/see at the reports surfaced by the task force on military justice that had gone throughout all the services and rendered a report and then got those in some perspective.
Unfortunately, the feelings generated by the kinds of things that report turned up paralleled a number of things that were going on in communities. So whichever way you turned, you had people from outside with those ideas; you had people inside with those ideas. So, we lost a little ground in that respect, trying to deal with one thing and really weakened another.
Do you think a general revulsion to the Vietnam War helped bring this attitude on?
I’m sure it did. There were certainly some very hard feelings about our involvement in the war...
I think for those who look back over the picture that is presented in war and its aftermath saw, from the World War II perspective, the United States enter a war from a position of being way behind. We had to put together a force; we had to amass equipment and project it abroad, and we did that very well, and we did that with total unity—and I underscore that many times—total unity of the country. There was a common belief by everybody that this needed to be done, and the obvious results were victory and supremacy from World War II, and superiority for that matter. The tangible gains for the investment of money and lives were visible to everyone in this country. We occupied the Japanese properties, the island chains; we occupied Europe and were a world superiority. Nobody had any bad feelings about the kinds of things that happened other than the personal losses, of course, and the fact that there had had to be a war, but in that there was, we had won it. At some sacrifice, yes, but we had won it. Not only did we emerge from that victorious and supreme, but we emerged from it as a monopoly with the possession of an atomic weapon.
By the time Korea came, we still had great capability, and we fought the battle that we fought in Korea, and there was less understanding by both people in the military and out, first, for our involvement which started as a police action, but the fact that we could never unleash all of this power we had on a country like Korea. It was never understood why there were no tangible gains in it. At the end of Korea, there was merely the dividing line, the 38th parallel, that was there when we began, when the presumption was that we were going to help South Korea maintain its independence. So, there was some loss of credibility from the people who involved us in this.
By the time we got into Vietnam, here was still another situation whose origin was not clear to most people, yet a propelling into it and an escalation beyond belief and beyond time and still the restraint that held us from using the capability we had to deal with it. At the time it ended, here was still a dividing line and no tangible gain—great prisoners and war losses that are still unresolved today in terms of people who were or were not there. I think it was a little more than the American people could understand.
In the living rooms, I think the media, TV in particular, projecting this situation into the homes, and family discussions about the ridiculousness of how it was going on, drove a generation of kids who are now recruiting age or who were draft-card-burning age at that time. Our colleges looked at this on a political science sense and saw its fruitlessness. So, we had a lot of informed opinion in the rejection of that. It wasn’t arbitrary. It was a lot of informed opinion from college students and others. Then of course, there was the fleeing of people from the country. After the draft card burning, there was the evasion by going to other countries. Then the bitter wound was inflicted by pardoning all of those.
Those who went and sacrificed never could condone that pardon. That put a wound in the country that is a scar, still, today if it gets rubbed a little raw, depending on how or who talks about it. So here we are sitting on the brink of perhaps a Middle East involvement with oil as the issue, and the bigger question, while we don’t exploit the other resources we have. We give way to this socially acceptable thing of environmentalists in the country perhaps, stopping us from doing the mining and this and that because of over- environmental conditions, and yet we go to war over oil. They are asking the question, “Is it necessary?”
You saw the reaction to the initial need to register. Although the salvation of our military system at the moment is to know who and how many we can depend upon should the chips fall. I think there is a great need to get that all back in perspective, and I think that is really what underscored the great offsetting of the results of this just recent past presidential election. I think that was of the major contributing factors, along with a lot of other things that are going on in the country.
(Inflation) happened with the APRs [Airman Performance Report] as far as enlisted people were concerned. How would you address that problem, and what do we need to get around this sort of thing?
I think the APR system, as a system, changed from what I recall as the old form 75 and an oral board to a later form and some testing and then the eventual development of the Weighted Airman Promotion System.
If the APR inflation record is just that, an inflation record, it’s probably due, in large part, to the absence of former PME opportunities and the professional approach to evaluation. I think, by and large, there was no chronology of information by NCOs—and I’m not saying they should keep a black book or anything on our people—but I think the kinds of things that constitute performance over the rating period rather than the most recent events, which generally turn out to be the case, are principally responsible for the inflationary process. Now to put that in being and in operation, and to go back, we had a little quota system at one time that impacted the APR, but only a certain number of the people could be at the high end of the scale. This tended to do some controlling, but it also tended to punish some people who were duly deserving of some high ratings. But I think it needed to have sort of a bite-the-bullet approach with supervisors and managers to really say, “I have to understand the system and have faith, because I make this guy or this gal a seven. It is not going to kill him or her professionally. The system is still going to recognize them.”
Obviously, promotion was the same thing. The promotion boards may have reversed that. They are looking at all nines rather than what tended to happen as a result of trying to take the inflation down. There was really a clean breakpoint to insert that. I think that clean breakpoint needs to be done and do an actual, honest evaluation. Now that I can look at that from another point of view, inflation is a problem in business and industry also, in the rating and merit process. What we have had to do is the semblance of a quota system, particularly where the mandatory or rather voluntary wage guidelines were instituted. We did this on an institutional or business-wide basis, and the guidelines were met across the board. The development of a merit system that allowed realistic approaches to evaluation may be the Air Force’s answer to this. It gives a starting point at which this true score and true evaluation creates no penalty for the individual being rated. The shadow of penalty is what has caused the inflationary thing to kind of continue. I think the system itself is good. I think it is enforcement where the emphasis needs to be placed. In other words, if we are tending to overinflate, then I think we have, by virtue of the PME exposures now, a professional way to address that. This goes back to my statement about senior noncommissioned officer and promotion being an opportunity to go to school as opposed to vice versa. We have turned around some things and allowed them to continue to aid and abet this inflation process. So, we really need to enforce what we have. I think we’ve got a damn good system. I just think it needs enforcing.
Being in this position as long as you were, did the pressures of the job start to get to you?
No. I have been asked that before. I think it is the kind of a job in which, if the pressures did, it would be noticeable by you and others right away. Noticeable by you in the sense of the physical effect by familiarity or a lock-in to a particular component of the system that’s being worked on to start trading off or exchanging something in one system for something you would like in another system. There were the opportunities, I think, for that to happen, but where it would shortchange anybody in either element of the field, there was certainly a need not to do that. I thought about what impacts, perhaps, that would have, but the whole thing moved fast enough that that never occurred, and I had no ill effects from it whatsoever.
What about your family? You were traveling extensively.
My family, fortunately due to Marie’s strength, stayed cohesive, and they stayed devoted and dependable. I didn’t have to disassociate myself with my job to tend to family matters. I have to largely thank her for that, because the children understood the need to travel, and they had been sort of conditioned and geared to that. I must go back and thank my tour of duty as the Air Training Command senior advisor for that conditioning. I even go back to Laughlin and do it there. Though I was never away from the base for any longer than a day’s visit somewhere else, the time away from the house in the job was a beginning. So, there was some conditioning all the way. It probably even goes back further than that to our marriage.
When I married Marie, I was a flight engineer. As I was seeing her, I explained to her what a flight engineer did and was. So, she was accustomed to the fact that I would fly this weekend and not be home, and she didn’t see me for a week or two. It was an understanding right from the beginning. It never really bothered her. We didn’t have any adjustment. It wasn’t like I was home all the while, and then all of a sudden, I left. This made her able to endure my period overseas well and without difficulty. She just carried that all the way through. She was no stranger to my being gone and, therefore, had no adjustments to make. She was quite able to handle it.
How did you meet your wife, by the way?
We were hometown. She was in school with me. Her family and my family knew each other. She is a year or two older. She was a class ahead of me. When I came back from Japan, as a matter of fact, they had moved to within a block of where we were. Her sister owned a restaurant, and I went there to eat while I was home on vacation. This is when I really got to know her. I really didn’t know her while I was in school. I knew her, but her now being a little older and seeing some things, there was some innate qualities about her, some strengths, that still persists today.
One of those was she was a direct counter for everything, and I tended to appreciate that somehow. She was a good balance for everything. She always had this level thinking and just as quiet and calm as she has done this morning. She doesn’t mind working; she was working then, and she is still working today. We’ve raised our family, and she has worked through that except for her pregnancies—and for the love of working. I think the credit for those things certainly in a marriage goes to her. My mother encouraging me to finish school and then her being encouraging in all the other kinds of other aspirations that I’ve had. She has always been there to lean on. She’s been that way with the children.
Has that been a problem, trying to raise a family with all the frequent moves?
No. As a matter of fact, that’s a frequently asked question. It is one that my sister and I had a good opportunity to deliberate, the one that taught school. She doesn’t have any children. She dealt with children in school. She has none of her own, though she was married. I want to make a point of that. I would, in fact, ask military families to look very carefully at their conditions in this regard. In what are called the formative years, these are the years that children learn good or bad habits quickly and easily, at home and away, the places of assignment are often critical. Now if you live in an area—and I’ll use Washington, DC, as an area—if you live exposed to Washington or New York, and you are not eligible for on-base housing, it plunges your family right in the midst of a very tough set of conditions for formative years.
I can’t thank the Air Force enough for however my assignments picture came out. During the formative years for our children, we were in places like Limestone, Maine [laughter]. Too damn cold to get out and get into anything, and if you did, there was nothing to get into but potato fields and woods. Some people found that a drudgery; some despised it there, and it bothered some people even mentally. We found it a great thing in reading and hearing the stories about kids in other cities, tilted off into the drug thing or what have you at very early ages, to find that, at that time anyway, was virtually void of that kind of problem.
In speaking of your duties as a senior enlisted advisor, your wife appeared to have adapted pretty well to the military life, but as an advisor, you undoubtedly saw many cases where wives never did adapt.
Did this pose a special problem for you as an advisor?
Not really. It posed a challenge more than a problem in trying to create a place of involvement for many wives. I’d like to explain that, because the makeup of the different installations that the Air Force has lends itself to that easily or makes it very difficult. Obviously, the hub of operations is the base itself, and the things that go on there are much more accessible to the people who live right on the installation, to be able to see visibly and take advantage of. This is where the functions of dining-ins, or -outs for that matter, that included the wives allowed them to come. Where there was sufficient housing, you had a larger group of people interested in involvement in that. Where your eligible grade NCOs, now these are wives who are eligible for membership in the NCO club, lived by necessity rather than by choice off the installation and were struggling with the rigors of economy in a base area—Washington, DC, is a perfect example of that.
With as many military people as there were at Andrews [AFB, Maryland] and Bolling [AFB, Washington, DC] and the insufficient housing on both until they built new housing, and I’m still not sure it satisfies the whole need, you know, people were living in Upper Marlboro [Maryland]. They were living out in Indian Head; they were living in Forest Hills or downtown. We lived downtown the first time we were there, and many of the things that were on the base at night, you know, I just never went back to. Marie’s involvement at that time was probably like a lot of other wives. She had no desire. Well, after that’s gone so long, they just withdraw.
It was knowing how that worked that enabled me to accept it as a challenge rather than a problem and then be able to kind of help in that regard. You have to get the wives involved in working on that. The wife being attuned to the husband’s needs is key to his success. If she is not supportive of the efforts he does—this doesn’t mean she has to go to everything, but she has to be willing to understand his need to be out there at night at a meeting, or why it is necessary to work late, or why it is necessary to go over to Airman So- and-So’s and help him. You know, who the hell is he? As soon as they can understand that, the guy has a lot freer hand. That was what I used to encourage, that necessity to be a community, although you were separated by the geographies of on- and off-base conditions. Once many guys get home in the evening, they never get back to anything. It is an excuse; it’s a crutch.
According to your biography, you had 28 years of active Air Force service. Couldn’t you have served longer?
I could have. I could have gone to 30, but anything following what I have described would have been anticlimactic. I thought that was a good point to separate and break, and I did. I have no regrets in having done that. I think there would not have been a place I could have gone, though I would certainly have had a choice of places to go.
Somehow, that would have been very easy, having worked for the chief, to get any assignment that you wanted, within reason. I had identified some that, perhaps, I would have liked to have had if such were to be the case. As decision time came, it was the proper time to separate. Anything else would have been of no moment compared to that tenure.