The Flight of the Bumblebee
World War II's black pilots had two war to fight.
- By Louis R. Purnell
- Air & Space magazine, November 1989
(Page 4 of 7)
I left Palermo, Sicily, on a B-24 bomber. On the way back to the States I struck up an acquaintance with a white fighter pilot from Lumberton, North Carolina, who had also completed his tour of duty. At each stop on the trip, he and I would head out to see what the nearest town had to offer in the way of entertainment. He had a good sense of humor, and we got along well.
We finally landed at Eglin Field, Florida, in a drenching rain at about 10 p.m. We jumped down from the airplane and I was about to offer my hand in congratulations when he turned away from me. I was hurt, but not terribly surprised, I suppose; considering that I was black, he was white and from the South, and we were back home, I accepted his behavior as normal.
A steady stream of staff cars began approaching, taking two or three men each off in the direction of the barracks or BOQs—Bachelor Officers Quarters. I saw my friend pause before entering the car waiting for him and turn to look in my direction. The headlights illuminated his face and his eyes looked wet. His face bore an expression I didn’t quite know how to interpret.
When a Jeep pulled up for me, I loaded it with my duffel bags and jumped in. But the driver did not follow the cars toward the buildings; he headed toward the gate, off the field, and into Tallahassee, where he stopped in front of a boarding house. My long-held hopes for a hot shower, a good dinner, and a visit to the officers’ club were shattered to bits. A hell of a reception for one who had just returned from fighting for his country!
The next morning the driver picked me up and took me back to the dispersal point on the field for the flight to Fort Dix. In the crowd I spotted my Lumberton friend. He said he could have told me what was about to happen the previous night but got so choked up he couldn’t get it out. He said he didn’t understand why I couldn’t stay on the base last night and reasoned that since both of us had risked our lives defending our country, the least the authorities could do was let me stay in the BOQ. After what I’d assumed about him, his explanation surprised me and made me vow not to prejudge.
From Fort Dix I went on to New York City, where I made a beeline for the Theresa—the best, the most widely known, and, to my knowledge, the only decent hotel where blacks were allowed to register during those times. The next morning I received a call from the front desk informing me that I had a visitor. In the elevator, I tried to guess who it might be. I never could have succeeded.
The elevator doors opened and there stood Hubert Fauntleroy Julian, looking much as he had when I was an impressionable seven-year-old. He went into his act immediately. Strolling up and down the lobby with one eye on a small audience, he said in a loud voice, “Is this any way to treat a returning hero? He should be out on the town. Give him the keys to the city.” He rummaged through his pockets. “Here—here are the keys to my car. Return the car whenever you wish, tomorrow or whenever you’re finished. It’s right outside, around the corner.”
I felt like two cents, being put on display like this, and could have hidden in the pile of the carpet. But I thanked him and set out to identify the car. I found it quickly enough: a big black Cadillac with a ticket on the windshield parked beside the fire hydrant. I removed the parking ticket, got in, turned the ignition—and saw that the gas gauge registered empty. The old fox’s plot included me, my gasoline ration card—which he didn’t know I lacked—and a full tank. I drove the car around the block, parked it in the space where I had found it, replaced the ticket, and returned to the hotel to give Julian the keys. He was still holding forth in the lobby, and he berated me in the presence of the people there, telling me that I didn’t know how to accept things graciously. Then, after he lost his audience, he invited me to come to his house for breakfast the next morning.