That afternoon we celebrated, and “C.B.” was awarded the closely guarded squadron prize, which had been held in a safe since May for just this occasion. Eyes and mouths watered as C.B. took the chilled bottle of Coca-Cola and guzzled it down to the last drop.
Since the taking of the island of Pantelleria, which was the first battle in history in which air power alone completely destroyed all enemy resistance, the 99th had been taking on an increasing role of ground attack: dive-bombing and strafing. Although we thought of it as dirty work, we had become dive-bombing experts, and I considered dive-bombing and strafing my specialties.
July 14 found the 99th well established at Biscari airfield, which had just been captured by the ground forces. We continued to attack enemy strongholds and patrol the area, as well as perform armed reconnaissance. Yet we were criticized by the high Air Corps officials for not scoring more aerial victories. They began to question our courage. We wondered how we were supposed to win aerial battles when we had been ordered to perform ground attack.
Our job was to work on the infantry front lines. As the bomb line moved north, so did we. By the time we moved to Cefalù in northern Sicily, I had completed my tour of duty—50 missions.
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.