Being a Black Veteran isn’t Always Happy – Part I

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Harry C. Alford and Kay DeBow

Beyond the Rhetoric

By Harry C. Alford & Kay DeBow

America is in love with its veterans. That’s the way it should be. Veterans who served in our military to provide security and a safe future for our citizens. Veterans who were and are willing to sacrifice their own lives to protect the lives of American citizens. These are our heroes and we should respect and appreciate the sacrifices they make for us.  However, the love and bravery they show is not always appreciated.

The first American to die in defense of our nation was a Black man named Crispus Attucks.  From that day on, Blacks have been on the front line of defense for our great nation and that will continue if we are a nation.

Many of us have loved ones who have devoted their lives to the defense of our nation. All American families have contributed to the manpower needed for the defense and the preservation of this land called America.

One of our favorite veterans is Charles DeBow Jr. That is Kay’s father. His father was a Buffalo Soldier who also served in World War I. Charles was fond of aviation. So, when World War II began, and he heard of the organizing of a Black air squadron being formed in Tuskegee, Alabama, he jumped at the opportunity. He already knew how to fly so he aced the initial training and became the head of the first class of Black aviators.

One of his greatest opportunities was to participate in the North Africa Theatre. The Tuskegee Airmen provided air support for General George Patton’s tank corps. Many hear about the Tuskegee Airmen flying support for our bombing missions, but few talk about their expertise in dive bombing.

Officer DeBow led the way for dive bombing. When General Patton began the invasion of Sicily our troops were being “clobbered” by German artillery. They were stuck on the beaches unable to move forward. General Eisenhower ordered the Tuskegee Airmen based in North Africa to fly over to the mountains overlooking Sicily and knock out the German artillery. Charles DeBow led the way in this battle.

They were victorious and saved the invasion of Sicily. One of Patton’s generals publicly thanked the Tuskegee dive bombers: “Tell those colored pilots thanks for us. They saved the mission.”

The History Channel has footage of Airman Charles DeBow returning to base from that battle. It shows him stopping on the landing strip, pulling back his hatch and jumping out of his plane with a smile. We cry with pride every time we see that footage.

Charles DeBow continued with his service, serving over central Italy and then helping to knock out German radar stations in preparation of our D-Day invasion of Normandy, France. With all that heroic activity he and his comrades did not receive the appreciation they deserved.

Even though they were bona fide heroes, the Tuskegee Airmen (all military officers) were forced to dine in the enlisted dining hall. Even German prisoners who were officers could eat in the Officers Dining Hall. They would laugh and tease the Tuskegee officers who were forced to take subordinate dining facilities behind them. It was racism at its worse.

Charles would continue his service after World War II through his service in the Air Force reserves. He had obtained the rank of Lt. Colonel at the time of his retirement. However, our nation would not recognize his actual rank and for his retirement his rank was immediately reduced to Captain. This had immense negative financial ramifications in terms of his retirement pay. He had no choice but to fight it through our court system.

You can google “Charles DeBow vs. the United States Government.” In the end, and after using much of his financial savings, he won his case.

The above seems strange but many Black officers have been faced with this insult and betrayal. Harry’s cousin, Robert Alford, served in the Korean and Vietnam wars as an Army officer. He achieved the rank of Colonel at the time of his retirement. However, just like what happened to Charles DeBow, the military decided to reduce his retirement rank to Major. He too had to spend time in court and pay much of his savings to get his earned rank back on the record. It seems that this is no coincidence.

The above is just shameful. How can a nation treat its loyal and devoted veterans in such a hostile manner? It wasn’t easy for Lt. Colonel DeBow and Colonel Alford to endure this betrayal, but the fact is they were not alone. In future parts of this article let’s look at how our Black veterans have been treated by a nation that should be forever grateful.

Mr. Alford is the Co-Founder, President/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. Ms. DeBow is the Co-Founder, Executive Vice President of the Chamber. Website: www.nationalbcc.org. Emails: halford@nationalbcc.org kdebow@nationalbcc.org.

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