NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — As a Tuskegee Airman, Grant S. Williams Sr. of Hampton knew the historical struggles of African Americans, and he sometimes felt the sting of racial discrimination firsthand.
But those experiences did not define him. Instead, the Hampton veteran spread the uplifting story of the Tuskegee Airmen to residents of the region, becoming both an educational resource and a storyteller. Williams, who was 94, died on Sunday.
"He didn't seem to dwell on negative experiences," said his son, Grant Jr. "He dwelt on the positive."
According to a bio from the Tidewater Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, Williams was a native of Halifax County. Williams entered military service in 1942 with the country in the throes of World War II. He was sent to Tuskegee Army Air Field for basic training, and forever became associated with the African-American warfighters who made military history.
Williams was sent to Italy in 1944 as part of the 96th Air Service Group, which deployed along with the 332nd Fighter Group. The black pilots and support personnel battled the Germans along with racial stereotypes, proving their worth in the skies over war-torn Europe.
Although Williams was not a pilot and served in a support position as an administrative clerk, he often noted the importance of ground-based jobs.
Speaking at an event in 2009, he said, "Not all Tuskegee Airmen were pilots. It takes 10 or more men on the ground to keep each man up in the air. The pilot is thinking, 'Who packed my parachute?' Who checked my engine?'"
Williams advanced steadily through the ranks and received the Bronze Star for his service in Italy from 1944-5. He was honorably discharged in 1945 with the rank of master sergeant and immediately enlisted in the Reserves.
Recalled to active duty in 1950, Williams served his country for the next 24 years in administrative positions stateside and in Japan, Turkey and Vietnam. He retired as an Air Force chief master sergeant. His last assignment was at Langley Air Force Base from 1972 to 1975, according to his bio.
Despite steadily advancing through the military, Williams had to deal with racial discrimination in the country he chose to serve. Williams' son recalled arriving in the U.S. after his father was reassigned from Japan to the states. In Tokyo, the schools and the base were integrated and it was "a great experience," Grant Jr. recalled.
But after arriving in the U.S. and driving across the country, the Williams family stopped in Kansas at a combination restaurant/gas station.
"They wouldn't allow us to go in the restaurant," Grant Jr. said. "We had to go in the back."
Like many World War II veterans, Grant Sr. did not talk about his war experiences until later in life, his son said. But as he did, the nation finally began to recognize the contributions of the Tuskegee Airmen.
In 2007, President George W. Bush awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the Tuskegee Airmen. In September 2010, Williams became the first and only Tuskegee Airman to be inducted into the U.S. Air Force CHIEFS Room, according to his bio. This took place at Langley.