USS Hornet Museum to pay tribute to Tuskegee Airmen

By PETER HEGARTY | The Oakland (Calif.) Tribune | Published: March 6, 2014

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Clyde Grimes set out for war with high hopes that January day in 1944 when he stepped aboard a train in Los Angeles with 15 other recruits bound for a U.S. Army Air Corps base.

"I was eager to go," Grimes said. "I wanted to fly."

As an African-American, Grimes faced a host of obstacles in a military where Jim Crow laws dashed the dreams of many who shared his skin color.

But Grimes also boasted enough talent to become one of the Tuskegee Airmen, the African Americans of the 332nd Fighter and the 477th Bombardment groups who are now considered among the most renowned American units of World War II.

Their heroism will be recognized at the USS Hornet Museum in Alameda, Calif., on March 15, when Grimes and fellow Tuskegee veteran Burl Smith of Oakland will talk about their experiences. David Cunningham, whose father was a Tuskegee Airman, also will be on hand.

"Each one of these men is actually like a father to me," said Cunningham, the president of the Bay Area's William "Bill" Campbell Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. "Their legacy runs that deep."

Now 88, Grimes grew up in Los Angeles. His father was a Pullman Porter, the African-Americans who worked on railroad sleeper cars in the decades following the Civil War.

After training at Keesler Field in Biloxi, Miss., Grimes served with the intelligence division of the 477th Bombardment group, including at Freeman Army Airfield in Seymour, Ind., where he reviewed flight plans and interpreted photos taken by aircraft gun cameras.

He often flew in B-25 Mitchell bombers as part of his duties, Grimes said.

The racism that Grimes and other blacks faced was underscored in April 1945, when some of them mutinied at the base after they attempted to integrate an all-white officer's club. Dozens were arrested, prompting the military to move the bombardment group to Godman Field at Fort Knox in Kentucky, where Grimes also served.

"There were confrontations, even as the war was ending," said Grimes, who noted that both officers and enlisted men felt the sting of segregation.

Their commander was Col. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., a combat veteran who went on to become the first black general in the Air Force.

"He was a tough man, very tough," said Grimes, who was discharged as a sergeant and lives in the Oakland hills. "No nonsense."

Grimes graduated from UC Berkeley and operated his own architectural firm in Los Angeles for 22 years. He also served as a deputy architect for the state of California and was an architect for the city of Oakland between 1985 and 1991.

Grimes earned his private pilot's license in July 1977, an achievement that he said fulfilled the dream that first led him to volunteer for service during World War II.

He married Minnie, a former social worker and kindergarten teacher, in August 1952. They have three children and three grandchildren.

The couple were among those present in March 2007 when President George W. Bush presented the Tuskegee Airmen with the Congressional Gold Medal during a ceremony in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol.

The honor and the 2012 film "Red Tails" from producer George Lucas renewed interest in the story of the Tuskegee Airmen and how they challenged segregation in the military.

While the men now enjoy acclaim, Minnie Grimes said her husband rarely talked about his background during the years they were raising a family. Racism caused many black veterans to keep silent, the 86-year-old woman said.

"They did not talk about it a whole lot," she said. "There was a lot of negativity. It was very hurtful. I don't think they enjoyed relating those experiences."

USS Hornet Museum, Alameda, Calif.


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