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A Peace Corps Retrospective


Logo of the United States Peace Corps.

Image via Wikipedia

Another anniversary story.  It was the 40th anniversary of the Peace Corps and I just happened to know a few veterans of that renowned service program, and so after they agreed to share their stories with me, those experiences formed the backbone of  what I wrote.  One of the individuals I profiled served in Afghanistan and the other three in India. All of them were deeply affected by what they saw and did and at some level that experience has informed everything they’ve done since then.  My story originally appeared in the New Horizons.  On this same blog you can find my profile of one of these Peace Corps veterans – Thomas Gouttierre, and his affinity for and work with Afghanistan.

A Peace Corps Retrospective

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

Forty years ago, the first wave of Peace Corps volunteers landed in Ghana and Tanzania, Africa. The young, bright-eyed Americans were a new kind of emissary. Neither diplomats nor missionaries, they arrived in far-flung destinations with the appointed task of helping Third World peoples learn skills and develop resources for overcoming tyranny, poverty and disease.

Trained in various service assignments, ranging from education to health to agriculture, the volunteers embodied the idealism and vigor of America’s young, energetic President, John F. Kennedy, who had announced his vision for the Peace Corps in an October 14, 1960 campaign speech at the University of Michigan in which he challenged the nation’s youth to aid the developing world. Once elected, Kennedy reiterated the plan for an international volunteer corps during his January 20, 1961 inaugural address, asking a new generation of Americans to join “a grand and global alliance” to aid the dispossessed and pledging “our best efforts to help them help themselves.”

Kennedy’s clarion call was answered by thousands, including several Nebraskans. By September ‘61 Congress approved legislation formally authorizing Peace Corps and by the end of that year the first contingent of volunteers left for their host countries. Within five years, more than 15,000 volunteers from around the U.S. were implementing Peace Corps projects in the field. As of 2001, 163,000 volunteers have served in 135 countries.

Among those heeding the call during that heady first decade were Tom and Marylu Gouttiere, Peter Tomsen, Beth Furlong and Ron Psota, five transplanted Omahans who were then fresh-from-college graduates looking for a way to make a difference and to find an adventure. Peace Corps duty proved a defining experience for each, indelibly changing the pattern, direction and focus of their lives. For each, it was a time of personal growth and broadened perspectives. They would never look at the world or its diverse people the same way again. For proof, each returned Peace Corps volunteer has given his or her life over to working with people and each has become a world citizen with deep, personal ties to the international arena.

Tom Gouttierre was either headed for a career as a master baker just like his father or as a manager with General Motors just like his friends when Kennedy’s call to service got him thinking beyond the parochial borders of his Maumee, Ohio hometown. “He was an inspiring guy. When he spoke I was just kind of taken by his message of going outside what we normally do,” said Gouttierre, who today directs the Center for Afghanistan Studies and heads the International Studies and Programs Department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

 

 

Tom Gouttierre

 

 

From the time he was a child Gouttierre had been curious about the wider world and longed for journeys that would open up its vast horizons to him, only he lacked a way to make it happen. By his early 20s he was studying liberal arts at Bowling Green State University, but remained frustrated in his efforts to break from the mold. That’s when he and his wife, Marylu, decided to throw caution to the wind and enter the Peace Corps. After training in Vermont, the couple was assigned to Afghanistan, a remote, forbidding country that would figure prominently in the rest of their lives. During their 1965-1967 tour, the couple was based in the capital city of Kabul. He worked as an English-as-a-foreign language instructor and basketball coach at Lycee Habibia high school and she as a physical education instructor at Kabul University and a business instructor at all-girls schools.

“We were one of the few married couples,” said Marylu, an Oriental rug retailer. “It was an unknown experience. We had no idea what to expect, whether our language skills would help us or where we would live. There was no telephone. No television. No communication. It was a really exciting experience, a really scary experience, but also a very rewarding experience, and after awhile we just both fell in love with the culture and the people. It’s good to give some of your own services to others, but when you do that you gain so much also.”

Especially in the early 1960s, countries viewed Peace Corps volunteers “as a kind of feather in their cap,” Tom Gouttierre said, and much of that enthusiasm had to do with foreign peoples’ admiration of Americans. “The students I worked with tried to take everything out of me that they could. They were curious as hell. They were always wanting me to do something with them or for them. It was flattering that your skills were that attractive to this group of people. Before Vietnam really got kind of overbearing, Americans, largely because of the impact of Kennedy, had a real appeal for the younger generation. I can’t tell you how many times some Afghan came up to me to express their sorrow at the death of Kennedy. ‘He was a great man,’ they would say. That was a great asset for any Peace Corps volunteer. You had this icon who helped elevate your own position in their eyes. Today, America is viewed a little differently and for that reason it’s probably more difficult to be a Peace Corps volunteer now, even though living conditions are better.”

Tom Gouttierre’s Peace Corps service set the stage for a distinguished professional life with deep ties to Afghanistan. He and Marylu returned there in 1969 when he studied abroad as a Fulbright Scholar and they remained there the next six years as he headed the Fulbright Foundation and coached the national basketball team. The Gouttierre’s oldest child, Adam, was born in Afghanistan. During his UNO tenure he’s built a massive archive on Afghanistan, supervised education programs there, participated in United Nations fact-finding junkets there and appeared before Congress addressing issues relating to Afghanistan.

Since leaving, he’s watched with a heavy heart as the nation crumbled under the strain of successive crises — from a war with the former Soviet Union to civil strife to the oppressive Taliban regime to the current specter of American-Allied retaliation for harboring terrorist Osama Bin Laden. Many of his former students have been lost. “I’ve seen what one my call the end of innocence in Afghanistan,” he said. “To see the destruction and to learn of the deaths and disappearances of so many friends and associates is very, very sad.”

His thoughts of Afghanistan are bittersweet.

“It’s the place where I kind of grew to a mature person. I was a flower waiting for the sun to rise and it just unfolded parts of me that never would have been unfolded if I had not done that. I learned how to live in very challenging circumstances. It opened everything else up for me. I was naive, but the Peace Corps showed me the world. It gave me the opportunity to learn well another language, culture and people. I love Afghanistan. Its people are very hospitable. They have great self-assurance and pride. Today, however, they have such despair about the future of the country. They are fed up with war. They want things to return to the way they were. And I guess what keeps me at this work is that I am ever hopeful that somehow, some way, those admirable qualities of Afghan culture I came to love so much will to some degree be restored. So, I keep pursuing that.”

Peter Tomsen was a student at Wittenberg University in Ohio when Kennedy’s appeal to America’s youth hooked him. “I can remember, even today, him asking us, ‘How many of you would be willing to study Urdu and go to Pakistan and serve?’ There was an explosion of enthusiasm built around the novelty of the idea — of going off to help others — but also the charism of President Kennedy. He moved us. He moved a whole generation,” said Tomsen, ambassador-in-residence in the UNO International Studies and Programs department. “There was a rush to join up. There were many more volunteers then there were slots. We were extremely idealistic. Many of us, including me, had never even left our country much less our state. And that element — of an unseen adventure — was there, too.”

In a case of it truly being a small world, Tomsen and Gouttierre, both the same year, grew up within 35 miles of each other in northwest Ohio, came to a similar epiphany regarding the Peace Corps at nearly the same time and embarked on international careers that eventually led them to being UNO colleagues. Assigned to Nepal, Tomsen first underwent extensive language and culture training in Washington, D.C. and hard physical training in Hawaii (to steel him for the rigors of trekking through the Himalayas). Upon his arrival in Nepal, he taught social sciences at a college constructed of stone, bamboo and thatch, but before his two years were up he was charged with the new mission of opening a vocational school for Tibetan refugee children.

Peter Tomsen

 

 

Being transported from the plenty of America’s Breadbasket to the subsistence-level conditions in Nepal exposed Tomsen to a side of the world he could not have imagined. “Outside of the capital, there was no electricity in Nepal,” he said. “There was only one road. It was a very poor area with very little to eat. We ended up just having rice twice a day with vegetables and sometimes with meat. Often, we slept on mats on the ground. We didn’t have newspapers or television. We could only get the BBC on transistor radio. We were really isolated. There was a high illiteracy rate. Peoples’ interests didn’t go much beyond survival. But, faced with a situation like that, you soon realize how little you need, especially when you have friends. We had extremely close friendships with the people and they had it with each other too. The people were proud and led a fulfilling life.”

After his 1963-1965 Peace Corps tour, Tomsen returned to the U.S. to teach at St. Cloud State University before landing a diplomatic post in the U.S. State Department, where he enjoyed a 33-year career that culminated with him serving as ambassador to Armenia. Wherever he’s worked, he’s carried with him core values from the Peace Corps, including “interpersonal and intercultural abilities” and greater “tolerance, patience and sensitivity.” He said. “After living in a village environment in Nepal for two years I was at home and comfortable the rest of my life every time I met a foreigner.”

Beth Furlong had rarely traveled outside the confines of Davenport, Iowa, where she was a hospital nurse, when she opted to stop playing it safe and to push herself beyond her comfort zone by entering the Peace Corps. Following training in New England, her assignment was teaching public health education to adult men and women, including students at an all-women’s teacher training institute in East Mysore, India. It was about as far afield from her rural Midwestern upbringing as she could get and the dichotomy led her to change her outlook on things.

“I led a restricted life before I entered,” said Furlong, an associate professor in the School of Nursing and a faculty associate in the Center for Health Policy and Ethics at Creighton University. “It made me a mobile-international citizen. It helped me look beyond my ethnocentrism. It gave me a new concern about poverty and justice. And, also, it gave me an appreciation for the fact there’s no one right way to do anything. The area I lived in was predominantly Hindu and Muslim and so I learned there are many ways to worship. I learned that washing myself didn’t have to mean bathing, but could mean pouring water over myself. It was a wonderful lived experience of getting outside America and seeing how other people live.”

Back in the U.S., Furlong switched her career track from hospital nursing to community health nursing as a direct result of her Peace Corps service, which opened her eyes to the need for more and better preventive — rather than reactive — public health policy in addressing such things as nutrition, safe drinking water, immunizations, family planning and maternal-child care. At home, she has involved herself in scores of organizations dedicated to the justice, anti-poverty and peace movement, including Omaha Together One Community (OTOC) and Nebraskans for Peace. She has taught ethics at international conferences in Eastern Europe, most recently under the auspices of the Albert Schweitzer Institute and the American International Health Alliance.

Today, she is planning her first trip back to India since she left 33 years ago and is eager to return to the villages she volunteered in to see what progress time has wrought. All these years later, Furlong fondly looks back at her India tour of duty and appreciates how it helped her move beyond the “constricted view” of things she arrived with to develop a greater, more encompassing understanding of other cultures. As Furlong discovered, Peace Corps volunteers do not merely observe the cultures they serve from some ivory tower distance, but rather wade right in to live and work among the people.

 

 

Beth Furlong

 

 

In her case, that meant eating spare meals, doing without electricity, using an outhouse, bicycling from town to town and being the object of curiosity wherever she traveled. It meant being treated to a level of hospitality that humbled her, as peasants shared meager food supplies with her, a perfect stranger, when such provisions should really have gone to their malnourished children. It also meant finding out, first hand, what peoples’ needs were and devising responses to meet those needs.

When she and her Peace Corps partner, Alice, identified a need for sanitary food preparation and bathroom facilities, they took the initiative and worked with CARE volunteers to build kitchen sheds and latrines in dozens of villages. She’s hoping that when she visits these villages, the sheds and latrines still stand. She said she could not have gotten as intimate with Indian culture as she did without the Peace Corps placing her smack dab in the middle of things. That sentiment is shared by fellow Peace Corps veterans.

“Peace Corps volunteers get closer to the quick of society than do anybody else, whether its foreign service officers or scholars or anyone else,” Gouttierre said. “The Peace Corps is probably the best people-to-people experience ever devised. In that regard, it’s as important as it ever was and I think it’s still the best kind of foreign assistance and foreign exchange of any kind.”

Ron Psota had long ago decided not to be a dairy farmer like his parents, who owned and operated a spread near Ord, Nebraska. No, he wanted to see the world and to explore other possibilities. So, he became a liberal arts major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he earned an architecture degree he hoped one day to use in the Peace Corps, whose foreign service appealed to his sense of curiosity. Ironically, once in the Peace Corps he did not end up designing low cost housing as imagined but instead found himself on familiar ground by assisting farmers in India with their agricultural needs. Still, the Peace Corps offered him the chance to live out a dream and to carve out a new life.

“I’d always been interested in other cultures. That was a strong pull. That and the fact maybe you could do some good and maybe have a helluva good adventure too,” said Psota, International Students Coordinator at Bellevue University. “I think if I had not done that my life would be quite a bit different. It was sort of a defining moment. It changed my world view. It changed the way I work and what I do and everything else.”

 

 

Ron Psota, left, with foreign exchange students

 

 

Perhaps the biggest change it made in the lives of Psota and his wife, Eileen Wirth, has been in their serving as hosts for hundreds of foreign students over the years. First, at UNO, and more recently at Bellevue University, Psota has been a liaison for international students, many of whom have lived with the couple at their Bemis Park area home, which is filled with artifacts and photographs from their many travels and exchanges. Psota has maintained contact all these years with the village he served and has returned to India four times.

The couple are adoptive parents to two children, now grown, who are foreign-born nationals. Their son, Raj, came from Mother Theresa’s orphanage in New Delhi and their daughter, Shanti, came from an orphan agency in Thailand. He said his reaching out to international youths is his way of repaying a debt he feels he owes those villagers who welcomed him 30-odd years ago. “A lot of this is sort of pay back. The world needs to be more welcoming to each other.” Psota’s wife, Eileen, said she knew as soon as Ron came back from his Peace Corps stint that “I was going to share him with India for the rest of our lives. And, of course, India then became Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand…”

Psota was part of a Peace Corps team working to increase village level food production.

“We were sort of county agents charged with introducing new hybrids, fertilization, land leveling and crop protection measures. We were half that  and half snake oil salesmen in a lot of ways,” he said. “We were supposed to get farmers to change. At times it was sort of, ‘God, are they ever going to change?’ We were probably bringing on the future and one of the things we were concerned about was ensuring the future had a human face.”

Despite some resistance and skepticism, Psota said farmers soon saw the benefits of improved methods. “The Indians were like farmers anyplace in the world. They may not have been able to read and write, but they all could count. When they counted the number of bags of rice that came off some of our hybrid areas versus what they got off their own plots, they were going to plant them. The yield was that much greater.” Psota and his team also modernized farming practices by starting a tractor cooperative that brought mechanized plowing and harvesting to the area.

A lasting impression for Psota is how much a spectacle he and his Peace Corps mates were. “We were the best show in town in a lot of ways. We were curiosities. I always felt I was on display. The first month or so after my arrival I lived in a school house with windows on all sides, usually complete with little kids looking in at all hours of the day and night. The villagers were just always there. You’d open your door at 6:30 in the morning to go do your duty in the mulu bushes and four people would fall in on you. You soon learned to play to the crowd.” In his travels back to India he’s found the people “much more in tune with what’s going on and a little more in control over their own lives.”

Peace Corps veterans comprise a special fraternity or, as Peter Tomsen, put it, “a family,” built on shared service abroad. Ron Psota often organizes reunions of returned Peace Corps volunteers. To a man and woman, they describe their volunteering as the most seminal experience in their lives.

Gouttierre said, “My whole life is the product of the Peace Corps. I’m more proud of being a Peace Corps volunteer than of anything else I’ve done. When I find out somebody is a returned Peace Corps volunteer it automatically raises their estimation in my eyes. It still is a very profound experience in terms of what it does to crystallize one’s inner dimensions.”

Tomsen, whose daughter followed him into the Peace Corps, said, “It was the most formative experience I ever had. Do I think I made a difference? Yes, but I think I got more back than the villagers.” Furlong, who was planning to attend the Peace Corp’s 40th anniversary celebration in Washington D.C. until it was postponed in the wake of the recent terrorist attack, simply said, “It changed me.” Finally, Psota said, the Peace Corps opened up “the wonder of the world for me. Now, I’ve got friends all over the world to see. Yeah, I got a lot out of it.”

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Donovan Ketzler, The Last of the Rough Riders

June 18, 2010 1 comment

1st Cavalry Shoulder Patch

Image via Wikipedia

The subject of this profile, Donovan Ketzler, is like one of those romantic adventurer  figures from a Jack London or Rudyard Kipling yarn. I believe you will find his adventures as a cavalryman and recreational horseman will enchant you as much as they did me. The Omaha, Neb.-based boot manufacturing company he headed for years, Dehner, earned a national and international reputation for the superior craftsmanship of its fine boots.  Its customers have  included heads of state and celebrities of all kinds. The story originally appeared in the New Horizons.

Last of the Rough Riders

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

Sitting astride his pale gelding, Snowdrift, Donovan Ketzler is the very embodiment of the gallant, weatherworn horse soldier of frontiers past. He looks the part too with his leathery skin, cropped mustache, squinting eyes, gnarled hands, erect posture and stern but jaunty deportment. Then there’s the way he uses a nudge of the boot, a tug of the reins and a brush of the riding crop to expertly guide his mount.

The rough rider image he projects is no facade, either.  The 74-year-old retired president of the Dehner Co., Omaha’s renowned manufacturer of hand-made custom boots, is, in fact, an ex-cavalryman. During World War II he served in the U.S. Army’s Cavalry Replacement Training Center at Fort Riley, Kansas, instructing troops in the 1st Cavalry Division and participating in combined horse and mechanized maneuvers on the Great Plains.  He later mule-packed with Chiang Kai-sheck’s Chinese troops fighting the Japanese in Burma and mainland China.

This consummate horseman and inveterate adventurer is the last of a dying breed of men with any link to the rugged cavalry troopers who roamed the American West.  Although his own cavalry days are long behind him, riding is still a large part of his life.

He rides for sport and pleasure today in the hills and river valleys north of Omaha.  He boards his horse at a stable just inside Washington County, near Neale Woods.  “I know Ponca Hills like the back of my hand,” he says.  “We ride from there clear down to the river.”  For him, there’s nothing grander than being atop a fine animal with the sun at his back, a jump looming ahead and a fox on the run.

“I tell you, when you’re on horseback and you get behind a pack of hounds that’s in full cry, you’re just hell bent for leather,” he says in his rough-hewn voice.  “The old adrenalin’s going, you’re flying fences, going cross-country, down ditches, up hills, and there ain’t nothin’ nicer.”

As much as he likes the thrill of the chase, he enjoys watching  animals at work amid nature’s splendor.

“It’s fun working with a horse and seeing success.  And I love to watch that pack of hounds circling and trying to pick up a scent.  One will pick it up and the rest of ‘em will come over to honor it and when two or three of ‘em honor it, why they’ll take off and follow the scent, then they’ll lose it and have to find it again.  To watch those animals working is tremendous,” he says.

Son Jeff Ketzler, who succeeded him as Dehner president in 1991, says his father likes his outdoor recreation wild and woolly. “That’s his favorite thing. He likes to tread where no man has tread before. He always likes it a little bit rougher than I do.”

A frequent riding companion of Ketzler’s is Vicki Krecek, vice president of communications with the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce.  She admires his desire to make riding a lively group affair.

“One Saturday he went down by the Missouri River and spent all day making this one trail with all these little jumps, so that it became a real fun, challenging course to ride,” she says.  “He’d really thought it out and done it beautifully.  He got such a kick out of doing that.  I thought it was so neat that somebody would take the time just so we could have some more fun.”

Equestrians feel you can tell a lot about a person by how he/she handles a horse.  While Ketzler insists he’s nothing special —  “I get on the horse, I look like hell, and at the end of the day I get off the horse” — others disagree.  Krecek says: “He’s an excellent rider.  He rides with a real assurance.  And he’s also really compassionate about the horse, even though he’s very much in control. He won’t tolerate bad behavior on the part of the horse, but he has a very gentle hand.  He’s very conscientious of the land too.  We never set foot on anybody’s planted field.”

Krecek also echoes others in describing his bold, macho side.  “He’s definitely a hard charger and he’s definitely very fearless,” she says.  “I can’t believe some of the things he’s done.  Once, we were in a hunter’s pace and his horse refused a fence and kind of reared around, and Van fell off and hit his head.  I said, ‘Are you okay?’  ‘Yes,’ he said.  ‘Well, hurry up, get on,’ I said, because we had another half-hour to ride at a pretty fast pace.  Later on, he said he thought he was having a heart attack because he couldn’t breathe very well.

“I couldn’t believe he would think he was having a heart attack and wouldn’t tell me to stop.  It turned out he had a couple broken ribs, yet he rode that extra half hour.  When he says he’s hurting…he’s really hurting.”

In a lifetime with horses Ketzler’s taken his share of spills and suffered a medical dictionary full of sprains, strains, tears and broken bones.

“He gets himself hurt in the most spectacular ways,” Jeff says.  “When I was a kid he was brought home in an ambulance after a horse he was trying to shoe kicked him in the head, and to this day he has a horseshoe scar on his forehead.  Another time Dad tried to drag my horse Gizmo into a trailer.  He had wrapped the lead shank around his hand, and when Gizmo took off, Dad took off with him.  He always tells the story how he was in a helluva foot race for about 75 feet, but then that lead shank came undone and he fell behind very quickly.  He tore his hamstring and rotator cuff, and busted this and that.”

Ask what’s the most outlandish thing his father’s done, and Jeff pauses, laughs and says, “He’s done so many spectacular things it’s hard to narrow it down to just one.  He’s trained in the cavalry way…you’ve got to be up front, doing it all…and no type of terrain or obstacle will keep you from getting to your objective, and that’s always the way he has been.  Always forward, always going, always full blast.”

Then there are the times, entirely apart from horses, Ketzler’s heeded his fanciful, slightly mischievous nature.  Like his penchant for dropping everything in the middle of the day to go gallivanting half-way around the world.  He’s been known to drag his wife Bette along on military hops out of Offutt — with little or no advance notice — to destinations like Hawaii.

The ever-spontaneous Ketzler once surprised her with the news that in two hours they were leaving that afternoon for Great Britain. “I called her from the office at 2 and said, ‘I’m picking you up at 3 and at  4 we’re going to be gone,” Ketzler recalls.  “Pack what you think you need.  If it’s too much, we’ll throw it away.  If it’s not enough, we’ll buy it.  And it was the best trip we ever had.”

Jeff says his mother, who’s gotten used to such unpredictability, sometimes endures more than she bargains for.  Like the time his father  swept her away to Australia.  Sounds romantic and exotic, right? Except they traveled in the tail section of a C-5 Hercules military transport. “Mom, of course, didn’t like it very much, but Dad had an absolute blast.  He loved every minute of it.”

Ketzler is a restless sort whose rash sense of adventure and wanderlust causes him to fidget if he’s forced to sit very long.  He’s always itching for action.  “If there’s something happening, you can be sure he’s always right in it,” Jeff says.  “He cannot sit down.  He never stands still.  He’s always the first one out during a tornado warning, looking around.”

Donovan Ketzler himself likes telling the story of how as a brash teen smitten with Bette, he took her riding in the bluffs overlooking the Missouri River.  While already an accomplished rider used to the steep terrain, she was quite green.  “We ran these horses to the edge of the cliff and dropped about 40 feet,” he says.  “She was just hangin’ on by the horse’s neck.  She hasn’t been riding since.”

Her swearing off riding the last 60 years didn’t get in the way of their love for each other, as the couple recently celebrated their 51st wedding anniversary.  Neither did she stand in the way of their four children riding.

“She’s as knowledgeable about horses as any woman I know,” Ketzler says, “even if it’s mostly from the ground.”

One thing Bette did disapprove of was her husband’s habit of taking the kids riding on the Sabbath. “We never got to church because we were always out fox hunting on Sunday mornings,” Jeff says. “Dad has always been a spiritual man, but never much of a churchgoing man. He always felt going over a snowy field early on a Sunday morning put him a lot closer to God than he could ever get in any church pew.”

Indeed, whether camping at Custer State Park, riding in Ponca Hills or watching cranes in the Sand Hills, the great outdoors is Donovan Ketzler’s sanctuary and temple.  “I tell you, you get out in the woods and it’s like going to church,” he says.  “You’re really pretty close to your god out there.  You’ve got a good horse under you that you trust and really you just get back down to the basics and forget all about your frustrations.”

Even to this day he searches for new riding epiphanies.  Recently returned from a week-long horseback tour of County Sligo on the west coast of Ireland, he was still beaming with childlike glee over the experience.  “There were three of us that went.  They gave us two saddlebags, a horse and a map apiece and we took off, stopping at bed and breakfasts about 20 kilometers apart.  We were in the saddle about 6 1/2 hours a day,” he says.  “We started in a little village called Grange on the Atlantic Ocean.  Then we rode down the coast along Sligo Bay.  Then we went inland and up to the mountainous areas, then into a wooded area and around a lake called Gill.  We came out on the other side of Sligo Bay.”

The demanding horseman found the trek up to his rigid standards.

“The horses were good, the equipment was fantastic, and the trails and the maps were just exceptional. We lived out of those saddlebags.  I liken it to reliving my youth in the cavalry — going out with the horses in the field.  I was in seventh heaven.  We had a helluva good time.  Absolutely spectacular.”

Upon reaching the last stop, Ketzler and his riding partners were met by their spouses and together they toured, by more conventional means, western Ireland, staying on the Shannon side.

The party took several side trips, including a visit to the site of the Dehner factory Ketzler built and operated briefly in the mid-’70s in the village of Knocklong.  The plant now houses a packaging company.  During Dehner’s brief foray in Ireland, which was foiled by steep labor costs, Ketzler, wife Bette and their sons Jeff and Jon lived there at various times.

Donovan and Bette were most enchanted by the Irish huntsman’s apartment they resided in, located in the stables of a centuries-old manor house belonging to a local dairy farmer.  Ketzler felt at home because the farmer was also the area master of hounds and kept horses on either side of the couple’s apartment. Never one to skip a hunt, Ketzler rode with the hounds over there and has the black thorn shredded boots to prove it.

The failure of the Irish factory is one of the few missteps Ketzler made during his 20 year-reign as Dehner president.  The more than 120-year-old company, which bears the name of his maternal grandfather, C.C. Dehner, has always been a family-run concern.  Ketzler’s father, Harold, headed the firm until Ketzler, who started working there at age 12, took over in 1971.

Ketzler streamlined the operation dramatically increasing the output, sales and profits, and consolidating its hold in the English riding, law enforcement and military markets.  Dehner’s reach has even extended to NASA, making astronaut boots from Mercury to Apollo to the Shuttle.

Among its prominent customers over the years has been former President Ronald Reagan, a longtime rider who began wearing the Dehner brand in 1946 while still a contract motion picture actor.  Dehner boots have been worn by generations of West Point graduates, including Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton.  The always image-conscious Patton collaborated with Ketzler’s grandfather in designing a striking strap model that came to be called “the Patton boot.”  It was worn by the general’s tank troops, and later by U.S. Air Force personnel, including U-2, Thunderbird and test pilots, who came to know it as “the SAC boot.”

While stepping down from the firm’s day to day operations seven years ago, Ketzler retains chairman of the board status and holds veto power.  He keeps an office in the plant, nestled in a quiet residential neighborhood at 3614 Martha Street.  Customers trailing horses cross-country often let their animals graze on the Dehner lawn while getting a fitting or a tour of the plant.  A peek inside Ketzler’s office reveals his old McClellan cavalry saddle on display, walls laden with photos of him riding, inscribed photos from Reagan and Patton and a plaque thanking Ketzler for his efforts in supporting the Omaha Police Department’s mounted patrol.

Ketzler shows up to work every day because, he says, “I still want to know what’s going on.  I still want to get in the swing of it.  But by and large I bite my lip a lot and let ‘em run it.”

Jeff Ketzler says his father applied the same organizational skills and disciplined approach learned in the military to running the business, and the ramrod style paid off.  “When Dad took over I think our production was about 2,500 pair a year, and by the time he retired it was about 12,000 pair a year.  He took a very, very small company and turned into the largest handmade custom boot manufacturer in the world.  Everything was very, very organized.  Everybody knew what they had to do…and it was always kind of his way or the highway.  My dad is definitely a hard act to follow.”

According to Jeff, his father employed a strict hand at home too.  “He’s always been a military-type guy. This is his life, and this is the way he’s chosen to live it.  He reveres those people and, I mean, he was one of ‘em.”

Living a Jack Armstrong adventure as a boy, Donovan Ketzler became exposed to the cavalry way of life accompanying his grandfather on sales trips to army outposts, where the troops adopted the eager lad. Not long after the firm’s 1930 move from Kansas (where it originated) to Omaha, Ketzler and his late sister Janne learned to ride at Fort Omaha and the 113th Cavalry Stables in Council Bluffs.

“Although my family were not military people, I was practically raised in the military,” he says.  “I was thrown in with a group of 7th Service Command officers’ children in a riding class.  I became very proficient at it.   I pretty much had carte blanche with the use of their horses.”

So proficient that by his mid-teens he was riding with the National Guard cavalry troops in Council Bluffs.  “I got in with the officers, and they allowed me to come along on an officers’ ride every Sunday morning.  We’d ride off into the bluffs and just do some hellish things.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.”  By the outbreak of the war the unit was federalized and Ketzler, still a kid, was told to “get lost.”

At 18 he was determined to serve in the cavalry, but after enlisting in 1943 found himself assigned instead to the infantry.  That is until he informed the brass he was already cavalry-trained, whereupon he promptly got his wish at Fort Riley.  He soon became a cavalry instructor.  Although cavalry units in the field had been dismounted, drilling with horses continued, he says, “because it was said a horse-trained soldier was more responsible than straight-legged infantry.  With a horse, you have to take care of it and you accept a certain responsibility.”

Later he went overseas, training “rag-tag” Chinese resistance forces in infantry weaponry (mortars and anti-tank devices) as a replacement to the 124th Cavalry.  While serving with the Chinese Combat Command he largely remained behind the front-lines, but occasionally got caught “in counter barrages.” He explains, “When I was in Burma the planes would fly over and parachute everything in — all the supplies — because they had no place to land.  And of course the Japanese would see these parachutes coming in.  Well, we’d wait about 10 minutes before going out there with our mules to pick up the supplies, and the Japanese would throw mortars in on us.  I lost a mule to shrapnel.”

His Far East duty spurred an appreciation for the region and its people, who endured appallingly poor living conditions and cruelties enforced by warlords.  He says it was a nation ripe for revolution.

Back home Ketzler briefly attended theUniversityof Nebraska-Lincoln before rejoining the family business, marrying Bette and starting his family.  He remained in the army reserves until retiring, as a major, in 1967.  He’s sure he would have stayed in the military if not for the family business.

In his post-war life he ached to see China again but the political situation made it impossible.  He finally got his chance in the ‘70s when the country was opened to foreign visitors.  He and Bette have traveled there several times since, trekking across the Silk Road, floating down the Yangtze River and visiting the back country where Ketzler served in the war.

Other favorite destinations have included his ancestral homeland of Germany and a bird watching haven in a remote Mexican coastal village.

His travels often intersect with his interest in frontier soldiering, an interest he cultivates by reading, collecting vintage weapons, visiting such historic sites as the Battle of the Little Big Horn and wearing reproductions of cavalry uniforms (complete with his own leathermade goods) on River City Roundup rides from Ogallala to Omaha.  While he does not romanticize the “hard, hard life” endured by the troopers, he does feel a strong kinship with them.  “Yeah, I really do.  Very much so. They were cavalry too.”

The intrepid spirit of the cavalry is what keeps him active today.  “We’re survivors.  You gotta have a reason for gettin’ out of bed,” he says.  Just as the horse cavalry’s days were numbered, Dehner will likely close whenever Ketzler’s son Jeff retires.  “This is the last of the line,” Ketzler confirms.  Does that sadden him?  “No, we had a helluva run…a good time.”  And like an old soldier, he’ll just fade away, riding to the setting sun.

Chuck Powell: A Berlin Airlift Story

June 18, 2010 2 comments

U.S. Navy Douglas R4D and U.S. Air Force C-47 ...

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One of the nice things about a blog like mine is that I can revive or resurrect stories long ago published and forgotten. Here’s a story I did about a man who had a remarkable military service record.  His name was Chuck Powell.  He passed away recently, and I post his story here as a kind of tribute or memorial. I did the story around an anniversary of the Berlin Airlift, which he participated in as a pilot.  He also flew in World War II and in the Korean War.  He nearly flew in Vietnam.  Powell was a great big old Texican who had a way with words. He was an example to me of never judging a book by its cover.  By that I mean he appeared to be one thing from the outside looking in but he was that and so much more.  For example, by the time I met him he was pushing 80 and a tenured academic at my alma mater, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, but none of that suggested the many adventures he had experienced far removed from academia, adventures in and out  of wartime, that added up to a wild and woolly life.

The profile originally appeared in the New Horizons and I think, like me, you’ll find Powell’s story compelling if for no other reason than all the history his life intersected with.

Chuck Powell: A Berlin Airlift Story

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

Somehow it’s fitting one-time aviator turned political scientist, gerontology professor, history buff and pundit Chuck Powell holds court from a third-floor office perch on the University of Nebraska at Omaha campus.  There, far removed from the din of the crowd, he analyzes trends affecting older Americans, which, at 78, he knows a thing or two about.

On any given week his office, tucked high away in a corner of an old brick mansion, is visited by elected officials from across the political spectrum seeking advice on public policy and legislative matters.

“Most of the so-called issues are perennial.  They don’t change.  Most of the time people are searching for some magic silver bullet, but there isn’t any.  My advice is usually pretty simple,” he says.

Don’t mistake Powell for some ivory tower dweller though.  Whether offering sage counsel or merely shooting the bull in his down-home Texas drawl, this high flier and straight shooter draws as much on rich life experience as broad academic study with students and politicos alike.

And, oh, what a life he’s led thus far.  During a 30-year military career  he saw duty as a Navy combat pilot in the Pacific during World War II, a photo reconnaissance pilot in China and a C-54 jockey in the Berlin Airlift.  Later, he flew combat cargo missions in Korea.  By the time he retired a Naval officer in 1971 he’d seen action in two wars, plus the largest air transport operation in history, been stationed in nearly every corner of the globe and risen through the ranks from seaman to pilot to commander.

He’s gone on to earn three college degrees, teach in post-secondary education and travel widely for pleasure.  Yet, for all his adventures and opinions, he’s rather taciturn talking about himself.  Chalk it up to his self-effacing generation and stern east Texas roots.  Nothing in his home or office betrays his military career.  His wife, Betty Foster, said even friends were surprised to learn he’s a veteran of the 1948-49 airlift, a fact made public last spring when he and fellow veterans were honored in Berlin at a 50th anniversary event. Participating in “Operation Vittles” changed his life.

“There’s a strong feeling of public service among those of us who served in the airlift because it left us with the idea we could do great things without bombing the bejesus out of somebody,” he says.

While he has, until now, been reluctant to discuss his military service, his impressions, especially of the airlift, reveal much about the man and his take on the world and help explain why his advice is so eagerly sought out.

Born along the Texas-Louisiana border, he was reared in Tyler and a series of other small east Texas towns during the Depression.  He hardly knew his father and was often separated from his mother. Shuttled back and forth among relatives in a kind of “kid of the month club,” as he jokingly refers to it, he spent much time living with an uncle and aunt — Claiborne Kelsey Powell III, an attorney and Texas political wheel, and his wife Ilsa, a University of Chicagoeducated sociologist and Juilliard-trained musician.

One of Powell’s clearest childhood memories is Claiborne taking him to see the inimitable populist Huey Long stumping for a gubernatorial bid in nearby Vernon Parish, La.  He recalls it “just like it was yesterday.  The guy was so impressive. He was a big man.  He had a large head and a full head of hair and wore a white linen suit with a string tie.  He’d go, ‘My friends, and I say, you are my friends…’  Yeah, Huey man, he was a hoot.”

Surrounded by Claiborne’s political cronies and exposed to his and Ilsa’s keen wit and elevated tastes in music and books Powell was, without knowing it then, groomed to be a political animal and scholar.  He credits his uncle with being “probably the most influential person in my life” and sparking an insatiable inquisitiveness. “I’m a curious person.  I’m someone who likes to turn over every rock in sight,” Powell concedes. Betty, a gerontological educator and consultant, adds, “He doesn’t look at the surface of most things.  He looks far deeper than most people do.  Chuck is always looking at why we do things.  He’s very, very bright.”

Searching for some direction early in life, Powell found it in the Navy at the outbreak of World War II. Besides serving his country, the military gave him a proving ground and a passport to new horizons.

“It provided a way out.  I could hardly wait to get on the road.”

The sea first took him away.  In a series of twists and turns he doesn’t elaborate on, his early wartime Naval service began as a sailor in the Atlantic and ended, improbably, as a fighter pilot in the Pacific. The only thing he shares about his combat flying experience then is:  “I heard some gunshots, let’s put it that way, but by the time the war ended the overpowering might of the United States in the Pacific was such that you rarely got an opportunity to even see, let alone shoot at, the enemy.”

With nothing compelling him to leave the Navy, he volunteered as a pilot on photo recon missions across northern China. Exploring the Orient had been a dream of his as a boy.  “There was some mystery about it.  Before the war about the only Americans that went were missionaries.  It was a good experience.”

After a year’s duty in China he returned home and was assigned to the Military Air Transport Service (MATS).  “I was in a Navy four-engine transport squadron that flew out of Washington National.  We had nightly, non-stop routes that went from Washington to San Francisco.”

Then, in June 1948, the Soviets blockaded all ground and water routes in and out of West Berlin and Powell and his mates were redeployed to Germany to support the, at first, ragtag airlift of vital supplies into the isolated and beleaguered city. The first supplies were flown in June 25.

Powell’s first missions supported the airlift itself:  “We started flying equipment and personnel to Rhein-Main,” a major air base and staging area near Frankfurt.  Attached to Air Transport Squadron 8, he found himself thrown in with other airmen originally trained for combat duty.  Its skipper, “Jumpin” Joe Clifton of Paducah, Ky., was a decorated fighter pilot.

 

 

 

 

The start of “Operation Vittles” was inauspicious.  Men and material were scarce.  The few supplies lifted-in fell woefully short of needs.  The whole thing ran on a wing and a prayer.  Allied commanders and German officials knew Berliners required a daily minimum 3,720 tons, including coal and food, to ensure their survival, yet Powell says,“there was no evidence they could lift this much tonnage daily.  The first day they cobbled together a group of old C-47s and lifted 80 tons.  That was 3,620 tons short.

The task, as it began, was very high on optimism and low on reality because Berlin’s huge, about 400 square miles, and we’re talking about supplying a city the size of Philadelphia by air.” All sorts of alternate supply schemes — from armored transport convoys to mass parachute drops — were rejected.

Hindering the early operation was a lack of infrastructure supporting so mammoth an effort.

To meet the supply goals hundreds of C-47s and C-54s had to be brought in from around the world and pipelines laid down from Bremerhaven to Frankfurt to carry fuel.  All this — plus devising a schedule that could safely and efficiently load and unload planes, maintain them, get them in the air and keep them flying around-the-clock, in all weather — took months ironing out.  Yet, even during this learning curve, the airlift went on, growing larger, more proficient each week.  Still, it fell far short of targets as winter closed in, leaving the terrible but quite real prospect of women and children starving or freezing to death.

“The first six months of the airlift were nothing to write home about,” Powell recalls.  “The stocks in Berlin were drawn down.  All the trees were cut to be used for fuel.  We watched that tonnage movement day by day and, intuitively, everybody on the line knew how bad things were headed.”

Historians agree the turning point was the appointment of Maj. Gen. William H. Tunner as commander of the combined American-British airlift task force.  He arrived with a proven air transport record, having supplied forces over “The Hump” in India and China during the war.  He and his staff brought much needed organization, streamlining things from top to bottom.

The number of flights completed and quantity of tons delivered  increased, but when Tunner, “a bird dog” who observed operations first-hand, was on a transport during a gridlock that stacked planes up for hours, he insisted staff devise improved air traffic routes and rules that kept planes in a rhythmic flow The result, a loop dubbed “the bicycle chain,” smoothly fed planes through air corridors in strict three-minute intervals.

“Gen. Tunner was a tremendous leader.  He knew you couldn’t turn a bunch of cowboys loose with these airplanes and expect precision.  Under him, the airlift became a rigidly controlled operation.  You had to fly just precisely, otherwise you were gonna be on the guy ahead of you or the guy behind you,” Powell says.

With so little spacing between planes, there was scarce margin for error, especially at night or in the foul weather that often hampered flying.

“With a guy coming in three minutes behind you, if you missed your first approach you didn’t have enough time to take another shot.  You either made it the first time or you went home,” says Powell, who after a few weeks ferrying essentials to support the airlift’s launch, began carrying coal into Berlin’s Tempelhof airport from Rhein-Main (the base in the southern corridor reserved for C-54s).   “If everything was going right you could do a turnaround (roundtrip) in four hours. If it wasn’t going right it could take you 24 hours.  There were any number of things that could go wrong.”

Rules were one thing, says Powell, but they were often ignored in the face of the dire task at hand.  “I can’t speak for anybody but myself but I never carried a load of coal back.  There were times in the airplane when you set the glide path and the descent and the first you knew you’d landed is when you hit something.”  To work, he explains, the airlift depended on men and machines going beyond the norm in “a max effort.”

“We were flying over manufacturers’ specified weights.  Engines were a constant problem.  We were wearing these things out.  The airplane was actually being asked to do things it wasn’t even built to do, and everybody knew that.  In wars and crises things are set aside.  You take chances because you don’t have time to sit around and procrastinate.  The Soviets were trying to starve the people of Berlin into submission.  You got swept up in all this and pretty soon you were doing all you could.   The only time I know of when it (the airlift) was shut down was one night when there were some violent thunderstorms. I was in the corridor and man, it was grim that night up there.  Just before we were ready to take off at Tempelhof to come back home they shut the thing down for six or seven hours until that storm dissipated.”

Considering the scale of operations, blessedly few planes and lives were lost.  During the entire 15-month duration, covering some 277,000 sorties, 24 Allied planes were lost and 48 Allied fliers killed.  Another 31 people died on the ground.  “I think it’s remarkable that with all the things that were required, we lost so few,” Powell says.

All the more remarkable because aside from the dangers presented by night flying, storms, fog, overtaxed planes and fatigued fliers, there were other risks as well.  Take the Tempelhof approach for example.

“Tempelhof was the toughest of all the fields,” he notes, “because you were coming in over a nine-story bombed-out apartment building.  You had a tremendous angle on your glide slope.”

Then there was the danger of transporting coal.  A plane might blow if enough static electricity built-up and ignited the dust that settled over every nook and cranny.  To ventilate planes crews flew with emergency exits off.

 Photo: wiki

 

 

“It was noisy,” Powell says, “but you couldn’t argue with it because then you’d be arguing you want to get killed.”

Coal dust posed an added problem by fouling planes’ hydraulics and irritating fliers’ eyes.  Powell was legally blind six months and grounded for two due to excess coal dust in his eyes. He says even the most benign loads, if not properly lashed down, could shift in mid-air and compromise flight stability.

“You didn’t want anything rockin’ around loose in the airplane.”

He reserves his highest praise for the Army Quartermaster and flight maintenance crews that kept things running like clockwork.  German citizens made up part of the brigade of workers loading and unloading supplies and servicing planes.

“The crews were exceptional.  They were absolutely incredible in their ability to perform this work and to perform quickly.”

The operation got so precise that a C-54 could be loaded with 22,000 to 25,000 pounds of supplies, refueled and lift-off — all within 20 minutes.

“It wasn’t going to run unless everybody did their job, and if one part broke down the whole thing broke down.”

He says many civil aviation advances taken for granted now were pioneered then, such as strobe lights lining runways and glowing wands used by grounds crew to steer planes to gates.  All this happened in a pressure-cooker environment and the menacing presence of nearby Soviet forces.  The Soviets used harassment tactics, including sending fighters to buzz transport planes and ordering ground-based anti-aircraft batteries to fire rounds at the corridors’ edges.

Powell says if the tactics were meant as intimidation, they failed.

“C’mon, we’d all been shot at before, give me a break.  The ammunition made for a good fireworks display, but it made no impact.  Probably the worst thing they did from my point of view was shine some very high-powered searchlights on the aircraft at night and jam the final control or frequency.  You just had to keep driving and hope you made it all right.”

Make no mistake, it was a tense time.  The blockade and airlift had put the world on the brink.  One false move by either side could have triggered WWIII.  Despite the threat, U.S. and British resolve held firm and the Cold War didn’t turn hot. By 1949 it was clear the airlift was succeeding beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.  Tunner’s bicycle chain was humming along and with the weather improving that spring he chose Easter Sunday to kick the operation into overdrive.  In what became known as The Easter Parade, the airlift’s spacing was dropped to one-minute intervals and in a single 24-hour stretch in April a record 1,390 flights delivered 12,940 tons into Berlin.

“A one-minute separation — that’s pretty close for big overloaded airplanes,” Powell says.  “I don’t think we could have cut it any closer.  But it was a beautiful day.  The weather was ideal.  You could see everybody.  That made it easier.  The Soviets of course were betting the next day would be a huge fall-off but we did something like 8,000 tons.  By then we’d hit our stride and we were routinely lifting 8,000 to -9,000 tons a day.  It sent a message to Joe Stalin.  The next month the Soviets lifted the blockade.”

 

 

 

 

However, the airlift continued months afterward as a buffer against any further Soviet ploy.  By operation’s end — September 30, 1949 — more than 2.3 million tons of supplies had been lifted-in and a world crisis averted.

For Powell, its success, along with rebuilding Europe, were America at its best.  “We’re an amazing country.  Sometimes we have a veritable uncanny propensity to do the right thing.  It brought into rather sharp relief just what could be done. In my humble opinion the United States, between 1945 and 1950, could be compared to ancient Greece under Pericles.  It as a golden era.  We did virtually everything right and you can’t do that without leadership.  We were deep in leadership after the war.”

He says the feeling in America then — “that everybody was in this together” — is hard for young people to understand. “Now, we’re so disparate. Everybody’s off doing their own thing.  But I still put my faith in the willingness of the American people to do the right thing…given the right leadership.”   The airlift’s legacy, he says, is the goodwill it generated.  “Civic-minded Germans formed the Berlin Airlift Foundation to take care of the wives and children of the airmen killed in the lift.

When he joined other vets in Berlin last May he spoke with Germans who vividly recalled the airlift. “They all mentioned the omnipresent noise.  One lady told us, ‘It didn’t bother us because we knew if the noise continued we would eat.’  He adds the warm outpouring of gratitude got him “a little choked up. We made generations of friends there.” He says if there’s any heroes in all this, it’s “the people of Berlin, because they could have very easily gone to the Soviet sector and been fed and clothed.  No question.  They were down to 1,200 calories a day but chose to stay and stick it out.  These people sought self-determination.”

After the airlift Powell was set to study law when the Korean War erupted.  He spent 21 more years in the service, moving from place to place “like a locust.”   Posted in France during the ‘60s, he became a certified Francophile  — enamored with the nation’s history, culture, people.  He’s often returned there.

Along the way he married, raised a family (he has three grown children) and indulged a lifelong search for knowledge by reading and studying.  He describes himself then as “a kind of journeyman” scholar. That all changed in 1964 when plans to join an F4 Phantom squadron off the coast of Vietnam were scuttled and he was assigned instead to Offutt Air Force Base.

Here, he finally stayed one place long enough to earn a degree (in business administration from Bellevue University).  And here he’s remained. His post-military career saw him remake himself as an authority on public policy and aging issues, earning a master’s in public administration and a Ph.D. in political science.  UNO hired him in 1973 to implement training programs under the Older Americans Act.

As a full professor today he teaches courses, advises students and collaborates with colleagues on
articles, surveys and studies.  He’s applied the public service mission he took from the airlift to serve political campaigns, advise local and state government and participate in White House conferences on aging.  Both his life and work dispel many myths about aging.

“We feel it’s wonderfully appropriate to have a 78-year-old teaching younger people all older people are not alike,” says James Thorson, UNO Department of Gerontology Chairman.  “Dr. Powell is an excellent instructor and accomplished researcher.  He’s wildly popular with students.  He works long hours.  He wants to wear out, not rust out, and I respect him for it.”

It was at UNO Powell met Betty.  Both were recently divorced.  He was teaching, she was doing grad work. They married in 1982.  Everyone agrees they make a good match.  They travel together and enjoy entertaining at their sprawling Keystone neighborhood home, where he often holes up in a study whose impressive library is stocked with volumes on American history (the presidents, the Civil War) and France.  Travel is no idle pursuit for him.  He researches destinations and prepares itineraries detailing sites and themes, from architecture to art to vineyards.  He got in the habit in the service.

“It permits you to observe how other people do things and to see Americans don’t have a corner on how things are done.”

The couple prove growing older doesn’t necessarily mean slowing down.  In typical fashion he and Betty plan ushering in the new millennium under the Eiffel Tower in Paris. “I’m really looking forward to it,” he says.  In his office hangs an enlarged photo of the French landmark with an inscription that sums up his ageless sense of wanderlust:  “Paris is like a lover.  You may leave her, but you will never forget her.” It’s the same way with Chuck Powell:  Once you meet him, you never forget him.

Bill Ramsey: A Korean War Story


I created this montage of images from the Kore...

Image via Wikipedia

Journalists look for hooks to hang their stories on, and anniversaries of major events are always convenient pegs to use. On the 50th anniversary of the Korean War I profiled the combat experience of Bill Ramsey, an amiable man who made a rich life for himself after the conflict as a husband, father, PR professional, and community volunteer. He has devoted much of his life to veterans affairs, particularly memorializing fallen veterans. He’s also authored a handful of books. He’s still quite active today at age 80. Anyone who survives combat has a story worth repeating, and  it was my privilege telling his story in the New Horizons. Now, in conjunction with the 60th anniversary of the Korean War, I offer the story again as a tribute to Ramsey and his fellow servicemen who fought this often forgotten conflict.

Bill Ramsey: A Korean War Story

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

Fifty years ago, Americans were piecing their lives back together in the aftermath of World War II when the best and brightest of the nation’s youth were once more sent-off to fight in a distant land. This time the call to arms came in defense of a small Asian nation few Americans were even aware of then — Korea. In June of 1950, Communist North Korean forces (with backing from the Soviet Union and Red China) launched an unprovoked attack on the fledgling democratic republic of South Korea, whose poorly prepared army was soon overrun. With North Korea on the verge of conquering their neighbors to the south, the United States and its Western allies drew a line in the sand against Communist expansionism in the strategically vital Far East and led a United Nations force to check the aggression.

Among those answering the call to service was a tall, strapping 20-year-old Marine reservist from Council Bluffs named Bill Ramsey. His wartime experience there became a crucible that indelibly marked him. “The war will always be the most defining experience in my life,” said Ramsey, 70, whose full postwar years have included careers as a newsman, advertising executive and public relations consultant. He and his wife of 46 years, Pat, raised five children and are grandparents to 14 and great-grandparents to one. This is his Korean War story.

In the fall of 1950, Ramsey was preparing to study journalism at then Omaha University. His plans were put on hold, however, with the outbreak of hostilities overseas. He followed the unfolding drama in newsreel and newspaper accounts, including the U.S. rushing-in army divisions grown soft from occupation duty in defeated Japan. The invaders pushed South Korean and American forces down the Korean peninsula. Ramsey sensed reserves might be recalled to active duty. He was right.

He was assigned a front line unit in the 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, Reinforced. He was excited at the prospect of seeing action in a real shooting war, even one misleadingly termed “a police action.” His anticipation was fed not by bravery, but rather heady youthful zeal to be part of the Corps’ glorious tradition. The conflict offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to test himself under fire. After all, he was too young to have fought in his older brother Jack’s war the previous decade. This would be his war. His proving ground. His adventure.

“I wanted to be in the front lines. I didn’t want to go all that way to end up sorting letters in Pusan,” he said. “I was curious to know how I would hold up in action.”

No stirring salute or fanfare saw the Marines off as their Navy attack transport ship, Thomas Jefferson, pulled out of San Diego harbor in March 1951. Ramsey was one of hundreds of young men crammed in the hull. They had been plucked away from factories, offices, schools, homes and families. Ramsey left behind his mother, brother and an aunt (his father died when he was 12). The GIs were going to defend a land they did not know and a people they never met. Their mission lacked the patriotic fervor of WWII. There was no Pearl Harbor to avenge this time. No, this was a freedom fight in a growing global struggle for people’s hearts and minds.

Before ever setting foot on Korean soil, Ramsey smelled it from aboard ship in the Sea of Japan. Nearing Pusan harbor in the far southeastern tip of Korea, the heavy acrid odor of the war-ravaged countryside permeated the air. It was the stink of sulfur (the discharge from spent armaments), excrement (peasant farmers used it as fertilizer in their fields), fire and death. “That all mixed together made for quite a pungent odor,” he said. “It’s a stench that you never forget.”

Ramsey and his Able Company comrades were flown into a staging area near Chunchon in east-central Korea to await transport to the front. The city had sustained heavy damage. “It was pretty well leveled at that point,” he recalls. Standing on a wind-swept tarmac, he saw snaking down a road from the north a convoy of trucks carrying combat-weary GIs being rotated out of the line. These were veterans of the famous Chosin Reservoir Battle who defied all odds, including numerically superior enemy forces, to complete a withdrawal action that featured hand-to-hand combat. Ramsey and his green mates were their replacements.

“I remember when they got off the trucks they looked like zombies. Their faces were covered with a fine white powdery dust and their hands were blackened from the soot of the fires burning everywhere in the country,” Ramsey said. “I thought, ‘God, I’d give anything to have gone through what they’ve gone through and to be going home.” Among the dog-faced vets was a friend, Phil O’Neill, from Council Bluffs. “He tried to tell me what it was like. He didn’t exaggerate or try to make it any scarier than it was. He didn’t fool around or joke. He just gave me some good advice, like keep a low profile and keep your weapon dry.” After seeing and hearing what awaited him, Ramsey felt an overpowering desire to join the departing GIs. “They were going home. That really hurt. I was so envious.”

Ramsey’s unit headed for a position along the central front. Every village and field they passed was scarred and charred. “We drove all night. We could see fires burning. Again, we could smell the countryside,” he said.

Movement was the order of the day in a war of quickly shifting positions along the long and narrow Korean peninsula. “It was a very fluid war. We were moving constantly, sometimes by truck and sometimes marching 20 or 30 miles in a day to the next spot,” he said. Rough mountainous terrain, bad roads and inclement weather — marked by extreme temperatures, torrential rains, floods, snow and ice — made the going tough. “The farther north you go the more mountainous it becomes. You always had to go up a hill or some rocky face. No flat open fields. This was trees and rocks and cliffs. A really difficult place.” While he never had to endure the brutal winter, he described conditions “as miserably cold. And when it rained, which it did a lot, you were soaking wet, cold and knee-deep in mud. You thought you could never get through it, but you kept going.”

When his company first arrived, U.N. forces were striking out in a series of bold counteroffensives. By the summer, the war was bogged down in a stalemate. A single position (invariably a hill) would be taken, lost, and retaken several times. “It was pretty much hill by hill,” Ramsey said. Platoons were like firefighters rushing from one hot zone to another. A hundred yards or less might separate opposing forces. The basic objective was usually capturing or holding a perimeter on one of  the endless sharp-edged ridge lines. Upon reaching a position, the Marines set-up machine gun posts and prepared cover by digging fox holes. Not only did the metal shards from incoming mortar and artillery pose threats, but splintered rock made deadly projectiles too. “

You always had to get some protection for yourself from shrapnel,” he said. Sleeping accommodations were standard-issue pup tents or makeshift bunkers (for extended stays). “Most of the time you stayed one night or two nights and then walked to another position, where you’d dig another hole.” The premium was on moving — no matter what. “You have aching feet. A sore back. You’re tired, discouraged. You’re cold, dirty. You’re sick (dysentery, encephalitis, etc.). But you can’t stop. You’re there, you’re on the move and there’s no way out unless a doctor says you just can’t go on and sends you to the rear.”

On rare occasions when his platoon remained in one spot, barbed wire was strung across the perimeter. The men had to be on constant alert for all-out charges or smaller probing raids looking for weaknesses in the line. “A lot of times they were through the position or in the position. They weren’t always stopped at the wire,” Ramsey said. Nightfall was the worst. The enemy preferred attacking then by frontal assault or flanking maneuvers. To keep a sharp defensive perimeter, men took turns sleeping and watching — two hours on and two hours off — through the night. “You never let your guard down. We were always ready,” he said, adding that the last two years of the conflict it got to be “almost like trench warfare.”

His first taste of combat came early in his hitch. His platoon was dug in for the night on some anonymous ridge line, the men extra wary because reconnaissance had spotted enemy massed nearby. “We were told the Chinese were going to be coming in some force. It was pretty hard to sleep anyway, and anticipating my first night under fire made it that much harder. Sure enough, they came that night. I remember a lot of noise. Mortars. Shots. All that firepower. I remember thinking, “I would love to be able to cram myself inside my helmet.” I somehow got through that night. The next morning they brought in some of our killed. They were in ponchos — their feet sticking out. They were carried down the hill.”

Sometimes, a noise from somewhere out in the pitch black warned of encroaching danger. Other times, a fire fight broke loose with no warning at all. “You would hear something or you would sense something. You laid down fire if you heard anything at all out there. Their movements might trigger a flare, which made it easier for you to see them moving but also made it easier for them to see you,” he said. “On occasion, they would purposely make some noise to try and shake you up. They would produce some tinny sound or blare a bugle or just shout out. It was a psychological ploy.” A dreaded eerie sound was the “zzziiippp” made by the infamous Chinese burp gun, an incredibly fast-firing tommy gun-like weapon.

Perhaps the most terrifying action he saw came the night his outfit’s position was nearly overrun. What began as a cold damp day worsened after sunset.

“We got to our positions pretty late that night. It was raining. We dug in as fast as we could. We’d been in quite a few fire fights in the days preceding that. We thought with the weather this might be one of those nights when the enemy didn’t do anything. We were wrong,” he said. “Our machine guns started firing, and when you heard those you knew they were coming. A few of the enemy broke through our position and came right in the camp. I was quite shocked. We’d never had that before. I saw them through flashes of fire. It was very confusing. A real nightmare. We finally pushed them back.”

There were casualties on both sides. Ramsey said the enemy took advantage of the night, the rain and his unit’s complacency. “They knew Americans were not that big on night fighting and that with the bad weather we might be more inclined to worry about staying dry than steeling for attack. I think what happened is somebody in our ranks did let down. That was the only time they got in our camp that way.” He said an enemy breaching the wire could “demoralize” the troops and, if not repelled, result in a much larger breakthrough.

He described “plenty of close calls” on Able Company’s grueling march north across the 38th Parallel to engage the Chinese in the Iron Triangle stronghold. There was the omnipresent threat of mortar and artillery fire. If you stayed in the field long enough, he said, “you could hear the difference in the sound” and distinguish mortars from artillery and what size they were. Where a mortar round or artillery shell whistling high overhead gave men time to find cover, the report of the Chinese mountain gun, which fired shells in a low trajectory, allowed little or no time to hit the dirt. “You heard the report and, BOOM, it was right there. It fired in on like a straight line.” And there was occasionally the danger of friendly fire, especially errant air strikes, raining hell down on you.

Fording the streams that flowed abundantly from the mountains in Korea presented still more hazards. As heavily weighed down as the men were with their poncho, pack, boots, rifle, helmet, and ammunition, one slip in crossing the clear, fast-rushing streams (more like surging rivers) could be fatal. “A few times I felt like I was going under for sure,” Ramsey said. “I wouldn’t have had a chance.” Carrying their rifles overhead to keep them dry, the men were sitting ducks for snipers. “We were exposed,” he said.

Once, he recalls his platoon just making it to the far bank when shots began splaying the shore from the hill above. “We couldn’t see too much because it was fairly steep. We finally did draw fire on this hill.” But when Ramsey got ready to fire his M1 rifle, he got a rude surprise. “I pulled the trigger and nothing happened. That was a terrible feeling. In all that sloshing through the water my weapon must have got wet. I used a wounded buddy’s carbine instead.”

A fire fight Ramsey will never forget erupted when his 1st squad was returning to the lines after completing a mission and saw the point squad ahead of them “get hit” in an ambush of machine gun fire. Several men were cut down in the ensuing action, including 1st’s squad leader and Ramsey’s good friend — Don Hanes. “He was shot in the chest. Another fellow and I went back up this hill to get him. The fire was really intense. I was amazed we weren’t all killed on the spot. We started taking him down and Don looked at us and said, ‘No, no, no, no, no…Just leave me. You’ve got to get out of here. I’m not going to make it.’ He was a brave fellow. He was hurt so badly. Well, we did get him out of there — across an open rice paddy. He was evacuated to a hospital, but it turned out he was mortally wounded. He died later. We had a number of other casualties we carried too. It was a grim day.”

At 20, Ramsey was named temporary squad leader. He already led a four-man fire team. In addition to M1s, the team carried a single Browning Automatic Rifle or BAR. Their mission: flushing out the enemy or scouting enemy lines. Sometimes, they ran sniper patrols. If the enemy was sighted (with the aid of a sniper scope), the team’s job was to “throw some fire in” and try to pick-off or pin down targets. “We wouldn’t necessarily hit them all the time,” he said. Days or weeks might pass without enemy contact. Once, Ramsey came face-to-face with his foe. It happened when taking a hill. He and another Marine surprised a North Korean soldier. “We both fired at him, and he fell dead. We went over to where he was lying on his back. There was a pouch. We opened it and found a photo of a woman and a child. I thought, ‘He’s just like me.’ We had been thinking of the enemy as a bunch of faceless fanatics, and here was a man with a wife and child. It made an impact.”

By November 1951, Ramsey had been in-country eight months. Despite steady combat, he’d escaped unscathed. He hoped his luck held out just a few months more — then his hitch would be up and he’d be back stateside. “You see people dropping everyday. You see friends maimed and killed. You see guys going out of their head. You wonder when your number’s going to come up next. You ask yourself, ‘How can I ever get out of here?’ It’s a sinking feeling,” he said. He feels what keeps men going in such awful conditions “is your intense desire to survive and to see your loved ones again. That kept me driving.”

On the morning of November 17, his fire team “headed out on a routine sniper patrol” down Hill 834. “It was one of our more permanent lines. The hill was a muddy mess. We weren’t out long when one of us tripped a land mine, and a piece of shrapnel caught my right arm.” The impact sent Ramsey skidding face down the hill. “I was in shock, but I knew it was pretty bad because my dungaree jacket was shredded and blood was all over the place.” Metal fragments had severed his ulnar nerve and fractured bones. His mates brought a Navy corpsman to his side. The corpsman applied a bandage and administered a shot of morphine. Ramsey’s buddies then carried him up the hill and down the reverse slope to a small, level clearing. There, a second casualty from down the line was stretchered in — missing a foot. Ramsey recalls an officer giving him a cigarette to drag on and saying, “You got a million dollar wound there, Bill…you’ll probably be going home.” Still, Ramsey worried he might lose his shattered arm, which burned with pain. A helicopter evacuated he and the other casualty to a nearby MASH unit.

Rushed into surgery, Ramsey awoke the next day to the news doctors had saved the arm. Wearing a cast, he was taken (by ambulance) to an Army hospital in the devastated capital of Seoul. “There was nothing standing,” he said. From there, he was flown (on a transport plane stacked with wounded) to an Army hospital in Osaka, Japan, spending days in agony (receiving no treatment as a non-Army patient) before transferred (via train) to a Navy hospital in Yukosuka, where he finally found some relief for the pain and slept for the first time in nine days.

In early December he hopped a four-engine prop bound for the states. He landed at Travis Air Force Base in southern California. His first impulse was to call home. He next reported to Oak Knoll Navy Hospital near Oakland, where he underwent skin grafts and three months of physical therapy. During his rehab, the Purple Heart recipient recalls being torn by two emotions: “I felt sick about leaving and letting my buddies down. But the other side of it was I was really thankful to get out. Eight months there was enough.” His long voyage back ended almost a year to the day his Korean odyssey began. A relieved Ramsey arrived to “the quiet of my wonderful home.” He downed a beer and thanked God the journey was over at last.

Upon his return (he graduated from Creighton University) he was dismayed by the indifference civilians expressed toward the raging conflict. From its start in June 1950 to its conclusion three years later, it never captured the public’s imagination. Many observers feel it came too quickly on the heels of World War II for Americans — then preoccupied with living the good life — to care. Cloaked under the murky misnomer “police action,” it became a shadow war.

President Harry S. Truman summed up the national mood when he called it “that dirty little war.” Its status as “the forgotten war” was sealed when it ended not with victory but an armistice leaving Korea still divided at the 38th Parallel (with a permanent American military presence there to keep the peace.) Lost on many was the fact the true objective  — preserving a democratic South Korea — was accomplished. In the larger scheme of things, a free South Korea has emerged as a thriving economic juggernaut while a closed North Korea has withered in poverty. Ramsey saw for himself the economic miracle wrought in South Korea on a 1979 trip there. He met a people grateful for his and his comrades’ sacrifices. Monuments abound in recognition of the U.N. “freedom fighters.”

It is only recently, however, these veterans got their due in America. In 1995 the Korean War Memorial was dedicated in Washington, D.C. (Ramsey was there). In the late ‘70s Ramsey, whose post-war life has been devoted to causes, spearheaded the erection of a joint Korean-Vietnam War monument in Omaha’s Memorial Park. The monument has received a recent refurbishing and the addition of a flower garden. This year, he started a Nebraska chapter of the National Korean War Veterans Association.

For vets who went to hell and back, the war is never far from their thoughts. “I’m proud to have served. We stood fast. We saved the south. I can think of no higher compliment than to be called a freedom fighter,” said Ramsey, who, in 1997, faced a new enemy — prostate cancer. Aggressive treatments have left him cancer free. In August, he attended a reunion of his 1st Marine Division mates. “My admiration continues to grow for the Marines with whom I served,” he said. For their heroic actions there, the division received the rarely bestowed Presidential Unit Citation.

Omaha’s Tuskegee Airmen

June 18, 2010 4 comments

English: Pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group,

English: Pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group, “Tuskegee Airmen,” the elite, all-African American 332nd Fighter Group at Ramitelli, Italy., from left to right, Lt. Dempsey W. Morgran, Lt. Carroll S. Woods, Lt. Robert H. Nelron, Jr., Capt. Andrew D. Turner, and Lt. Clarence P. Lester. (U.S. Air Force photo) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Meeting real life heroes and historical figures is not an every day occurrence, even in my line of work, and so given the great legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen it was a real honor  and treat interviewing a handful of these men living in and around Omaha.  Like most individuals of great achievement, they are both quite proud o what they did but also exceedingly humble about it.  I did the story for the New Horizons on the tail end of a wave of recognition coming the Tuskegee Airmen’s way.  More has followed since.  It’s all well-deserved.  On personal note, my own father, the late Leo M. Biga, was a ball turret gunner on a B-17  that flew in the 96th Squadron, 2nd Bomber Group, Fifteenth Air Force, and he attested to the fact that the escort fighters flown by Tuskegee Airmen, the famed Red Tails, saved his and his fellow airemen’s bacon on many an occasion during bomb runs over Europe. When I interviewed the Tuskegee veterans I didn’t know enough to give them my father’s whereabouts and assignments and air service dates to see if they might have been flying at the same time, on the same missions.  I’d like to think they were.

 

Omaha’s Tuskegee Airmen

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

 

At the start, they were ordinary young black men of varied backgrounds. They came from around the country. Most were college graduates or undergrads. Some were just out of high school. They were drawn to “the experiment” by a desire to serve their country in World War II and, in so doing, help overturn racist attitudes. The experiment was the Army Air Corps black cadet training center at Tuskegee Institute, an historically black institution of higher learning. It was meant by supporters to demonstrate blacks were as capable as anyone and by detractors to reinforce minorities’ supposed inferiority in a then-segregated military and society.

As history now notes, the Tuskegee Airmen decisively proved blacks the equal of their white counterparts. More than 1,000 men graduated from the aviation school, including pilots, navigators and bombardiers. All were pioneers and trailblazers. In combat, flyers with the 332nd Fighter Group, including the 99th Fighter Squadron, became heroes, distinguishing themselves above all other U.S. flying units. Tuskegee fighter pilots never lost a single bomber to enemy fire in 200 escort missions over Europe. An unprecedented achievement.

So impressive a record that once skeptical bomber groups hotly lobbied to be escorted by these “Red Tail Angels,” so named for the red tail markings on their aircraft. The leader of the Tuskegee group, Col. Benjamin Davis, had emblazoned on his aircraft “By Request” — a reference to the many requests bomber groups made for the 332nd to cover them.

As the exploits of the Tuskegee flyers mounted, their reputation preceded them, even to Germany, where they were known as the “Black Bird Men.”

Now, some 60 years since World War II’s end, the ranks of Tuskegee Airmen grow thinner just as their status as national treasures looms ever larger. Their legacy is a testament to perseverance, loyalty, passion, talent and sacrifice. Their barrier-breaking contributions aided the nascent Civil Rights Movement. Their deeds “paved the path” for blacks in the military and other fields, said Air Force veteran Bobby McGlown, founder of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc.’s local Alfonza Davis Chapter.

Robert Rose, an Air Force vet who entered the service long after the Tuskegee men made their mark, feels indebted to them. “I’m the benefactor of their labors and sacrifice. To accomplish what they accomplished with all of the hardships and rigors of segregation, racism and war, is just phenomenal.” Even though his career came in what was — theoretically — a fully-integrated military, Rose still met racism and is amazed how those who went before him endured what they did “without the force of law behind them.” He felt such gratitude that in 2002 he assumed the presidency of the Alfonza Davis chapter in order “to make sure their legacy is perpetuated. They’re my heroes. They’re my friends. And I’m willing to do whatever I can to make this organization something they can be proud of.”

His efforts are culminating this year in the local chapter hosting the 33rd Tuskegee Airmen national convention. It’s only right Omaha plays host to the August 3 through 8 event, as several Tuskegee Airmen call this place home. The city’s most decorated Tuskegee flyer, Alfonza Davis, for whom the local chapter is named, was Tech High valedictorian in the class of 1937 and, later, an Omaha University student. He went missing in action in 1944 and was declared presumed dead in ‘45. In all, at least seven Omahans trained in the Tuskegee military aviation program. All but one of the known native Nebraskan Tuskegee Airmen have passed away. A few other “originals,” as they’re referred to, have made Nebraska home after long military careers. One graduated from UNO. The stories of these men are told here:

Alfonza Davis
Captain Alfonza Davis graduated the top of his flight class at Tuskegee and was the first black military aviator from Omaha to earn his wings. He scored the highest rating in Moving Target Marksmanship in his class and was chosen squadron leader. His first combat assignment was with the 302nd Fighter Squadron in Italy. Later, he was attached to Group Headquarters for the 332nd Fighter Group as its assistant group operations officer. The group, operating with the 15th Air Force, escorted bombers that struck objectives in Italy, France, Germany and many other European nations. His final assignment came as squadron commander of the 99th Pursuit Squadron (later renamed the 99th Fighter Squadron). He led one mission in which his flyers destroyed 83 German aircraft. On what proved to be his last flight, he piloted his P-51 “Mustang” on a reconnaissance sortie to Munich, when he was lost in overcast weather near the Gulf of Trieste and never heard from again.

Among his many awards and decorations are: the Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross. He was credited with one aerial victory in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations. He left behind a wife and brother.

 

 

Lt. Col. Charles Lane Jr.

 

 

Lt. Col. (Retired) Charles Lane, Jr.
One of 13 children born to Verna and Charles Lane in the black section of St. Louis known as “The Ville,” Charles Lane, Jr. was attending Harriett Beecher Stowe Teachers College when war broke out. He volunteered for the aviation cadet program rather than be drafted. “The draft at that time was not treating blacks very well,” he said. “They normally ended up in service units.” He was inspired to join the corps by a former high school classmate, Wendell Pruitt, who’d already made it through the program and was speaking at a war bond drive. “He gave us all insight into what to study for and how to apply ourselves, and a lot of us did. Out of 12 of us, eight passed the exam” that qualified them for training.

Oddly, the first black military aviators were mustered and trained down south, at places like Keesler Field in Biloxi. Miss., where their presence was least tolerated. “It seemed ironic to us, too, but that was politics in those days,” said Lane.

Out of Lane’s original class of 138 cadet candidates, 78 made it to the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Ala., where they first learned to fly. The tough training there further weaned the class to 38. He said some very good men washed out, not because they couldn’t fly, but due to an unwritten quota system that passed a bare minimum flyers. Those that made it, like Lane, knew they must meet stringent standards. “We had the same curriculum as white cadets, but we held ourselves to higher standards,” he said, as instructors looked for “any excuse” to axe them.

Early flight training was with black instructors and primary training under the supervision of whites. “Some of them, of course, didn’t like our being there and let you know it. That got your attention,” he said. “But then there were others who were behind you and supportive. My instructor was one of those types. He said, ‘I can teach anybody to fly, and I want you to learn real fast.’ He was friendly.”

Lane joined the 99th Fighter Squadron in Ramitelli, Italy, near Foggia. He was 19 when he piloted a P-51 in combat. The P-51 was lighter and fleeter than the P-47 he trained in. “It was a very fanciful airplane,” he said. “Speedy. Maneuverable. Extensive strike range. All those things a fighter jock needs — it had them.” He was a wing man, meaning he protected “the shooters” whose wing he flew on.

He flew 26 missions escorting B-17s and B-24s on bombing runs. Escort missions took him as deep as Berlin. By the end of fighting in Europe, he said, the Germans’ “max effort” saw them throw up a barrage of fighters and anti-aircraft flak. He saw his flight leader and fellow St. Louis native, Hugh White, shot down in front of him while flying his wing. Another friend, Thurston Gaines, was shot down behind him. Both men bailed out and survived as POWs. White, whom the St. Louis Tuskegee chapter is named, became an attorney and Gaines a physician.

Others weren’t so fortunate. Lane said while he and his fellow flyers were proud of their sterling record of not losing a single bomber to enemy fire, they didn’t forget those lost in action. “We paid a price. Sixty-six of us were killed in action and 38 more ended up as prisoners of war. So, of the 450 pilots who saw combat, more than a hundred — or, in other words, every fifth pilot — was considered lost.”

He said their “by-the-book” commander, Col. Davis, was the reason black pilots were so disciplined in carrying out their bomber cover duty. “He told us, ‘You’re over here boys to protect the bombers.’ If a German fighter got two miles away, we left him alone. We broke off and came back and rejoined the formation. We didn’t stray out there and try to chase him. Our primary mission was to protect the bombers, and that’s the attitude we had.” Lane feels the ramrod straight Davis, who went through hell as a lone black West Pointer, developed the esprit de corps and high standards of the group. “We felt honored to have him around.” Plus, he said, Davis forever gained their allegiance by going up the chain of command to fight rigged reports meant to discredit the Tuskegee track record.

The program only continued, Lane said, due to the intervention of figures like Davis, who got Gen. George C. Marshall to listen to facts. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt did her part by taking a much-publicized ride with a Tuskegee pilot. But public recognition for the flyers’ accomplishments was long denied. Lane recalls the 99th Fighter Squadron’s win in the 1949 national gunnery meet being unlisted in the record books until black servicemen raised hell. It took a decade to get it corrected. School history books made no mention of Tuskegee Airmen until quite recently. “My thought was we were the best kept secret of World War II,” he said.

After the war, Lane found to his dismay, as did his black comrades, “no change” on the racial front back home. “Well, we thought we were first class citizens in the air, second class citizens on the base and third class citizens outside the fence.” Undaunted, he made the military a 27-year career. He flew fighters, transports and the B-52 in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. He and his family settled here after assigned to SAC. From 1970 to 1992 he headed Greater Omaha Community Action (GOCA), an Omaha-based poverty program. He’s been active in the Civil Air Patrol.

 

 

 

 

Lt. Col. (Retired) Harrison “Harry” Tull
Reared by his grandparents on their Woodbury, NJ truck farm, Harrison Tull and his family were the only black folks for miles around. The racial harmony he knew growing up there would be severely tested in the service, when he was subjected to its harsh segregation practices and hostile policies. He’d already graduated from Wilberforce University (Ohio) — the first black college established north of the Mason Dixon Line — when the war erupted. While at college, where he majored in biology, chemistry and history, he’d heard about the black aviation cadet program. Then, when the opportunity presented itself, he volunteered. “I was always interested in flying. I used to make model airplanes out of wood,” he said.

Tull’s first several months in the service saw him bounce around from bombardier to gunnery to pilot training. He received his rated observer wings in 1944 and was commissioned a second lieutenant. His first operational assignment was with the 477th Bombardment Group out of Godman Field, KY to fly in the B-25.

Despite never going overseas in World War II, being in such an elite unit motivated he and his fellow officers to carry themselves with pride and panache. “The pride among Tuskegee Airmen has always been there. We dressed sharp. When we were in our pinks and greens (dress office uniforms) we used to say you could cut your finger on the creases in our pants. And when we marched, we marched without cadence.” Instead, the men kept count in their head.

In 1945 he was reassigned to Selma Army Air Field, La. for navigation training when he and other black officers were unceremoniously released from active duty for attending a restricted white officers club. He said the visit to the club proceeded without incident. “We had no problem with those officers and they had no problem with us. They even gave us chits so we could buy drinks. We had a good time.” The problem was with the bigoted base commander, who called Tull and his fellow officers on the carpet the next day. “He chewed us out.” The men didn’t take it lying down. “We had a fellow in the outfit by the name of Coleman Young, who later became mayor of Detroit. He said, ‘Colonel, may I make a statement?’ The colonel said yes. And Coleman rose and went up one side of him and down the other, and all the colonel could do was pull out his handkerchief and wipe his face because he was perspiring so bad. Well, 10 days later we were out of the service.”

It would not be the last time Tull faced discrimination in the military. In what turned out to be a 27-year Air Force career that saw him distinguish himself as a reconnaissance officer in the Korean War and as an electronic warfare officer in the Cold War, he found promotions slow to come and attitudes slow to change. For example, it took 11 years for this college graduate to make first lieutenant. And in what was supposed to be an integrated force, he ran head on into racism at Ellington Air Force Base, Texas. “They put me on a B-29 and the major who was the head of the crew said, ‘You can’t be on my crew because you’re the wrong color.’ So, they took me off and put another guy on. They put me with another crew, who voted on me. They were all from the north, except one, and they all voted to put me on the crew and that’s where I flew. We had a good crew, too.”

He ended his military service by commanding the 55th Electronic Intelligence Operations Squadron based at SAC. After his 1970 retirement he and his family remained in the area. The Bellevue resident taught biology in the Omaha Public Schools (at Tech and, later, at Northwest) and served as a counselor at Monroe Middle School. He’s a volunteer with several Bellevue organizations.

Lt. Col. (Retired) James Warren
Growing up in the bitter South, James Warren’s family felt the full, awful brunt of Jim Crow segregation and intimidation. At age two, the Gurley, Ala. native’s ailing father was refused a surgeon and operating room reserved for whites and was instead operated on by a general practitioner in a makeshift OR . “It was a botched appendicitis operation and he died on the operating table,” Warren said.

As a boy, Warren was “frightened to death whenever the Ku Klux Klan marched down the road in their white sheets. I’d run under the house and hide.” Racial division, he said, was “absolute, rigid, complete. In those days, segregation was very lethal. There were lynchings going on and things like that. My mother was desperate to protect her son. She was able to acquire a job as a live-in maid in Winnetka, Ill. She saved enough money to buy me a train ticket and sent for me.” He arrived in 1938 to culture shock and a new life. In Winnetka, a wealthy North Shore bedroom community of Chicago, he worked as “a house boy” for a young couple, doing all the cooking and cleaning. It made studying for school a chore, but it was worth it. “I ended up going to New Trier Township High School — one of the best schools in the country,” he said. It had everything. Until then, he’d “never seen a library” nor attended class longer than five months any school year.

He was working as a drugstore cowboy when he read an American Magazine article, I Wanted Wings, by Charles DeBow, one of the first black Tuskegee graduates. “It brought tears to my eyes,” he said. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I could be anywhere close to flying an airplane. That was my inspiration to go for the top.”

 

 

 

 

Image result for lt col james warren tuskegee airmen

 Lt. Col. James Warren

 

 

Warren found “every level of the cadet training intense. You knew you had to be the best.” He and his mates were aware of “being very critically scrutinized” as the fate of the Tuskegee experiment rested on their shoulders. “Not only were we aware of it, we were proud of it. We enjoyed the challenge because we knew we could meet the challenge. All we needed was the opportunity and once we got the opportunity, the whole ball game was over.” It was also understood they carried the hopes of others. “There were thousands of young black Americans who wanted to serve their country in an elite group like the air corps. They were qualified, too.  They just didn’t get the opportunity. We had to make sure our performance didn’t allow the government to claim blacks could not perform satisfactorily in the job.”

Still, attempts to humiliate black aviators continued. In 1945 Warren was part of an incident he wrote about in a book, The Tuskegee Airmen: Mutiny at Freeman Field. Seymour, Indiana. was home to Freeman Field, where he was among a group of black officers with the 477th Bombardment Group arrested for entering a whites-only officers club. He and 100 fellow officers made “a stand” by refusing to sign a form barring them from the club. The men were moved to Godman Field, KY to await court martials. Even though Gen. George Marshall had the men released before such drastic action took place, a reprimand on their service records remained — blocking any promotion — and was only deleted 50 years later.

While Warren and the others never made it overseas, their civil rights stand did “get the attention” of President Harry S. Truman, who, in 1948, signed executive order 9981 to begin integrating the armed forces. Warren went on to an impressive military career that saw him fly, as a navigator, 173 combat missions in Korea and Vietnam. When he was not on active duty during peacetime, Warren worked as an architect. In 1964, he took advantage of then-Omaha University’s Bootstrap program to complete the college degree he’d never finished. After retiring from a 35-year military career that saw him win numerous honors, he was a personnel specialist for General Dynamics Corporation. He and his wife live in California. His book on the mutiny at Freeman Field is in its fifth edition from Conyers Publishing Co.

Lt. Col. (Retired) Paul Adams and Others
Greenville, SC native Paul Adams realized a long-held dream of flying a plane as a  Tuskegee fighter pilot cadet in 1942. In 1943, he shipped overseas with the 332nd Fighter Group in Italy. He was a P-40 “Warthog” jockey and later flew the P-39 Belaire Cobra while patrolling the Naples harbor. After the war his military service continued in various posts. In his 20-year career he served in nine major campaigns and received the Commendation medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters. His final posting was as deputy base commander in Lincoln. After retiring from the service in 1963, he and his family remained in Lincoln, where he embarked on a teaching career with the Lincoln Public Schools, becoming one of its first black instructors.

 

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Lt. Col. Paul Adams

 

 

Omahans Ralph Orduna, Edward W. Watkins, Lawrence King Sr., John L. Harrison Jr. and Woodrow F. Morgan and Council Bluffs native Clarence A. Oliphant were among the locals who made it through Tuskegee’s aviation training. All are gone now. A survivor who didn’t make the cut is Robert Holts, a Central High grad who said washing out of the pilot training program left him “very low…very morose. It was a very intense feeling of just wanting to be part of it. I still have that feeling today when I’m around Paul Adams, Chuck Lane and Harrison Tull.” Holts enlisted with five friends from Omaha, one of whom, the late Joe Carter, became an air crew member with the 477th, he said. Even though Holts didn’t make it as an airman, he was, as Lane put it, “behind us and understood us,” and contributed to the war effort in a variety of ways, including serving in the base statistical control squadron at Godman Field, KY. Holts later worked for the IRS and the U.S. Postal Service.

Above all, the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen is one of service. Service to country and community. For example, the local originals have kept giving back by speaking before school kids and other audiences. “They didn’t stop with their accomplishments in the military and rest on their laurels. They continued to open doors and to bridge that link between their experiences and the experiences of everyone that’s come behind them,” said Emerson Mungin, Jr., an Air Force vet and Omaha chapter historian. Chapter president Robert Rose said, “There are not a lot of heroes around for today’s youths to follow. Youths need to look to these guys as the examples, as opposed to the examples some seem to be following.”

The main site for the Tuskegee Airmen convention is Omaha’s Qwest Center. Many speakers and activities are on tap. A related exhibition, Tuskegee Airmen: African-Americans in World War II, is showing now through January 8, 2005 at the Strategic Air Command & Space Museum near Ashland, Neb. The exhibit includes artifacts from Nebraska’s own Tuskegee veterans. For Tuskegee event details, call 292-8912.

Get your jitney on: August Wilson play “Jitney” at the John Beasley Theater resonates with cast and crew

June 18, 2010 1 comment

jitney

Image by macwagen via Flickr

I am drawn to stories with multiple layers and textures, and the following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is a good example, as it resonates on social, cultural, historical, and artistic levels, among others.  The piece uses the production of the August Wilson play Jitney to look at the gypsy cab phenomenon that is the context for the drama and to look at the theater company that put on this production and its founder-director, John Beasley.  When I found out that Beasley himself had driven a jitney in his hometown of Omaha, the symmetrey was complete.  Beasley has a distinguished track record acting in Wilson plays in regional theater and he is personally responsible for introducing Wilson’s work to Omaha.  His company, the John Beasley Theater & Workshop, has performed virtually the entire cycle of Wilson plays and is considered a fine interpreter of the late playwright’s work. Beasley  knew Wilson and for the production of Jitney I wrote about here he brought to Omaha two more veterans of Wilson plays in the actors Anthony Chisolm and Willis Burks.

 

Get your jitney on: August Wilson play “Jitney” at the John Beasley Theater resonates with cast and crew

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Gypsy cabbies are at the heart of a milestone event in Omaha theatrical history unfolding this month at the John Beasley Theatre & Workshop, located in the South Omaha YMCA at 3010 Q Street.

For its current production of celebrated American playwright August Wilson’s drama Jitney, the JBT’s assembled some of the leading interpreters of the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner’s work. Its director, Claude Purdy, is perhaps the dramatist’s foremost collaborator outside famed director Lloyd Richards. Adding luster and weight to the ensemble cast are award-winning regional theatre and Broadway actors Anthony Chisholm and Willis Burks, members of Wilson’s stock company. The actors are joined on-stage by the theatre’s namesake, John Beasley, a Wilson regular who’s worked with Chisholm. In a first, Beasley appears in Jitney with each of his sons, Tyrone and Michael, both of whom he shares intense scenes with.

Boasting four artists closely associated with his signature plays, there’s even talk Wilson may visit Omaha to catch Jitney during its JBT run. Like his Broadway-produced Seven GuitarsTwo Trains Running, The Piano Lesson (Pulitzer-winner for best drama), Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Fences (Pulitzer and Tony Award-winner for best drama) and Ma Rainey’s Black BottomJitney’s set in Pittsburgh, Pa.’s black Hill District. The Wilson “canon,” as Chisholm calls it, is richly evocative of the monumental struggles and triumphs of the African-American experience, from slavery till today, as filtered through the rise and fall of one neighborhood Wilson knew as a child and rediscovered as an adult. It’s the place that nurtured him as an artist and that he’s chosen as a prism for telling The Black American Story.

Wilson has said his Hill plays are about “the unique particulars of black culture…I wanted to place this culture onstage in all its richness and fullness and to demonstrate its ability to sustain us…through profound moments in our history in which the larger society has thought less of us than we have thought of ourselves.”

 

 

August Wilson

Jitney is one chapter in this epic story. The circa-1970s drama takes place in a storefront gypsy cab stand amid a decayed inner city landscape reeling from urban renewal. Off-the-books earnings of jitney drivers figure in an underground economy where numbers running, drug dealing and loan sharking go on. Unlike these more unsavory pursuits, jitneys provide a community service — public transportation — that’s lacking or lagging. When events conspire to threaten the livelihood of Jitney’s men, they are angry, then resigned and, finally, moved to take action.

In telling the story, the JBT’s gathered an unusual confluence of talent that president/artistic director John Beasley sees as a step towards his vision of making the two-year-old facility a regional theatre. It’s his hope the JBT continues being a magnet attracting top talent from around the country as well as a training ground and launching pad for local actors, directors, playwrights in pursuing their craft.

Nothing quite like this has happened on the Omaha theatre scene. Touring troupes from the Royal Shakespeare Company and Guthrie Theatre have done residencies. An occasional New York director or actor has come through. But Omaha hasn’t had this many artists of this caliber work in a locally produced play, unless you count opera, since 1955. That’s when two Hollywood-Broadway icons at the peak of their powers, native Nebraskans Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire, returned to perform in an Omaha Community Playhouse benefit production of The Country Girl. Henry’s ingenue daughter, Jane, made her debut in that same show.

Now, half-a-century later, the JBT is stamping itself as an important regional presenter of a living master playwright’s work. The New Yorker’s John Lahr has said of Wilson, “No one except perhaps Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams has aimed so high and achieved so much in the American theater.”

Although set in Wilson’s hometown of Pittsburgh, the action reverberates with the wider black experience. For example, John Beasley drove a jitney out of two Omaha stands — Chappie’s Corner and Speedy Delivery – in the late 1960s. “Yeah, those were the days, man,” he said. “We’d go into the jitney stand in the morning and give the owner something like a $6 fee. It’d say ‘Pickup and Delivery’ on the window of the store, but everybody knew what it was. And then when the calls came in you took ‘em in order. Some of us had regular customers. They’d call in and ask for certain guys. ‘You got a car? Yeah, where you going?’ A dollar would carry you most places. You used your own car. Unmarked. I had a little raggedy Ford at the time. I think the farthest west we went was the Crossroads.”

Unregulated cabs have long been a fixture on Omaha’s Near Northside, where they serve a gap left by city sanctioned and state licensed cab companies reluctant to serve residents there. Since the displacement of homes and businesses by the riots and North Freeway construction of the late ‘60s, north Omaha’s high crime rep has made regular cabbies even more leery of taking calls or cruising for fares there. “There’s still jitneys today. Cabs don’t want to come to the north side. It provides a service to people who maybe don’t have cars or don’t have licenses. And as high as gas is going, a lot of poor people can’t afford to drive,” Beasley said.

Jitneys are officially banned, but authorities look the other way because they do fill a need. As Beasley put it, “What are they going to do? Nobody else is serving the neighborhood.” Anyone in north Omaha can tell you where to find one. Postings for their services adorn public bulletin boards. Former University of Nebraska at Omaha public administration professor Peter Suzuki drove a jitney in Omaha in the early ‘70s to research a series of published papers he wrote on the subject. He said drivers of that era were typically young men — as Beasley was then — or retirees looking to make ends meet. Jitney stands, bookie joints and after-hours spots were vital parts of the black community. “That’s why the story resonates with me so much,” Beasley said. “It’s a black experience. A personal experience.”

Partly based on the denizens of a Pittsburgh jitney operation, the play gives voice to a working-class segment of black American culture. Anthony Chisholm said, “It shows how this cab station contributed to the service of the community. It was a lifeblood of the Hill. It gives you a peak into a certain category of lives there that made up the mosaic of the whole. It shows black men in the throes of survival.”

 

PENNSYLVANIA l August Wilson House in the hill district of Pittsburgh. The house was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013.:
A building in Pittsburgh’s Hill District

 

 

Amid their patter, invective and humor is revealed an authentic, vital vignette of inner city street life rarely glimpsed by non-black audiences. But the real power of the words and ideas is they are culturally specific yet universal. Chisholm suggests that with only minor changes the play would work equally well with “white working class” characters. Their lives are similar. “The soul and humanity in these words are in every human being on this planet,” he said. “There’s a lot of humanity in Jitney.”

Guest director Claude Purdy said that above all, he loves “the language” of Wilson. “He’s a poet.” Purdy’s strong ties with Wilson put him on intimate terms with the icon. Their friendship goes back to when they were emerging artists in their shared hometown of Pittsburgh, whose Hill District is the inspiration for the writer’s projected ten-play cycle chronicling 20th century African-American life. It was Purdy who suggested Wilson turn his Black Bart poems into a play and leave Pittsburgh for St. Paul, Minn.’s lively theater scene. Purdy preceded him there to direct at the Penumbra Theatre Company, a black regional theater. It was, indeed, in St. Paul where the largely self-educated Wilson turned playwright. He only found his voice, however, after returning to Pittsburgh and steeping himself in its culture.

Among the venues where Purdy’s mounted Wilson’s work is the American Conservatory Theatre, the L.A. Theatre Center, the Pittsburgh Public Theatre, the Penumbra and the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre. He’s also directed regional-national tours of various Wilson works. Guest actors Anthony Chisholm (Burr Redding on HBO’s Oz, the film Beloved) and Willis Burks (CBS’ Law & Order, the film Sunday) have worked extensively in Wilson plays. They workshopped Jitney with him. They and castmates of the original 2000 New York production won Drama Desk/Obie Awards for best ensemble performance. Jitney won the Drama Critics Circle Award as best play of the year, one of seven Wilson works so honored. Chisholm appears in Wilson’s new play, Gem of the Ocean, opening on Broadway in the fall. Each man considers it “a privilege” to speak Wilson’s words.

“He’s a philosopher and a poet along with being a great storyteller,” Chisholm said. “He writes really deep stuff. His passages are food for thought for everyone. I always recommend anyone take the time to read his plays. If you read O’Neill or Tennessee Williams or Shakespeare or Chekhov, or you’re just in the habit of reading, then his work is a must.”

John Beasley claims his own Wilson connection. The owner of major props in film (RudyThe Apostle) and TV (Everwood), the Omahan first came to prominence in Wilson plays on Minneapolis, Chicago and Atlanta regional theatre stages.

Under Beasley’s guidance, the JBT is fast becoming an August Wilson showcase. Housed in the site of the defunct Center Stage Theatre, where Beasley honed his own acting chops, the JBT grew out of a kind of rescue mission. In 2002, he reopened the abandoned Center Stage by mounting Wilson’s Tony Award-winning drama Fences, which he directed and starred in. Its success led the Omaha Housing Authority, which oversees the La Fern Williams Center the theatre is part of, to rename the Center Stage in Beasley’s honor. That’s when he and son Tyrone, himself a regional theatre veteran, began taking ownership of the JBT.

Since Fences, the JBT’s presented Ain’t Misbehavin and the Wilson plays Joe Turner’s and Two Trains and Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. It’s no accident Jitney is the fourth Wilson play among the JBT’s six offerings to date. “August Wilson is arguably America’s greatest living playwright,” Beasley said. “His work is always well-received. But I still don’t see theaters around here taking on his plays. I think it’s essential, especially in Omaha where we really don’t have a minority media voice, to have this arena,”.

In Beasley’s eyes, Wilson reveals a story often withheld or obscured. “Basically, he deals with every decade of the 20th century…with blacks migrating from the south to Pittsburgh and what they faced once they got there,” he said. “His characters talk about what happened back down south and touch on some of the reasons they came north. It’s always their stories. The plays deal with the era of urban renewal, when a lot of black businesses and neighborhoods were being boarded-up and blight set in and how, once redevelopment came in, blacks were being forced out. You can see the same pattern here in Omaha. He’s really telling the black American story, but the thing about August’s work is it’s not just the black experience, it’s the human experience, and that’s why I love August.”

Beasley’s elicited the same strong identification from white audiences playing Troy Maxson in Fences as he has playing Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman. “Both are tragic figures who had a dream dashed,” he said. Each craves recognition, affirmation. As Loman says, “attention must be paid.”

 

Image result for anthony chisholm

Anthony Chisholm

 

The men in Jitney share similar regrets and rants. They comprise an independent, disparate breed of urban entrepreneurs threatened by encroaching “progress.” Representing a variety of ages and life experiences, they must all hustle to get by. There’s Becker, the weary cab stand owner whose heart has grown cold over the terrible mistake his son Booster made. In his stage debut, KETV photojournalist and Kaleidoscope host/producer Ben Gray plays Becker. Tyrone Beasley essays the estranged Booster. As Turnbo, the resident gossip always messing in other people’s business, John Beasley assumes a role he’s performed many times before. In the part of Youngblood, the upwardly mobile Vietnam vet desperate to escape The Life, is Michael Beasley. The former pro basketball player made his JBT debut last year in Two Trains under the direction of his brother Tyrone.

As Fielding, a former tailor who drinks too much pining for his ex-wife, Anthony Chisholm recreates one of the roles he’s become identified with. Playing Doub, the sardonic Korean War vet, is Omaha actor Vince Alston. Shealy, the good-natured numbers runner, is recreated by Willis Burks. Familiar Omaha actor Kevin Williams appears as Philmore, a frequent customer and the stand’s drunk comic relief. The only female character, Rena, is the distressed wife of Youngblood. She’s played by Iris Perez, a Hot 107.7 FM on-air personality and just one of many talented local actresses the JBT’s developed in its ongoing acting workshops.

 

 

Willis Burks

 

 

Tensions and jokes abound among the men of Jitney. Personal baggage weighs them down. Their lively exchanges and monologues ring with the authentic African-American vernacular, idiom, patios and sensibility that Wilson could only get from careful observation and listening, something he did haunting the Hill District’s juke joints, bars, diners, clubs, hotels, whore houses, jitney stands and bookie parlors.

Chisholm and Burks have walked with Wilson through those same streets, going to some of those very places and meeting the colorful figures he’s based characters on. They’ve heard the laughter and despair. Wilson is known to write listening to the strains of Bessie Smith and other great black music stylists and his spoken words do echo the plaintive tone, lyrical jive and lift-up-thy-voice testimony of gospel, soul, jazz and the blues. “All of his work has that really nice rhythm about it,” said Beasley. “It’s jazz. That’s how his plays sound to me. I compare him to Shakespeare. It wasn’t until I learned the music of his writing that it really flowed for me. Every word is well chosen for a certain rhythm…for a certain effect.”

The words are often quite funny, too. Burks said he and Chisholm were part of an early tour of Jitney on “the chitlin circuit,” where they played to audiences in broad comic strokes. “It can go in that direction,” he said. “The laughs are there.” It was later brought back to its dramatic roots. The actors also witnessed Wilson expand the play by more than an hour. “It was a different play then from what it is now,” Burks said, adding that whole characters were dropped and others made over. Burks character Shealy became “less fly” and more “respectable.” Chisholm’s Fielding was “rounded out” and given a “back story” drawn from the actor’s tailor-father. Booster was made less “gangsta” and more “educated.”

When the Jitney men learn the surrounding neighborhood is slated for demolition, their cab stand becomes a kind of metaphorical last stand for all they hold dear. In the end, each stands alone, yet together. “What is it about is a tough question to answer because it’s such an ensemble piece. Every character has his own story,” said JBT associate artistic director Tyrone Beasley. “It’s like a slice of life that comes into focus at this critical moment in their lives.”

“That’s what Jitney is, it’s a slice of life,” John Beasley said. “The interesting thing to me is the relationships between each of these individuals and how they eventually pull together for a common goal. Even Turnbo, who’s a pain in the ass. They’ve got a business to save. Like one of ‘em says, ‘Where else can you make $40  a day?’ That was pretty good money in the black community in those days. It was a decent enough way to make a living. It was a necessary business, too.”

What Beasley’s doing with Jitney is part of a stated mission to move his theatre to the next level. “I want to do things not being done by other theatres in town, which is basically plays by and about minorities. I want this to be a regional theatre where established artists can come and work with local artists. What I’m finding is,  it’s taking on a life of its own,” he said.

Jitney’s guest artists say they’re down for return engagements and support the JBT’s aim of joining America’s handful of black regional theatres. “In regional theater it’s all about putting it together and making a good ensemble piece. It’s working with people who respect the writer and respect the process. And from what I’ve seen, it’s the same thing here,” said Burks. Chisholm added, “It’s a great opportunity to work your chops.”

 

Puttin’ On the Ritz, Billy Melton and the crew Rrcall the Ritz Cab Co.

June 18, 2010 3 comments

This is another of the many stories I’ve filed on aspects of Omaha‘s African-American culture, in this case a retrospective piece on a long defunct black owned and operated taxi company, Ritz Cab.  An old of age but young in spirit gentleman by the name of Billy Melton, who’s now gone, drove for Ritz, and one evening I interviewed Billy and some of his old Ritz cronies for the story.  I enjoyed the way they swapped tales in a mood of sweet nostalgia.  The story originally appeared in the New Horizons. Look for a related post in which I write about an Omaha theater company‘s production of August Wilson‘s play Jitney, which refers to the gypsy or illegal cabs that were and still are a presence in many inner cities.

Puttin’ On the Ritz, Billy Melton and the crew recall the Ritz Cab Co.

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

 

With his snappy uniform cap, neatly pressed shirt, swank leather jacket and polished silver badge, Ritz Cab Company driver Billy O. Melton cut a jaunty figure behind the steering wheel of his gleaming new Chevrolet Bel Air sedan in the 1950s. Gliding down North 24th Street, he either raced to his next call or else coasted along knowing he could have his pick of fares from the throng of people shopping, strolling or spilling out of the district’s many night spots in search of a good time.

In an area teeming with activity, Ritz cabs always seemed to be where the action was and customers could always hail one with a wave, a whistle, a shout or a knock on the cab’s side window. Or, you could always call to order one. In what were heady times then, the North 24th strip jumped from dusk to dawn and Ritz Cab did a hopping business as the largest black owned and operated taxi line in Omaha.

Dedicated to providing speedy, polite service, Ritz cabbies carried themselves with a certain swagger. It had to do with their pride in being part of a brotherhood of black men (although some women and non-blacks were included among their ranks) banding together to forge a successful business on their own terms.

When Ritz Cab shut down in 1969 after 30 years of running hacks, it marked the end of an important but little known African-American enterprise in Nebraska. At the company’s peak in the 1950s, it was reputedly the largest black employer in north Omaha, boasting a crew of several dozen full and part-time drivers for a fleet of 30-plus taxis. Additionally, it employed a full-time mechanic and several operators and dispatchers. At a time when segregation still ruled, the company covered not only the north side but all parts of Omaha and the surrounding metro area as well.

Recently, some Ritz veterans, led by the irrepressible Melton, reunited to recall their days tearing up the streets around town as taxi men. Each spoke of a fierce devotion to his fellow drivers, to the job, to the company and to the brothers who started it all, the late Reuben and Chesley Pierce.

The Pierces, including a third brother named Claude, hailed from Jonesville, Texas. Facing hard times, they followed the great black migration up north around the time the Great Depression began. Reuben and Claude came first, followed by Chesley. It was Chesley who founded the family cab company in 1940 and, after serving in the U.S. Navy during the war, he continued as owner-operator of the business, which was located at 24th and Patrick, with his brothers. In Ritz’s final years, ownership passed to Chesley’s son, the late Chesley Pierce, Jr., under whose aegis it finally closed.

During Ritz’s heyday, Reuben and Chesley managed the business on a day to day basis and, like true entrepeneurs, “they put everything they had into it,” said Elgie Woods, one of Chesley’s daughters. “They were very dedicated to it. When they put their mind to something, they did it,” added Kathleen Pierce Greer, whose father was Reuben.

Those who knew them say the brothers were country folks with a penchant for wearing overalls and for abiding by down home principles. They possessed strong but opposite demeanors, with Reuben the loud, formidable enforcer and Chesley the quiet, mild-mannered appeaser. “Daddy had a rumbling, deep voice. It was a commanding voice,” said Pierce Greer. Freddie Judson, who began driving for Ritz in 1954, said, “Reuben would slap you down with a harsh word and Chesley would pick you up with a soft word.” Or, as longtime Ritz cabby John Butler put it, “Reuben would set you straight and then Chesley would make peace. There was a certain atmosphere set by those two that kept us all in line. Those two personalities made the system.”

Men being men, Ritz drivers needed some disciplining too. Judson tells of the time the cabbies disobeyed orders by breakfasting en mass at a local eatery where the coffee was hot, the food filling and the jukebox played all day long. While the men unwound inside, their cabs were parked around the joint — out of service, costing the Pierce brothers money. When Reuben found out where the men were holed-up, he taught the guys a lesson by going to the diner and driving, one-by-one, each cab back to the Ritz garage, forcing the embarrassed drivers to walk back to the garage to fetch their vehicles. The ringleaders behind the breakfast brigade were suspended for three days. Then, Judson said, there were those occasions when a cabby had celebrated too much the night before and was in no condition to drive, leaving Reuben to lay down the law with a simple but effective edict — “park it” — meaning you were off the streets until you sobered up.

The brothers were also known for being fair.

“They’d give anybody a job,” said Billy Melton, who drove for Ritz from 1948 until its demise. Melton said where Chesley was willing to tolerate the men dipping into the day’s take or collecting fares off the meter– as long as they eventually made good — Reuben was not so inclined. The way it was supposed to work was drivers got 40 cents out of every dollar, with the rest going to the brothers, but cabbies often helped themselves to more. “It was his (Chesley’s) money, but it was yours too because you had first count. Invariably, we’d check in short, but we tried to make it up before payday,” Melton said. But, when it came to Reuben, he added, “You didn’t mess with his money. He was looking for his money every morning. None of the guys would drive for him because they knew they had to turn in all their cash. But those brothers never fired anybody. They just took it out of your salary. A lot of times payday would come and a lot of drivers didn’t have anything coming.”

That’s because “they’d already got theirs,” said Stanley Pierce, whose father was Claude.

 

 

The lure of fast and easy bucks is why many of the men kept coming back year after year. “Fresh money every night. That was the bottom line. You came to work broke and you knew you’re going to make some money. On the first drive you’re going to make some money,” Melton said. Because most runs were short, fares usually ranged from as little as 35 to 55 cents. Therefore, men depended on tips to get by. Getting a dollar bill for a 35 cent fare and hearing the words “Keep the change” was music to their ears. “It all added up,” Melton said. “If you ran $20 (in tips) you had a spectacular day.” He and his cabby cohorts said the best tippers included packinghouse workers and railroaders. But there was a downside to handling all that loose change. As fast as it came in, it went out just as fast too. “It’s hard to save money when you’re making money every night,” Melton said.

For many years Ritz enjoyed a steady cash flow by nearly cornering the north Omaha taxi market. The big cab concerns — Yellow, Checker, Safeway — catered primarily to a white clientele. Ritz’s main competition on its home turf was United Cab Co., another black owned and operated firm, and the large number of unlicensed jitney or gypsy cab services then operating. According to Pierce family members and former Ritz drivers, it was the illegal jitneys, which operated off the books and outside state insurance, transportation and tax regulations, that eroded Ritz’s market share and eventually forced it out of business.

When it was still a thriving district, just the North 24th Street corridor alone provided Ritz with all the traffic it needed. “On Friday-Saturday nights we couldn’t handle the business right here in north Omaha. We had to run and hide from people. We were that busy,” Melton said. “Ninety-nine percent of our business was black.” Even Sundays brought a steady flow of customers. “On Sunday mornings, when we took people to church, we were booming,” said Butler, whose wife Juanita is one of Chesley Pierce’s daughters. “We were zip, zap, zip…I mean, we never stopped until church was over. You might carry 50 people.”

But it was Friday-Saturday nights when things really exploded. The district’s sidewalks and streets overflowed with patrons of its many theaters, clubs, bars, restaurants, pool halls, gambling dens, rooming houses and more unmentionable hangouts. The traffic continued all through the night and, unlike today, pedestrians and drivers felt safe. “We’d sit and park with the window down  — with a pocketful of money — and go to sleep, and nobody would bother us,” Melton said.

Half the battle for any cabby, he said, is being well-acquainted with the city and its various virtues and vices. “To be a cab driver, you have to know the city. When a guy got in your cab and said, ‘I’m new in town, where can I get a good meal? or Where can I get a drink? or Where can I have some fun?’ — you had to know. As cab drivers you got around. You saw the whole town.” As Butler said, “We knew every place. There was nothing we didn’t know about. If you were a cab driver and they wanted to know where something was going on, we could tell you.”

Evenings brought out a special breed of merrymakers. “Some people just don’t want to go to bed. Those are night people. All they want to do is drink, eat, hang out and have fun. There were a lot of temptations out there,” Melton said. Whether it was wine or women or barbecue these night owls sought, Ritz cabs transported people back and forth to venues that stayed open all night long.

Then there were those occasional lusty passengers who could not resist giving into passion while the meter was still running. “A lot of cab drivers didn’t want that, but those people paid well. Sometimes you were in a position where you didn’t know it was happening. And then, when you did, what were you going to do? You couldn’t put ‘em out. They hadn’t paid yet. So, you pulled into an alley or somewhere to be discreet,” Melton said.

Sometimes, cabbies were put in the indelicate position of ferrying mates who, unbeknownst to the other, were stepping out for a night on the town with someone else.

“You’d be surprised how many times I took a man to a spot and his wife to the same spot, but with someone different. I’d have to rig it so I took one back and picked the other one up without them running into each other,” Freddie Judson recalled. Melton recalled that “the worst scenario you got into was when a good friend of yours would ask, ‘Hey Billy, I notice my wife called a cab — where did you take her?’ Right away I would say, ‘Look, you’re a friend of mine. Now, suppose your wife called me and said, ‘Where did you take my husband?’ You know, what’s good for the gander, is good for the goose.”

Like bartenders and barbers, cabbies are privy to people’s private intrigues. The Ritz drivers heard a litany of heartache tales from folks fighting the blues.

“They told you all their problems,” Judson said. “Sometimes, you’d pick up a man and he wouldn’t be goin’ no particular place. He just wanted to ride and somebody to talk to about his woman troubles. Nine times out of ten he had a bottle back there. ‘C’mon, take a drink with me,” he’d say. And I might take a little sip, just to satisfy him. He just wanted somebody to listen to him.” Melton said he sometimes had no choice but to imbibe if he wanted his money. “I had guys who wouldn’t pay me unless I drank with them. Hey, that was all right.”

 

 

 

 

 

Because a cabby is a kind of amateur counselor whom people let their hair down around and pour their souls out to, they are entrusted with secrets they are wise not to reveal.

“A cab driver has got to keep his mouth shut. He knows too much,” Melton said.

Butler credits Melton with taking “me under his wing” and showing “me the ropes” when it came to maintaining confidentiality.

“One of the important things Billy said was, ‘Now, if you want to make money in this business you’ve got to learn how to take care of your customers, and whatever they tell you — don’t repeat it to anyone else.’ I got more customers that way, too, because I would never repeat what I heard. I got customers personally calling for me because I kept my mouth shut. I never forgot that.”

In a business where service was and still is the name of the game, virtually every Ritz driver cultivated their own stable of customers who, when needing a cab ride, specifically requested them. The better service you provided, the more personal calls you got. “I had so much business that when I came to work in the morning I would have 10 personal calls I had to make before I even took a call from the dispatcher,” Butler said. “We’d have customers call back for us every time,” Stanley Pierce added.

Melton said enough trust developed between cabbies and their frequent fares that payment was often deferred until they scraped up enough cash. “We had regular fares we took to work every morning, and sometimes they’d be short of cash until the weekend. They paid us when they got paid,” he said.

Ritz drivers prided themselves on going the extra mile. “We gave good service. We knew how to treat the public,” said Butler. “It was just known we were going to get out of the cab and carry your groceries or your luggage for you. People would tip you when you did that.” Stanley Pierce said, “We’d even carry your groceries in the house and put ‘em on the counter too.”

In what Melton said was an often “thankless job” devoid of health insurance benefits and looked down on as a kind of last resort for undesirables, the men of the Ritz Cab Company never forgot they were, in fact, “public servants.” The dignity they felt for themselves and the job they performed was reflected in the slick appearance they came to be known for.

“The image you projected helped a lot,” Melton said, “and we were always clean and well-dressed. We had uniforms, but not all of us could afford them. You could wear your own clothes, as long as they were neat and clean, but we all wore the cap and our badge. One of our drivers, Bill Smith, would come to work every day with a white shirt and black tie. And I don’t care how many orders were waiting, he would take a rag and wipe his cab off and sweep it out.”

Besides their spiffy appearance and super service, Ritz cabbies were known for one more thing — their fast driving. This was particularly true before two-way radios were installed when, after completing each run, a cabby had to return to Ritz headquarters to get his next order, meaning he was racing the clock and his mates. “We had to drive fast to get back and get another order. We drove fast to make some bucks,” Butler said. Between their careening through town, overturning an occasional cab and causing some accidents, Ritz cabs came to be jokingly called “death wagons,” Butler said. “People got out of the way when we were coming.”

 

 

 

 

Outside their lead feet and their various high jinks, drivers were expected to follow a rigid code of conduct, which the more experienced hands imparted to newcomers. It was all part of the esprit de corps the men say they felt and this tight bond saw them through many rough spots.

“The cab drivers were together with one another, they helped one another, they taught one another and they looked after one another,” Butler said. “That was the bottom line — the unity we had together.”

For Melton, “it was a family thing…a brotherhood.” Judson described it this way: “If something happened to one of us, it happened to all of us. If one Ritz cab got in a problem, you would have every other Ritz cab there in 10 minutes.”

Butler can attest to that: “I remember one time in about 1956 I ran into a car at 24th and Clark and the other driver…a big guy…jumped on me,” he said. “I’ll bet we weren’t there 10 minutes fighting and fussing before half the cab stand was there. I don’t know how they knew it, because we didn’t have radios then, but they stopped the fight.”

Melton recalls how once two-way radios were installed many altercations were averted by drivers radioing their comrades for aid. “A lot of times people had been drinking and they gave you a bad time. They didn’t want to pay or they wanted to fight. And we’d just get on the horn and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a problem,’ and they’d all come. We were protective of each other. It was a family affair.”

The predominately black Ritz drivers say they were subjected to name calling and other slights because of the color of their skin. Although by law Ritz was constrained to operate on the north side, the company routinely ignored those boundaries to taxi fares all around town. It was a common practice and usually the authorities looked the other way. But sometimes drivers found themselves unwelcome outside some of Omaha’s posher hotels or restaurants, and police might show up “to bother us,” Butler said.

The Ritz men were also persona non grata with the major cab lines, which for a long time were segregated outfits. Where the Yellow, Checker and Safeway lines had reserved spaces in cab stands outside the train and bus stations and airport terminal, Ritz did not, but the enterprising Ritz men still found a way to snare their share of fares, which upset the competition. Ritz veterans say that as time wore on and attitudes changed, they finally got their due.

“Finally, the other cab companies gained respect for us,” Melton said, “because so many people gave us their business. They didn’t bother us anymore.” For Butler, it meant “the barriers started breaking down.”

Perhaps the biggest drawback to driving for Ritz was the long hours, as the men generally worked 12 hour shifts. “I think the worst part about driving a cab is you’re away from your family a lot,” Melton said. According to Butler, many relationships suffered under the strain, adding that he and Melton and Judson were lucky enough to have understanding wives. “The only reason any of us stayed married is we had a good woman who tolerated us.”

If there is one thing the men miss about their days behind the wheel it is the interaction they had with all kinds of people. As Melton said, “You never knew who was going to get in your cab.” Once, Butler said he found himself carting around Fats Domino. Judson said he gave Dean Martin a tour of Omaha during a stopover the crooner-actor had here. Celebrities aside, Butler said, “I liked the chance it gave me to meet new people all the time.” He used the contacts he made driving hacks to forge a career as an insurance agent. “I enjoyed meeting different people,” echoed Stanley Pierce. “We had fun.” Amen, the others chimed in.

Finally, the men feel it is important their story and the story of the Ritz Cab Co. be remembered. Why?

“Because it’s history,” Billy Melton said. “We laid the groundwork for young people today. We did a good job too. It’s a shame, but a lot of young people don’t even know what came before them.”

To put it in perspective, John Butler recalled a Pierce family reunion three years ago at which family members dressed-up a car to look like a Ritz cab and drove it in the Native Omaha Days parade along the very North 24th Street strip the taxi line served. “You  should have seen the response that got. When people learned about there having been a black cab company here, they were amazed.”

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