Imagine a sculptor sitting down in front of a block of granite. The cold, hard stone tells us nothing of the warm, soft, elusive art form that will emerge from it. However, in the eye of the sculptor, each tap on the chisel slowly reveals what is within the hunk of stone. It takes time, hard work, and perseverance to painstakingly form the stone into what it is to become. Sometimes, a whole lifetime is necessary to construct the new form. Eventually, the stone sheds its exterior disguise and shows the world what was always there, hidden within it, the work of art that is buried deep inside.
We are the sculptors of our own lives. We chisel away at ourselves to show who we are from the raw materials that we are given as we adventure forward in time.
The Tuskegee Airmen returned home from the war and had to reinvent themselves, to reshape the stone from which they were already carved.
For those who endured the war conflict, the personas that they held in their mind’s eye were of dashing pilots, or skilled ground crew, or lifesaving nurses, or any of the hundreds of jobs designed by the specific needs of wartime. However, once the war ended, there was no further need for many of these roles and responsibilities. Some, such as the mechanics or nurses might be able to build upon these capabilities earned during the war. But, for others, such as the Tuskegee Airmen, there was no path forward. For example, the US major airlines of the day, like TWA and Pan Am, would not even consider hiring a black fighter pilot at the end of the war, regardless of their rank, record of accomplishment, and high levels of aviation proficiency. It took another two decades after WWII before we would see black pilots fly commercial airliners. Something that we take for granted today was unimaginable in the mid 1940s. The prejudice continued.
So, what options were available post-war for these pilots? They needed to start life all over again and tap the hammer against the chisel to carve out a second likeness of themselves. Most of us never face such a daunting process to start life over again. We simply and continually build upon what we created in the past. Sure, we may shift the course slightly, and modify our career goals, but a wholesale reinvention is a discouraging task to undertake.
One of the tools available to these pilots for this transformation was the GI-Bill.
The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, often called the GI Bill, was a law that offered a variety of benefits to the veterans coming home from World War II. While the original WWII GI Bill expired in 1956, there were many iterations for these WWII veterans and for veterans of more recent conflicts.
The GI Bill provided veterans with financial benefits as a result of their service to the country.
Benefits included low-cost mortgages, low-interest loans to start a business or farm, one year of unemployment compensation, and dedicated payments of tuition and living expenses to attend high school, college, or vocational school. These benefits were available to all veterans who had been on active duty during the war years for at least 90 days and had not been dishonorably discharged.
By 1956, 7.8 million veterans had used the GI Bill education benefits, some 2.2 million to attend colleges or universities and an additional 5.6 million for some kind of training program. Historians and economists judge the GI Bill a major political and economic success – especially in contrast to the treatments of World War I veterans – and a major contribution to U.S. stock of human capital that encouraged long-term economic growth. However, the GI Bill received criticism for directing some funds to for-profit educational institutions and for failing to benefit all African Americans. Banks and mortgage agencies refused loans to blacks, making the GI Bill even less effective for them. Once they returned from the war, blacks faced discrimination and poverty, which represented a barrier to harnessing the benefits of the GI Bill, because labor and income were immediately needed at home.
However, here are two fine examples of how Tuskegee Airmen reinvented themselves post of their service to the country and how they did make the GI Bill work for them, even against such overwhelming odds.
Lt. Col. Harold H. Brown (rtd)
Harold began developing his work ethic at age 12 when he took his first job delivering newspapers. He graduated from high school at 17 years old. He successfully completed his flight training and graduated on May 23, 1944, receiving his wings and commission as a 2nd Lieutenant, at 19 years of age. He stayed in the military for over 20 years, including service years during WWII. He reached the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
After his service, the road to become an academic was challenging. During his service, he moved around to different bases working on a variety of different assignments. After the War, there was a RIF or ‘Reduction in Force’ program. Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. sat on a Review Board and Harold was called in to face the Board’s questions related to what he wanted to do after the war. He requested and was granted the opportunity to seek advanced electronic training and was able to remain in the service. Harold’s diverse educational path included substantial training inside the military and abundant formal education outside the military. While stationed in Texas, the Dean of the Graduate School at Texas Southern University guided Harold and helped shape his educational pursuits.
While in the military, he took classes during the daytime, so he traded shifts with other officers in order to go to school during the day and worked grueling 12-hour nighttime shifts on the base. This stressful pace went on for over one year. However, it was much quieter on the night shift, so he could pass the time in between work tasks by studying.
Harold used the GI Bill to its full extent and leveraged every dollar available to graduate with a baccalaureate degree and two graduate degrees, including a PhD.
After many years of effort, Harold graduated from Ohio University with a Bachelor of Science degree in June 1965, just days after retiring from the Army on May 31, 1965, having logged more than 6,500 hours in the sky.
After fulfilling the impossible promise he made to himself to earn his college degree, it is not surprising that he went on to earn his doctoral degree and to embark on a second career – in higher education.
He was hired to teach in the math department at the Columbus Technical Institute, which was just starting out in the basement of Central High School and today is known as Columbus State Community College. In his first quarter with the institution, he was approached with a new opportunity in the college’s electronics department.
“The director of the school came up to me, and he knew my background because he had offered me the job. He said ‘Harold, you ran an electronics department over in Japan. Can you take over the department and make it run?’,” Harold recalled. I said, “Sure I can.”
His Bachelor of Science degree was focused in Maths and Physics. He went on to earn a Masters of Arts degree in Education and in ultimately in 1973, he graduated with a PhD in Education. He attended both Ohio State University in Columbus and Ohio University in Athens to earn these degrees.
Dr. Brown initially taught students in a variety of subjects all related to math, engineering, and physics. He led as an administrator of the electrical, technical, and engineering programs culminating with his retirement from Columbus State Community College as Vice President of Academic Affairs.
Post of the war, he transformed himself from a military aviator to became an academic leader. He is credited with helping the following generations achieve their own dreams of higher education.
Lt. Col. Harry T. Stewart, Jr. (rtd)
Harry Stewart was born in Newport News, Virginia, but moved with his family to Queens, New York, at the age of two. He grew up nearby LaGuardia Airport and was able to watch commercial airplanes depart to far off exotic places from his childhood neighborhood. Harry’s love of aviation developed from these early days of watching these airliners.
On his 18th birthday, heavily influenced by his friends, Harry left high school unfinished and volunteered for the Army Air Corps, where he says he managed to hide from military doctors a heart murmur and the fact that he had polio as a child.
After he completed his pilot training in Tuskegee, Alabama, on June 25, 1944, Harry was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Forces. He was then sent to Italy as part of the 332nd fighter group, known as “The Red Tails.”
In 1950, he was honorably discharged from service as a part of the Reduction in Service program that saw 25,000 military personnel removed from the service. This RIF action came as a shock to Harry after seven years of committed service as he envisioned remaining in the military and continuing to fly for his entire career.
He struggled mightily once outside the military. He was thrust back into a life that he was ill-equipped to deal with, so he naturally retained a tight grip on his aviation passion. He wanted to get back to aviation as soon as possible.
He used his GI Bill credits to privately earn additional advanced aviation training in helicopters and float planes. After the war, it was imagined that helicopters would be commonly used to move people around. However, this vision failed to catch on as hoped. Harry instructed and took manual labor jobs to survive.
His transformation to his second life had many hurdles to overcome. His skin color blocked him from flying commercially even though he was absolutely equal or more qualified compared to many white applicants after the war.
Harry realized that manual labor was not the future that he saw for himself and his new family. He understood more than ever the mistake he made leaving high school unfinished. He knew now that it was education that would empower him towards a new life. When he applied to many better jobs, he saw that it was his lack of education that held him back from being selected.
After a great deal of self-reflection and some heavy-handed comments from a rather blunt Veterans Administration interviewer when Harry was seeking guidance for work career advancement, he decided to return to school and get the missing education. So, while he continued to work at intense, manual labor jobs, he attended post-secondary education after work. However, without the requisite foundations in the maths, the university programs were crushing. He struggled and failed.
Fearlessly, he endured and switched to a less demanding associate degree. An Associate of Arts (AA) degree is an academic program taken at the undergraduate level. It aims to give students the basic technical and academic knowledge and transferable skills they need to go on to employment or further study in their chosen field. Students can apply the two-year AA degree to upgrade towards a four-year baccalaureate degree program.
This decision proved to be the right call. Harry excelled in this AA program at a community college in Brooklyn and earned the missing educational foundations to allow him to advance later. Once the AA degree was earned, Harry refocused on a university degree and enrolled at New York University. The AA degree also permitted him to leave the backbreaking manual labor work behind and he joined the City of New York engineering department. In this role he worked with professional engineers and discovered the value of this type of work. He flourished at engineering as he continued his NYU studies aimed at a baccalaureate degree in Mechanical Engineering. He was helped along by his City colleagues.
With the support of a loving wife, he worked for the City, attended classes at night, and studied late into the wee hours, with very little sleep. His life revolved around school and engineering.
Once he earned his baccalaureate degree, he received many offers for engineering jobs. He was a highly valued candidate and companies were chasing him. His life had turn around after so many years of challenges. It was at this point; he made the final career pivot and left the dream of aviation behind and fully embraced the life of an engineer.
He joined General foods and gained more experience in mechanical engineering. His work involved the design and implementation of systems for the flow of food products through automation lines.
Later, he worked for a consulting engineering firm in the chemical business undertaking a variety of work as a project engineer where he led teams. He was relocated to various projects and even got to Brandon, Manitoba in Canada for a year overseeing a chemical plant project constructed to process nitrogen, ammonia, and urea.
He managed complex projects overseeing scheduling, production, inspection, and expediting all on the critical path. He was doing senior engineer work. Head-hunters approached him with new opportunities to spread his engineering wings even further with elevated roles to lead businesses. Now in California with his family’s homesick desire to return back east to be closer to loved ones, he moved to Michigan. He went on to have a successful civilian career, retiring as Vice President of the ANR Pipeline Company in Detroit, Michigan, operators of one of the largest interstate natural gas pipeline systems in the United States.
Eventually he retired from the world of engineering only to rediscover flying again with the Tuskegee Airmen National Museum in Detroit that had acquired several Schweizer motor-gliders from the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Harry’s passion for aviation was reignited and he returned to flying, even earning his commercial glider pilots license at the age of 81. As a volunteer pilot he took young people flying. He was active in this general aviation role from 82 years old, finally formally ending it at 90 years old. Many of the young people that he flew as passengers went on to become commercial pilots for airlines like Delta and American. One day, when boarding a flight, Harry looked into the cockpit to see two female pilots commanding his airplane. He was delighted and emotionally moved to see how far things had progressed.
In the photo above, circa March 2007, Harry is at the U.S. Capital Rotunda room to receive the Congressional Gold Medal from President George W. Bush. All 300 surviving Tuskegee Airmen members were so honored with this medal.
For both Harold and Harry alike, education allowed them to reinvent themselves post of the war. They both transformed from skilled fighter pilots to become essential and productive members of society, to earn a living, and to be critical part of their families, and to ultimately reshape their form to a higher level of art. While the path to transform a life is tough and rife with setbacks and roadblocks, it was the values and lessons earned as Tuskegee Airmen that helped them to endure and achieve greatness in their second lives.
Both Harold and Harry have autobiographies published that make for fascinating reading to those who wish to learn more about these amazing American heroes.
KEEP YOUR AIRSPEED UP
The Story of a Tuskegee Airman
By Harold H. Brown and Marsha S. Bordner
The University of Alabama Press
SOARING TO GLORY
A Tuskegee Airman’s First Hand Account of World War II Author Phillip Handleman with Lt. Col. Harry T. Stewart Jr. Regnery History Publishing
You can purchase the book on
About the Author:
Michael Martin has more than 35 years of experience in systems design for applications that use broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless, and digital communications technologies.
He is a business and technology consultant. A recent contract was with Wirepas from Tampere, Finland as the Director of Business Development. Over the past 15 years with IBM, he has worked in the GBS Global Center of Competency for Energy and Utilities and the GTS Global Center of Excellence for Energy and Utilities. He is a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and before that was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation (CYN: TSX).
Martin currently serves on the Board of Directors for TeraGo Inc (TGO: TSX) and previously served on the Board of Directors for Avante Logixx Inc. (XX: TSX.V).
He has served as a Member, SCC ISO-IEC JTC 1/SC-41 – Internet of Things and related technologies, ISO – International Organization for Standardization, and as a member of the NIST SP 500-325 Fog Computing Conceptual Model, National Institute of Standards and Technology.
He served on the Board of Governors of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) [now OntarioTech University] and on the Board of Advisers of five different Colleges in Ontario. For 16 years he served on the Board of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), Toronto Section.
He holds three master’s degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has three undergraduate diplomas and five certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology. He has earned 15 badges in next generation MOOC continuous education in IoT, Cloud, AI and Cognitive systems, Blockchain, Agile, Big Data, Design Thinking, Security, and more.