SEYMOUR, IND. (WISH) — From the outside, the Freeman Army Airfield Museum may not look like much, but the inside is packed to the brim with history.
Larry Bothe is a Vietnam veteran. He’s also the museum’s curator. To him, preserving all of this history is priceless.
“We get two reactions. One of them is, “I didn’t know there was a museum here,” and then they go, “Oh my God, I had no idea you had all this neat stuff,’” Bothe said.
From 1942 to 1948, Freeman Army Airfield trained more than 4,000 pilots for the U.S. Army Air Corps. It’s also the site of one of the most vital events in civil rights history: the Freeman Field Mutiny.
Toward the end of 1944, the Army Air Corps’ 477th Bombardment Group, known as the Tuskegee Airmen, was transferred to Freeman Field. They were there for only five weeks, but their legacy has lasted a lifetime.
The bomb group had an emblem that depicted four bombs and seven bullets, according to Reg DuValle, a member of the Indianapolis Tuskegee Airmen Chapter, an organization dedicated to preserving the history of African Americans who served during World War II.
“It’s four bombs, seven bullets — 477th. It says, ‘Our hearts with our country, our eyes on the target.’ That tells the story of the airmen. It wasn’t just about the enemy; it was about changing the working and living situation for African Americans.”
“That was a part of the double victory campaign that all African Americans were fighting: against fascism overseas and against the type of treatment they were receiving here with the hope of more full participation in the American dream,” said DuValle.
That battle for equality took center stage in Seymour when, in March of 1945, a group of Black officers at Freeman Field attempted to enter a whites-only officers club on base.
Freeman Field had two officers’ clubs, one for white officers and one for Black officers, because, at the time, the U.S. military was segregated by race.
More than 100 Tuskegee Airmen were arrested after they refused to sign an order stating they would not enter. Their defiant moment was captured secretly in a photo by a sergeant who hid his camera in a shoebox after other photographers had their cameras confiscated or destroyed.
“This made national news. There were some folks that were very concerned — the White House, the military. The NAACP sent a young attorney, Thurgood Marshall. It served as a principal reason for President Truman to integrate the U.S. military,” DuValle said.
“So here they are, setting an example for even the Air Force today in terms of teamwork and leadership, and they are arrested,” DuValle added.
All but three of the men were released back to duty and two of those men were acquitted. Lt. Bill Terry, however, was not. He was found guilty of jostling an officer and ordered to pay a $150 fine and was kicked out of the Army Air Corps. It wasn’t until the 1990s Terry was exonerated.
The story of the Tuskegee Airmen and the Freeman Field Mutiny caught the attention of a local Boy Scout named Tim Molinari. He approached the airfield with the idea to honor the Tuskegee Airmen in a permanent way.
In October, the airfield unveiled two life-sized statues and a plaque on the grounds to commemorate the group’s historic stand for equality and their contribution, as a whole, to the fight in World War II. There is also an endowment attached that will help in continuing to share the history.
“We’ll be able to do educational things which will continue to tell people what’s here and preserve the history of the Tuskegee Airmen group,” Bothe said.
Segregation of the U.S. armed forces ended on July 26, 1948, when President Truman signed Executive Order 9981. The order abolished discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin in the military.