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An older James Wiley poses, leaning on the propeller of a purple airplane, airfield in the background.

Airplanes accompanied James Wiley throughout his life. In 1990, he poses beside an airplane on display at a Seattle area air show. Photo courtesy of Bill Wiley

  • His Storied Life: James Wiley, Tuskegee Airman and American War Hero

    This was our first date. Even so, the stories swirled around us. I suppose, as older singles, there was a lot of life for Bill and me to draw from. We sat in the morning sun over coffee, exchanging snippets of our lives, honest achievements. Still, each of us was cautious not to expose too much. After all, we had met on Yahoo! Personals (later But, as the hours flowed into the afternoon, and as we moved from coffee to lunch, Bill put down his fork.

    “My father was an American hero,” he said.

    “What did he do?”

    Bill just repeated, “Yes, my father was an American hero.”

    I could see by his face he was hesitant to go on. He told me later he was someone who wished to live on his own merits. But I would not let things go, so Bill finally relented.

    “My father was a Tuskegee Airman.”

    Bill’s dad, James T. Wiley, had been a Tuskegee pilot, a member of the 99th Pursuit Squadron during World War II. This unit was the first black squadron to deploy overseas; his group landed in Casablanca in April 1943.

    The stories stretched into the weeks and months that followed—stories of our growing up, both of us further down in the birth order and not so tied to authority and rules. Both of us born into middle class families with expectations of college. In the stories of our first marriages and children, we became less guarded, describing the failures and disappointments of our lives. Both his father and mine served in World War II, and, here, our memories really connected. Over time, I came to see our stories come together as in an artful collage, as if the two of us were moving toward a new and intriguing life together.

    It was during this period that I begin to realize how selective our memories truly are, that there are things we choose to disremember. Through subtle, frequently non-verbal cues, I began to perceive the racism Bill’s family had experienced in their lifetimes. I began to understand the defensiveness, combativeness, and the underlying anger that only rarely showed its face.

    In the stories of our grandparents and their parents, our narratives vastly differed. My father’s family had come from the impoverished edges of the British Isles, Scotland and Ireland, and grew into a large extended farming family in Iowa. Bill’s great-grandfather had been enslaved on the Wiley plantation in South Carolina. As young teens in 1865, he and his brother had followed General Sherman’s troops north, leaving behind their lives of slavery. His brother died along the way, and Wiley—his first name lost—found himself in Pennsylvania at the end of the Civil War. Alone and freed from enslavement, Wiley made a life. He married and had children, one of whom was James Garfield Wiley.

    Bill remembered his grandfather Wiley, an elderly man in a wheelchair. Grandfather Wiley, son of an enslaved person and father to Bill’s father James, had completed a degree in civil engineering and settled in Pittsburgh. But he couldn’t get a job in his field; engineering firms wouldn’t hire black engineers. So, degree in pocket, he found a job as a postal worker. He had four children, all of whom were successful college graduates. Just when he might have thought to retire, Bill’s grandfather ended up in a wheelchair with both feet amputated; one severe episode of frostbite, brought on by the cold and wet along his delivery route, had caused gangrene to set in.

    But it was our parents, now gone, who loomed large in the stories of our youth. Both our fathers had served in the European theatre. Mine, sent as a rookie doctor to the front lines of Belgium and Germany, left the army as quickly as possible after the war ended. Bill’s father, James Thomas Wiley, remained in aviation and made the military his career; Bill had grown up an air force brat. Over time, he related more and more fragments of his father’s journey from homelife in Pittsburgh to leading attack formations during the Battle of Anzio, one of the bloodiest battles in the Italian theatre. It had not been an easy or self-evident path for Bill’s dad or any of the men in his squadron.

    After high school, James Wiley won a scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh; he majored in physics and worked during the summers in the Pittsburgh steel mills. Following graduation in 1940, most if not all of the white physics majors in his cohort were hired right away by big companies. The only job offer that came his way was from someone looking for a chauffeur. He took the job, donned a livery cap, and continued looking.

    That was when he saw a poster advertising free flying instruction for qualified candidates out at the airfield. It was run by the Civil Pilot Training Program, a government program established in 1938 with the goal to increase the number of trained pilots as the country inched its way toward entry into World War II. There was no mention of racial restrictions.

    James went out to the airfield and applied to the program. He was accepted into the training program together with five other men, all of them white. Together they studied and trained. He quit his chauffeur’s job to focus on flying; that’s where he could see a future for himself. At the completion of the training, the class went to a restaurant to celebrate. It was there that he, the only black man in the group, was refused service. Bill’s dad never described the humiliation he felt in front of his friends. Instead, he recounted how the six men got up together and left the restaurant.

    Armed with his commercial and instructor pilot ratings, young Wiley’s employment search began anew. Once again, all his classmates received immediate job offers; trained pilots were in short supply in 1941. But no one was willing to hire a black pilot. Then he read of an opening in Alabama for an instructor with the Civil Pilot Training Program at Tuskegee. James had never traveled in the South and the only thing he knew about Tuskegee was that it was a black college. But he applied for the position and was hired, arriving at Tuskegee in fall 1941 with $1.50 in his pocket. He moved into a room on campus as a member of the faculty.

    Three months later, Pearl Harbor was bombed, and the United States entered World War II. The U.S. Army took over the Tuskegee airfield, and James joined the Army Air Corps to train as an army pilot. Nine months later, in July 1942, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant. James’ parents traveled from Pittsburgh for the ceremony. Bill recounted that his father had always said it was one of the proudest moments of his life. Coming of age as an African American in a nation still openly racist, Jame’s Wiley’s years of adolescence had been conflicted and dangerous, but at age twenty-four, he had finally gained a foothold on his future.

    Following the commissioning ceremony, Lieutenant Wiley stayed in Tuskegee to continue his training in the first class of the 99th Pursuit Squadron under Colonel B.O. Davis Jr. They were part of what became known as the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African American military pilots. Their assignment would be to provide ground attack and air superiority for troops on the ground. The demands were stringent. The instructors made no bones about the dangers they would face in combat.

    Black-and-white photo of James Wiley in bomber jacket, shades, and military cap
    First Lieutenant James Wiley is pictured wearing his heavy flight jacket at the base in Sicily, 1943. The 99th Fighter Squadron fought in the invasion of Sicily late that year.
    Photo courtesy of Bill Wiley
    Promotional poster reads: Tuskegee Airmen 50th Anniversary Tribute / Virginia Air and Space Center / Hampton Roads History Center / October 16, 1992 - February 28, 1993. Photo shows seven black pilots posing in and around a plane.
    Cadets of the class 42-F were photographed at their commissioning at Tuskegee Army Airfield in July 1942. This photo appeared on the cover of Retired Officer magazine in 1992. The men in the photo are (from left) James Wiley, Spann Watson, Graham Smith, Charles Hall, Willie Ashley, Herbert Carter, and Herbert Clark.
    Photo courtesy of Bill Wiley

    As Lieutenant Wiley trained in Tuskegee, the upper ranks of the army debated the mixing of African Americans with whites in the armed forces; going into World War II, they had been completely segregated. There was resistance to having black Americans deployed as combat troops, but even more about having black officers command white troops. Segregation and white supremacy continued to be the norm, codified in Jim Crow laws. But there were other voices. When First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt traveled to Tuskegee to fly with an African American pilot in James’s squadron, it was covered in newspapers across the nation.

    Bill remembered how his father described his single foray into the town of Tuskegee. Because the country was at war at the time, army regulations required all servicemen to be in uniform while off base. On this day, James took the base bus into town, then boarded a city bus and sat down in the first available seat near the front. The bus driver told him to move to the back, but James refused. The driver threatened to have him arrested. The white passengers protested and urged the driver to move on. Instead, he stopped the bus and went to look for a policeman. Finally, the driver returned and continued his route. But James had seen enough of Tuskegee and didn’t need to go back.

    For Bill and me, the months moved forward with our conversations; we never seemed to run out of new and interesting stories to tell each other. To educate me further on the Tuskegee Airmen and his father, he took me to the Museum of Flight in Seattle. Following his father’s death, Bill had worked with Lieutenant Colonel Bill Holloman, another Tuskegee Airman, to create a display in the museum using the jacket, boots, and other artifacts from the war that they had kept in their closets. Bill was proud, both of the display and of the career his father had forged for himself.

    The first class of trained Tuskegee pilots set sail in April 1943 on the SS Mariposa, bound for North Africa and combat, Lieutenant Wiley among them. They landed in Casablanca and were issued new P-40 fighter planes. Bill’s dad was assigned flight leader for a group of eight planes; they were to locate and attack targets of opportunity—mostly trains or troop concentrations.

    At the end of 1943, their squadron moved from northern Africa to a captured Italian base on Sicily, where James bought a Ducati motorcycle. That adventure ended when he ran it into a truck and spent a few days in the hospital. Bill and I laughed together about his father’s path from a chauffeur’s cap in Pittsburgh to a Ducati in Italy.  

    Based in Sicily, the squadron continued to fly ground attacks. One day they located a German troop train carrying about 500 soldiers. As flight leader, it was his job to hit the engine and stop the train. The other seven fighters would follow to eliminate as many of the troops as possible. Wiley hit the engine, and the boiler blew up. German troops scrambled off the train trying to find cover as they were strafed.

    Not all his runs were successful. In returning from one foray during the Battle of Anzio, James discovered that one of his pilots, Lieutenant Sam Bruce, had not returned with the squadron. No one in the formation had seen what happened to him. This was January 27, 1944, and Bruce was declared dead a few days later. He never got to meet his daughter, born the month after her father was killed in action. Sam Bruce grew up in Seattle, and the Tuskegee Airmen Chapter in Seattle is named in his honor.   

    Lieutenant Wiley completed 101 combat missions during that year. The standard for American fighter pilots was fifty missions, but the 99th couldn’t train pilots fast enough, so he continued to fly. He finally boarded a ship to return home in spring 1944. By that time, his hands had developed a constant tremor. Docking in New York, he watched as all the white men disembarked before the Tuskegee fighter pilots were allowed to. After fighting for his country, putting his life on the line over and over, he had returned home to endemic racism.

    But returning to his hometown of Pittsburgh, the mayor declared June 26, 1944, to be Wiley Day, and James was feted with a parade in his honor. We laughed again at the irony of leaving Pittsburgh with $1.50 in change and returning to a war hero’s ride down Main Street seated beside the mayor.

    Newspaper clipping headline reads: Entire City To Honor Heroic Flier Of Famed 99th, June 21.
    On June 22, 1944, the Pittsburgh Courier celebrated the return of “local youth” James Wiley. He is pictured here with his parents, James Sr. and Allie Wiley. James had just returned from Italy, having completed 101 combat missions.
    Photo courtesy of Bill Wiley
    Newspaper clipping headling reads: PICTORIAL REVUE OF 'WILEY DAY' CELEBRATION. Several black-and-white photos of people in uniforms and captions that are too small to read.
    On June 22, 1944, the Pittsburgh Courier celebrated the return of “local youth” James Wiley. He is pictured here with his parents, James Sr. and Allie Wiley. James had just returned from Italy, having completed 101 combat missions.
    Photo courtesy of Bill Wiley

    The U.S. Armed Forces were integrated in 1948 with Executive Order 9981, signed by President Harry S. Truman. Over time, this ended segregation in the armed forces and pushed to address racism in the United States. But it was not as clear-cut as the words printed on E.O. 9981. After WWII, now a war hero, Captain Wiley was assigned with another black pilot to fly bombers to Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas. Having delivered the planes on schedule, they headed into Vegas for the night. They had to enter the hotel by the back door to get a room.

    By this time in the storytelling, Bill and I had visited almost every aviation museum on the West Coast; if we missed one, it was pure oversight. He was very patient in explaining to me the different types of planes, their uses, who flew them, and why they were important. In one of these museums, we found a life-sized cardboard figure of Bill’s father poised beside a P-40 on display. It was one of the iconic Tuskegee photos taken from the archives. It was exciting, and the docent in the museum wanted to take a picture of Bill beside his father’s figure. Bill waved him off.

    One thing I learned about my partner was that being the child of an “American hero” was a two-edged blade. It had been exhilarating growing up as James Wiley’s son, but he also wanted to be known for who he is, for his own accomplishments. When we were with company, I quickly learned that Tuskegee was not my story to tell. If Bill wanted to bring it up, he would do so in his own time. And if I wanted to tell war stories, I could tell them about my father, not his.

    Colonel Wiley stayed in the newly established Air Force, moving from one base and one research assignment to another, before landing in Seattle in 1962. His final position was as air force plant representative at Boeing, working on the Lunar Orbiter. While he continued a highly successful career, they were still a black family in a region where blacks were not numerous. As they moved into their modest home in a residential neighborhood, For Sale signs immediately began to appear on lawns up and down the street.

    In a taped interview recorded later in life, Colonel Wiley sized up his time on earth.

    “I like to think that I made an effort, I made a difference, and I protected my country, and I was successful. Not just as a businessperson or whatever I was, but I had good kids, and when you bring good children into the world, and have such a lovely wife as I have, you can’t ask for any more. Yes, I’ve been very successful.” [Hear excerpts of interviews with James Wiley on Getting Word: African American Families of Monticello.]

    Black-and-white photo of a couple smiling, the man in uniform
    After returning from the war in Europe, James married his sweetheart, Ruby Morris, in 1944. He remained in the armed forces; his first assignment was with the 477th Bombardment Squadron at Lockborn Air Force Base, Columbus, Ohio.
    Photo courtesy of Bill Wiley
    Studio photo of older couple smiling, holding a baby
    James and Ruby pose with their granddaughter Kimberly in 1992.
    Photo courtesy of Bill Wiley
    Older James Wiley crouches next to his young grandson
    James poses with his grandson Jeremy in front of his third and last private airplane, a Piper Cherokee 140 in 1991. Jeremy Wiley is now a professional pilot himself.
    Photo courtesy of Bill Wiley

    Colonel James Wiley died on May 3, 2000, at home in Seattle. His memorial service was quite a society event; 400 people showed up to pay their respects, along with the local TV station. The church was past capacity. It reflected the life he had worked for, with children and grandchildren, colleagues from Boeing and the U.S. Air Force, and his compatriots from the Tuskegee Airmen gathering to celebrate his life.

    Bill and I have been together for twelve years. The telling of stories has become the retelling of stories, with dialogue more pointed, the narrative more detailed and nuanced. The grandchildren brought to them a whole new audience, and so they are told and retold over dinner, in the car, while giving cadence to our hikes. They still inspire: today, when only three percent of professional pilots are African American, two of the Wiley grandchildren have chosen aviation as a career.

    I never knew James Wiley—he died before I met Bill—but through the stories we’ve shared I’ve grown to feel like I did. And with age and seasoning, the stories no longer shy away from the difficult, the dark, the hurtful, as if in the practice of their telling, Bill feels safe to explore the difficulties of his father’s path, as he himself grows in confidence about the relevance of his own. 

    Few individuals have the difficult honor of blazing a new trail. James Wiley and all the Tuskegee Airmen did this for their country and their families. They told their own stories, and these were retold through my partner’s generation, illuminating a way forward.

    Charleen Smith-Riedel is a volunteer in the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Having retired from the tech industry in Seattle, she has picked up on her dated folklore studies, completed at the University of Freiburg, Germany, and is committed to writing on folklife topics for Wikipedia.

    Bill Wiley is a retired naval officer, a storyteller, and the main contributor to this article.

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