Another perfect day in the paradise that is Southern California



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                                                                 CHAPTER THREE

                                                         1949 -- 1974

I was born in Detroit, Michigan in March, 1949, at Trumbull General Hospital. It’s important that you know the hospital of my birth, because Trumbull General was a Negro hospital – only Black people would go there, since in 1949 the practice of medicine in Michigan was segregated, as was the case in much of the country.
     A circa 2010 picture of the Detroit house that was at one time known as Trumbull General Hospital

I am African-American. That’s why I was born at Trumbull General Hospital. The use of the word “Hospital” is somewhat misleading. In fact, Trumbull General was little more than a single family residence, although the staff did serve the Black community with pride and determination, despite technological shortcomings.

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In the year 2016, many Americans are surprised to learn that a function as vital as medical care was segregated in a northern state as recently as 1949. But the facts are the facts. There are aspects of the country’s past that many Americans would prefer to forget, because, by 2016, the racism of the past embarrasses the Whites of the present.

Despite the pockets of discrimination in Detroit in the 1940's, my parents had moved from Atlanta to Detroit in order to escape the more pervasive discrimination of the Jim Crow south. Black people could find jobs in Detroit; there were fewer “Whites Only” signs in Detroit.

My birth name was Cleophus Walter Valentine, Jr
In 1964, my name was legally changed to Walter Lewis

When I was a very young child – up until age 4 -- I thought that Detroit was the greatest place in the entire World. It was my whole world. In the 1950's, the residential neighborhoods were lush with huge green oak trees; most street were completely canopied with oak leaves in the warm, humid summer months. The windless nights were a symphony of insect sounds and night birds. Mercifully, the mosquitoes were few, so you could sleep with open windows, without the need for screens.

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There was plenty to do at my grandmother’s house, because Vancouver Street was totally overrun with spirited children. And none of the little kids were allowed to cross the nearest big street -- Grand River – that was too dangerous, since there was major traffic constantly, and the drivers tended to speed along the multi-lane north/south thoroughfare.

So the whole population of playmates was bounded on the east by the big street, and we couldn’t cross the alley behind the houses, because that’s where the rats were; plus it was messy. But no need to worry about the mess – simple, no one ever went there except for the garbage men in their big trucks. To the west, Vancouver ran forever – as far as the eyes could see, green lawn after green lawn. To the north was the other side of the street. Sandra and I knew nothing about the other side of the street; nobody did. And by nobody, I mean, among the gang of kids that were our playmates. We could see the other side of Vancouver – after all it was 100 feet away; it was right over there. But it really didn’t exist, because none of us were allowed to cross the street. The other side of Vancouver might as well have been on Mars. It was another planet, which strangely had no children. What are the odds? Not a single child on our block lived “over there”.

Sandra was my big sister. She was much bigger than I and two years older. She knew about a lot of stuff, and she was always happy to teach me what she knew. And she knew about all sorts of things.

Things like, “There is no fat man named Santa Claus who brings presents to anybody’s house on Christmas Eve,” she confided in a hushed tone. Grandmother was just downstairs in the living room, not far away, and she had told me that she knew a big secret.

Aunt Leanora, Grandmother Mundy and Tommie

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“What? Yes, there is. Tommie said so, and so did Aunt Leanora and so did Grandmother and Grandpa. I saw it on TV”, was my incredulous response, “Tommie told me so at the store yesterday when we were looking at toys.”

Sandra shook her head from side to side. “I don’t know why Tommie says that. She says it all the time. I know.“ Sandra was sneaking open the door to the staircase that led to the attic; she was being real quiet, as her hand slapped quietly against the wall leading up to the attic. She was looking for the light switch.

When the light came on, we knew what to do: move fast and soundlessly up to the attic. This meant passing the Ouija board that was leaning against the wall on the staircase landing. We were both afraid of the Ouija board because it had pictures of two witches on it. I didn’t want to see those witches, but I did want to see the big secret Sandra said was so important. It was only a matter of a few seconds, Sandra was standing over three large cardboard boxes and pulled back the old sheet that covered the boxes.

“Look here,” she said as she pointed.

One look and I was shocked. “What?” I exclaimed softly; we didn’t want Grandmother to catch us because we were sneaking, and when we were sneaking no none could ever know.

“It’s the airplanes. And Roy Rogers, too.” I was shocked. “Why are these here, Sandra? Santa brings these things on Christmas Eve.” I grabbed one of the airplanes’box and squeezed the cellophane in my fingers, trying to tear it open.

Sandra whispered in a screech, “No. Don’t open it,” as she pulled my hand away. “They’ll know if you do that.”

“These are the Christmas presents,” she whispered. “There is no Santa Claus. It’s Tommie she bought the airplanes, and look,” her finger was pointing to a colorful box, “There is the doll I want. It’s Tommie.” Sandra inspected the airplane’s box; the cellophane was deeply dented, but it wasn’t torn.

“That’s OK, she murmured, as she closed the huge box holding all the toys and carefully spread the sheet across the box, so it looked just like it looked before.

We crept quietly back downstairs to the second floor. Grandmother was back in the living room, she had gone out on the porch briefly to sweep a dusting of snow off the front porch. We were successful once again. We never got caught when we were sneakers, because we were really good at being sneaky.

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Sandra whispered to me as if to put an exclamation point on my shocking experience: “Tommie is Santa Claus, and I bet Grandmother and Aunt Leonora know it. I bet they know. I don’t know why they’re lying all the time about it. There’s no Santa Claus. It’s Tommie.”

My mother’s name was Tommie. When we were very young children, both Sandra and I called our mother “Tommie, I need some socks,” or “Has Tommie come home from the phone building?” Everybody else called her Tommie – Grandmother, Aunt Leanora and all their friends -- so Sandra and I called her Tommie as well. We had no inkling that was a little strange, since all the kids on our street called their mother by her given name. That was life on Vancouver, and life was good, as far as I knew.

My father was not in Detroit that Christmas because he was over there in Korea fighting the war. It was too bad that he wouldn’t be home when I got the airplanes and the gun, but I wasn’t feeling too bad about the whole thing because Tommie said Cle’s coming home soon, but he can’t come now because Korea is really far from Detroit.

Grandmother was so funny. She was always saying funny things and people would laugh out loud.

“There’s three things about Walter that you can tell for sure,” she would tell Tommie’s friends, “Right now, at four years old, you can tell that boy’s going to be a preacher.”

Everybody would laugh. “That’s right, Mrs. Mundy. You got that right. He’s always preaching to me now.” I wasn’t talking about church, necessarily, but I had opinions on a lot of things.

“Yea,” Grandmother would be entertaining the whole room, “That boy is crazy about those airplanes – all the time, and he never misses seeing a pretty woman. He’s watching them coming and going,” she would say in an odd tone of voice.

All of Tommie’s friends would just crack up when Grandmother would talk like that. When I was four, I did not understand why my mother’s friends would find Grandmother’s odd tone of voice all that funny.

Aunt Leonora would say something like: “Especially you, Elaine, with all that switching you do.” Everybody would laugh, especially Elaine, and Elaine would shoot back: “Listen Butt, I don’t do any more switching than you do. Walter just loves his Elainey so much.”

Tommie and Aunt Leonora definitely had a lot of really pretty friends. They were all so nice to me; I loved to hug them and play kisses. And they all thought I was so cute; they would tell me that every time they came to the house, or when Tommie took me places, like downtown to Hudson’s department store or to church or to the telephone company building. I really loved the telephone company building, especially at Christmas time. It seemed like all Tommie’s friends liked to hug and kiss, too. But I knew now, they were all lying about that Santa Claus thing.

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                    Sandra and Walter – 10 minutes after busting the Santa Claus story

All of the people at the telephone company Christmas party were singing about Santa Claus – every last one of them. And Santa Claus had been there, too! And he had a sleigh and everything.

“All this going on and actually it’s Tommie all along”, I thought. I wondered if my father knew about this. I would ask Cle when he comes home from Korea soon. He must know, but I remember that he had definitely told me that Santa would bring the airplanes, including the ones like he flies. He didn’t say anything about Tommie getting the airplanes.

It is not surprising that two children who call their mother by her given name of “Tommie” would also call their father by his nickname, which was “Cle.”

“Sandra and Walter come downstairs,” our Grandmother was back inside, the porch was swept clean of snow – luckily there was only a dusting. “The people are coming. We’re going to take pictures.”

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Sandra grabbed me by the arm and said “Don’t say anything about Santa Claus. Don’t tell them we know.”

“Why?” I answered, "I wanna know…”

“No. We found them sneaking. You know we never tell them about sneaking. And I don’t know why they were telling us a story, but make like we don’t know about anything. Christmas is in two days. You’ll see the same presents.”

“Okay,” I said. Sandra always knew what’s best. She would tell me all the time: “That’s because she’s older and bigger and knows things.”

Grandmother was downstairs calling to us: “Sandra, Walter come get your picture taken. Elaine’s here.”

We tiptoed quickly down the attic stairs, once again ignoring the Ouija board and its witches, when we reached the second floor Sandra shouted back: “We’re coming, Grandmother. I’m buttoning Walter’s sweater.”

When Elaine saw the two of us coming down the stairs, she exclaimed, “Look at them – they are just angels. I know you two have been good, right?”

Sandra answered, “Yes, Elaine, we’ve been real good.”

I ran up to Elaine and hugged her, as always; I loved her perfume and how soft she was. And then I said, as only a four-year old cute boy can: “Hi, Elaine, sweetie. We’ve been so, so good -- Sandra and me -- we’ve been just perfect.”

Two days later it was Christmas morning. There was no question about it. The toys were all there under the tree. All of them, including the little plane and the big plane we saw in the attic. The cellophane on the little plane’s box still showed the dent where I had almost torn it open. In retrospect, I chuckle because I called the planes “little” and “big”, when in fact the two model planes were the same size, but, in reality, one aircraft was a fighter plane, which was much smaller than the bomber, and that had been explained to me by Cle before he left for that place called Korea.

The little plane was a model P-51D Mustang, as flown by the 332nd Fighter Group, and the big plane was a B-25J Mitchell bomber, as flown by the 477th Bombardment Group, the fighter plane and bomber units of the Tuskegee Airmen.

Sandra and I had hoped that Cle would be home for Christmas, but he couldn’t get back to Detroit, since he was so far away. If we had been older, we would have understood there was little chance of him getting home for Christmas because if there were any favors to be given out to the troops by the U.S. Air Force, Cle would not be a recipient. In December, 1953, Cle was still being punished by the Air Force for trouble he got into back in April, 1945.

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 2nd Lt. Cleophus “Cle” Walter Valentine

Tuskegee Airman

Veteran of World War II, Berlin Airlift, Korean Conflict and Vietnam

Major Valentine was a career pilot in the U.S. Air Force

September 18, 1925 – January 13, 2006

This link is about the Tuskegee Airmen – The Red Tails -- in World War II

This link is to a second video about the Tuskegee Airmen fighting the Nazis in World War II

Here is a third video on the Tuskegee Airmen


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April, 1945

Freeman Field, Indiana


                             North American B-25J Mitchell attack bomber


 1st Lt. “Cle” Walter Valentine in the pilot’s seat at Freeman Field

                  Eight men of the 477th Bombardment Group, Freeman Field, Indiana

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In April, 1945, the Tuskegee Airmen’s 477th Bombardment Group was assigned to Freeman Field, a United States Army Air Corps base that was located near Seymour, Indiana, in the southeastern region of that state. This is where a series of events unfolded that would become known in history as the Freeman Field Mutiny.

In order to understand the Freeman Field Mutiny it is necessary to realize what race relations in the United States were like in the 1940’s. One can sum up those relations in three words: Segregated and oppressive. To the extent that many decades of Jim Crow oppression in America was changing, any such change was due to the active demands of the Black civil rights movement. In fact, the very existence of the Tuskegee Airmen came about because of the threat of civil disturbance surrounding demands by Blacks for access to employment opportunities.

Although individual Blacks had been involved in aviation for decades,1  it was not until the fall of 1940 that the U.S. War Department was confronted by demands for full participation in military service, as well as employment in the defense industry. In the spring of 1941, one of the titans of that era’s civil rights movement, A. Phillip Randolph, confronted President Roosevelt with a proposal for a commission that would insure fair employment practices within government agencies and in businesses fulfilling government contracts. Such a commission would require either Congressional approval, or, at the very least, an executive order from the White House. Randolph punctuated his proposal with the pledge that he would bring 100,000 Blacks to Washington on July 1, 1941 for a mass demonstration.2

President Roosevelt probably looked upon Randolph’s proposal as a threat. He wanted neither an equal employment commission nor a mass protest march in Washington. Congressional disdain for an employment commission was obvious in many regions of the country, not just the South. However, the specter of a huge civil rights march in Washington was influential, because Roosevelt realized that such a march would probably turn into a bloody confrontation with the District’s police force or counter-demonstrators.

Randolph was adamant. As a part of his proposal for a commission, was a demand for the establishment of centers where Blacks would be trained for skills in all branches of the aviation corps – pilots, bombardiers, gunners, mechanics, navigators and radio operators – in order to establish full access by Blacks to the air corps.

After a good deal of negotiations, Roosevelt chose to establish an employment commission and open access to the military services, rather than risk the spectacle of civil strife in Washington. Access to the Army Air Corps was established, and the training of fighter pilots began. It was not until more than two years later that the War Department agreed to form a bombardment group that would fly the B-25J, and this group was designated as the 477th Bombardment Group, which was activated on January 15, 1944 at Selfridge Field, outside Detroit.

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Segregation was not a social system that encouraged pride among the  commanders of the 477th, but the three White commanders that were pivotal in the chain of command were: First, General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, who was the Commanding General of the Army Air Corps. Second was Major General Frank O’Donnell “Monk” Hunter, who was the commander of Freeman Field, the Bomb Group and the First Air Force. Third was Colonel Robert R. Selway, Jr., the officer who was designated as the unit Commander of the 477th.

What were the conditions leading up to the mutiny? An in depth account has been provided by Flight Officer James C. Warren, a member of E Squadron, in his 1996 authoritative work “The Tuskegee Airmen Mutiny At Freemen Field”.

Flight Officer Warren describes the roots of the situation as follows:

“Maj. Gen Hunter was an unreconstructed advocate of the unwritten policies of the past. He adamantly insisted on having his way in command of black officers. All who knew him, especially the black officers, were aware that he rigidly opposed the mixing of the races. On several occasions he had written and talked about his views. He was aware that blacks hated segregation, yet his prejudice was too fixed to allow that fact to alter his attitude. Worse he made special efforts to implement and reinforce these attitudes whenever possible.”3

The impact of Hunter’s attitude on the combat training of the 477th was undoubtedly substantial, but Hunter’s racist attitude also extended to an effort to affect the social life of his black officers. Namely, Hunter felt that black officers should not be allowed to utilize the base Officers Club. Hunter insisted that the Freeman Officers Club should be for the exclusive use of the base’s white officers.

Making matters worse, was the fact that the civilian community of Seymour, Indiana was itself a segregated area:

“Seymour’s population of 8,000 people included no more than 75 black civilians. Most were farm hands, porters, and janitors scattered throughout the surrounding area. The community as a whole would not accept or intermingle with the black troops either socially or in their daily business. Restaurants, bars, hotels, and taverns refused to serve them. Typically some local grocery stores refused to sell groceries to wives of the black officers. A few officers and enlisted men attempted to force restaurants to serve them, claiming equal rights since they were members of the United States armed services. However, the restaurants' owners and merchants remained firm in their refusal. Several of the local merchants in Seymour posted such signs in their windows as "Colored will not be served.’”4

From the standpoint of Hunter and Selway, what needed to be done regarding the Officers Club at Freemen was classic segregationist ideology: By Base Regulation 85-2, there would be two Officers Clubs, a really nice one for the white officers and a not nearly as nice club for the black officers. The two club solution devised by Hunter and Selway ignored Army Regulation 210-10, paragraph 19, dating from 1940, that specifically opened the officers clubs on all posts, bases, and stations to all officers. However, it was routine for officer clubs to ignore Regulation 210-10, and many base facilities were segregated.5

After a series of meetings, the black officers of the 477th decided to break the base regulation by entering the white Officers Club and seeking service. During March and April, 1945, small groups of black officers attempted to enter the Officers Club, were refused entry and were arrested.

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Cle was arrested on April 13, 1945, and became one of 101 black officers that were caught up in the so-called mutiny. All were reassigned to Godman Field in Kentucky to await court-martial, but there was an outcry of support from black communities across the country. Under public pressure, the charges against all the officers except three were dropped.

The official charges against Cle were dropped within a few weeks, but as he related to me years later, he received a lot of retribution over the years and no favors. He would not expect to be among a few officers allowed to travel home for leave at Christmas. That is the sort of privilege that would never be extended to someone who had been arrested at Freeman Field, not even years after the charges had been officially dropped, and notwithstanding the 1948 Executive Order by President Truman that officially ended segregation in the U.S. military.


So there we were in December, 1953 celebrating Christmas without Cle, and that seemed normal to me because he was always somewhere flying planes like Korea. And then after Korea there was Japan. I didn’t really know where those places were, but I knew they were too far away to come home.

Winter was over and spring of 1954 was well underway when one Saturday afternoon. Tommie and Grandmother had made lunch for the five of us – including Aunt Leanora, Sandra and I. We were all seated at the kitchen table, and I was enjoying one of my favorite meals. That’s when I heard a rumbling sound in the distance. My ears focused in as the rumble turned to a roar after a few seconds. I leaped out of my chair and ran out the kitchen door onto the back porch and literally bounced into the backyard.

Tommie yelled at me, " Walter, what are you doing? Come back here!”

I was incapable of hearing a word she said, because my childish attention was focused solely on that roar. I knew that sound from what I had seen and heard on television and in the movies. That screeching roar was coming from a jet. In fact, it was four jets flying across Detroit in tight formation. In most likelihood, the day was Armed Forces Day.

I did not know at the time, but from my recollection, I later knew the planes to be F-80 Shooting Stars, probably from the 439th Fighter-Bomber Wing, that were assigned to Selfridge air base, a few miles outside Detroit.


I had never seen a jet before that moment, and my excitement was totally overwhelming.

“Grandpa,” I exclaimed in a delighted yell, “You saw them, Grandpa. Jets! I saw them.”

Grandpa was in the backyard cleaning the brick barbeque grill, and he was smiling at me as he rubbed his brow in the sun, his straight, silver hair shone brightly. “We saw them, didn't we? They were fast and low.”

“Grandpa, one day I’m gonna fly fast jets. Just like them, Grandpa.”

Grandpa was, and always will be, my very best friend: "I bet you will, Walter. I bet you will," were Grandpa's words of encouragement.

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                                                                To be continued


                                                               CHAPTER SIX  

                                                         Norton Air Force Base
                                                          Monday, July 8, 1974

New 63d Military Airlift Wing C-141s on the ramp at Norton Air Force Base on a winter day in 1967.  The aircraft Serial 66-0177 is in foreground. This aircraft will become the "
Hanoi Taxi" which flew Bob Hope to USO shows in South Vietnam and in 1973, during the final days of the Vietnam War, repatriated American POWs from North Vietnam Arizona Senator John McCain was one of the POWs who flew home on the Hanoi Taxi. Aircraft Serial 66-0177 was the last C-141 to be withdrawn from service after a career of almost 40 years, as the last of the fleet was retired in 2006.  Aircraft Serial 66-0177 today is on permanent display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force

I was a little nervous that morning. After all, although I was commissioned as an officer in the Air Force in 1970, this day was the first time that I had actually worn an Air Force uniform. A real Air Force uniform; not an ROTC uniform.

I wanted to get this part right, since I figured getting off on the best foot with the base Judge Advocate General would certainly be helpful. I remembered clearly what the ROTC instructors had taught us back at the University of Michigan.

I walked at attention into Lt. Colonel Clifton D. Blanks’ office, pulled to a halt in front of his desk, and then loudly recited, as I snapped a salute, “Captain Walter Lewis reporting for duty, Sir. As ordered, Sir.”

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                                                          To be continued


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