Rep. Garamendi honors African-American military veterans

Congressman John Garamendi, far right, listens to Claud Caviness speak about his time in the Air Force at the Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Fairfield Sunday. Five African Americans who had served in the Air Force spoke about their experiences in an interview conducted by Congressman Garamendi. (Daily Republic-Adam Smith)

FAIRFIELD — Congressman John Garamendi literally made history Sunday by hosting an interview at Mount Calvary Baptist Church with several African-American men who’d served in the military and U.S. Air Force during the 1950s and 60s. The event will later become a part of the Smithsonian.

Tuskegee Airman Col. Edward Woodard was supposed to attend the event, but was taken to the hospital early Sunday morning because of health problems.

During the question-and-answer session, a young woman asked the men how they had could have patriotism for a country that didn’t treat them as equals.

Though their reasons differed, each man, without a pause, said they never questioned their patriotism.

The men, James Tate, Bobby Robinson, Arie Lee Williams, Claud Caviness and Fred Young, all served in the military and Air Force during a time when racial segregation was rampant.

All of the men were born in the South; many recalled growing up under Jim Crow laws.

“I thought ‘why do I have to get off the sidewalk?’ ” Williams said. “That bothered me.”

Many of the men also recalled the extreme conditions and violent treatment they endured in the South.

Caviness said he and his family left the South when he was 5 years old after his father was dragged behind a police car nearly two miles to the local police station.

Robinson remembered as a child walking far through the woods to the store to avoid going into the white community, where often times people would sick dogs on him.

“The Air Force was my ticket out the woods,” Robinson laughed.

The men collectively served during the late 1940s through early 1970s, spanning a time period when segregation turned to integration, but racism still persisted.

Williams was based in Okinawa, Japan, in 1949. When he first arrived the soldiers were segregated — black men lived at the bottom of the hill, white men at the top. One day, that all changed.

“My commander, Johnson, gave us a powerful order: ‘You will integrate,’ ” Williams said. “It was the best time of my life when I went up that hill.”

Some 30 years later, in the 1970s, Robinson experienced race riots while based at Travis Air Force Base. The Air Force, he said, shipped the black airmen to Vietnam as a way to deal with the race-riot problem.

All of the men had stories of struggles and barriers during their service, but despite it all they still stand proudly as patriots, honored to have served.

That honor, patriotism and courage will now permanently become an important part of America’s history.

“You are to be thanked,” Garamendi told the men. “You are the ones who broke through the barriers.”