Friday, February 16, 2001

Freeman Field Mutiny made us all free

        Leslie Edwards feels duty-bound to complete one more mission for the Tuskegee Airmen.

        Whenever he gets the chance, he tells the story of how his comrades fought for freedom in World War II. He does this for them.

        And for us.

        In telling his tale, the 76-year-old retired meat inspector from Springfield Township emphasizes the positive over the negative. He does not “wallow in evil.” Instead, he praises “teamwork, hard work and commitment.”

        To him, “those qualities made this country great and will make it even greater for everyone.

        “But first, we must rid ourselves of racism.”

        He gets another chance to tell his story 8 p.m. Saturday at the University of Cincinnati's Kresge Auditorium. He will be joined by six other Tuskegee Airmen. Each man from the famed black squadron will recount a part of the Tuskegee legend.

        Leslie Edwards' segment centers on a pivotal battle in the fight against segregation.

        “Sparks were flying,” he told me. “But this one lit the flame.”

        The battle took place in 1945 on a sprawling Army Air Force base outside Seymour, Ind. In April of that year, combat-tested black officers defied race-based military orders. They entered a whites-only officers club.

        In all, 162 black officers were arrested. Three were court-martialed, one convicted. That conviction was overturned in 1995. The officers' chief defense attorney was a future mayor of Cincinnati — Theodore Berry.

        Shackled by segregation, those officers took a giant step toward being free men.

        They picked the right place. The air base was named Freeman Field.

        History books call their nonviolent protest the Freeman Field Mutiny. Leslie Edwards calls it “the beginning of the end for segregation.”

        Voice rich with emotion, he declared: “Without that mutiny, Jackie Robinson would not have played major-league baseball in 1947. The armed services would not have been desegregated in 1948. All people would not be able to appreciate the accomplishments by Americans of African descent.”

        He knows first-hand about the mutiny.

        As a flight chief for the Tuskegee Airmen, he was in charge of maintaining a fleet of B-25 bombers at Freeman Field. He remembers planes landing during those stormy April days in 1945 and telling the black pilots: “The guys got arrested at the officers club just for going in.”

        Officers aboard the bombers told the flight chief and his crew to “be cool. Now, get us a Jeep. We're going to the club to get arrested.”

        Freeman Field, like so many World War II bases, was segregated. Blacks in one corner. Whites in another. They shared the same runways, the same uniforms and the same cause. But, that was about it.

        Leslie Edwards does not dwell on stories of separation.

        “They destroy you.”

        He prefers to talk instead about unity.

        “The Tuskegee Airmen story is about good things happening when we work together for what's decent and right for all Americans.”

        That mission remains one of vital importance. Volunteers are still needed.

       For information about the Tuskegee Airmen's free 8 p.m. Saturday presentation at UC's Kresge Auditorium, call 556-9179 or 556-9186.

       Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.


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