When Army bomber pilot Lt. Roger C. (Bill) Terry entered a "whites only" officers club with 60 other black aviators during World War II, he shouldered his way into civil rights history but effectively ended his military career.
Terry was one of the three black officers--later called the "Freeman Field Three"--who were court-martialed for their part in the 1945 incident, which set off a chain of events that eventually led to the desegregation of the military.
And because he brushed against a white officer as he forced his way into the club at the Seymour, Ind., base, he was the only one convicted. But now, nearly 50 years after the incident, a San Diego congressman is asking the Department of Defense to review the case and clear Terry's name.
"This action would be a small but important step in acknowledging and helping to rectify the prejudice blacks experienced in our armed forces during that period," said Republican Rep. Bill Lowery in a July 15 letter to Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney. Defense Department officials say they have not yet received the letter.
The request was also sent to Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a longtime supporter of the Tuskegee Airmen, a group for black pilots. In fact, Powell has been a keynote speaker at the group's national conventions. An aide to Powell said the general had not yet received the request and thus could not comment on it.
Terry, a retired Los Angeles County probation officer, is president of the Los Angeles chapter of Tuskegee Airmen Inc., a nonprofit national organization of the black pilots and their supporters. The group's mission is to motivate and inspire young blacks and other Americans through speeches to schoolchildren, civic groups and university students.
Such audiences are often told about Terry and the Freeman Field affair. But Terry said this week that he is somewhat ambivalent about the effort to clear his name so many years later.
"If it's done, I'd like it, sure. Who wouldn't want to have their record cleared?" said Terry, 70. "But it's late now. I would have liked to have had it done 45 years ago."
Because of the conviction, Terry had to list the offense on job applications after he left the service. The disclosure, he said, hurt his employment prospects and career advancement. Lowery, in his written statement, said Terry was unfairly punished by the Army. Terry and the other black officers, Lowery said, were peacefully challenging illegal segregation at the Indiana air base.
"These dedicated individuals served our nation with distinction during World War II while bearing the additional burden of racial discrimination," Lowery said. "The incident involving Lt. Terry occurred because he and other black officers resisted this discrimination."
The matter was brought to Lowery's attention by Charles Shockley, director of the San Diego Minority Business Development Center. Shockley became aware of Terry's situation through a co-worker who was a member of the 99th Fighter Squadron, the first all-black Army Air Corps unit.
The 99th Fighter Squadron grew to include three more fighter squadrons and four bomber units. However, political pressures and the winding down of the war prevented the bomber units, including Terry's, from serving overseas.
Shockley compares Terry to civil rights catalyst Rosa Parks. He said Terry and the other black airmen have been a source of inspiration for himself and others.
"He (Terry) can't get back his career," Shockley said. "But at least we can clear this up. I think the timing is right for the country to come to grips with this past injustice. We shouldn't have to wait until a man dies."
In recent years, there has been a renewed focus on the airmen, with public television specials and news accounts of the group's exploits. Additionally, the Tuskegee Airmen, named after the Tuskegee, Ala., airfield where they trained, have been celebrating the 50th anniversary of their first graduating class of pilots at air shows across the country.
Terry lives in a well-to-do portion of Inglewood with his wife, Mae. They have two sons, both college graduates, and two grandsons. Their home is filled with Tuskegee memorabilia and mementos from UCLA, where Terry earned a bachelor's degree in political science before joining the Army. Terry played on UCLA's football and basketball teams, where he was a friend and teammate of Jackie Robinson.
His dream then was to become a pilot, and he enlisted after his graduation in 1942. He was assigned to the 477th Bombardment Group. On April 5, 1945, the unit arrived at Freeman Field following its transfer from a base in Kentucky.
In his book about the airmen, "Lonely Eagles," Robert A. Rose writes that shortly after 9 p.m., "groups of two and three Negro officers began to arrive at the ("whites only") officers club and were politely refused admission. . . . (Lieutenants) Marsden Thompson and Shirley Clinton arrived at the club and requested admission. With them were about three other officers, with about 15 or 16 waiting several yards behind.
"Lt. Thompson was refused admission but politely stated he would like to utilize his privilege as an officer of the United States Army Air Corps and enter the club for a drink. He brushed past the officer on duty and all of the men entered. Later that evening, Lt. Roger Terry used similar tactics to gain entrance."
Terry was arrested and confined to his quarters under armed guard for almost three months. "I had to eat alone, exercise alone--if I wanted to go to the bathroom, the guard had to go with me," Terry recalled. "It wasn't a pleasant experience."
As a result of his conviction, he was fined $150 and denied any chance for promotion. He left the service four months later.
An ensuing furor over the officers club incident, however, prompted the War Department to establish the McCloy Committee to investigate illegal segregation in the Army. It was the first step toward the official desegregation of all U.S. armed forces in June, 1949.
Looking back on the events, Terry said he is proud of his actions.
"If I had to do it all over again, I would," he said. "I feel, with all the other guys, we stood tall in this. We feel that this was the beginning of the desegregation of the armed forces."