WEST BLOOMFIELD — On his first day of military basic training during World War II, William Fuller Jr. learned the hard way that serving in a pre-integrated military would not always be a soaring experience.
“My first day in the service, I was assigned to 10 days of KP (kitchen police) before I even got a uniform,” he said. “I washed pots and pans for 10 straight days. That’s because I got into it with a lieutenant on the base, because I resented being called ‘boy.’”
Almost seven decades later, Fuller, 87, now receives accolades for volunteering his service as an African-American who became part of the Tuskegee Airmen. He earned a Congressional Gold Medal from President George W. Bush in 2007.
This year, on March 7, he received a more local tribute: a plaque from the Oakland County Board of Commissioners in Pontiac.
Fuller, who lives in West Bloomfield and is retired from Chrysler, said he was excited that the county held the ceremony, and he recognized some of the eight other airmen who attended.
“It was really well-done, and I really felt appreciated by it,” he said.
Fuller was born in 1924 and was raised on the west side of Detroit. After graduating from Northwestern High School and attending Wayne State University, he volunteered for the Air Force following the U.S.’s involvement in World War II.
After basic training, he went to Tuskegee, Ala., to join a program in which African-American pilots were trained to fly fighter and bomber planes. He listened to classroom instruction of various flight topics, and his later training involved flying aircraft.
After finishing his training, he was sent overseas to Italy. Although the military initially ordered Tuskegee pilots to do patrol or search-and-destroy missions, they later were responsible for bomber escorts and other mission types, Fuller explained.
“When I got there, we were doing the whole thing,” Fuller said. “Tuskegee Airmen had the reputation of never having lost a bomber plane on a bombing raid.”
One of his most memorable flight missions involved outmaneuvering a German Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter plane that was on his tail in Italy. Fuller managed to “hit the deck” and fly his P-51 fighter plane at around 10 feet above treetop level as he flew toward the side of a mountain.
“I pulled up at the last minute,” he said. “My tail wheel hit a tree. I could feel the thump. And he (the enemy pilot) didn’t make it.”
When Fuller wasn’t fighting the Axis powers, the lieutenant was witnessing the reality of racism in the U.S. military. He explained that the Tuskegee program was considered an experiment, and many people doubted that it would succeed.
He recalls some of the incidents of racial division that he saw in his estimated three years in the service.
“Even the officers club was segregated,” he explained. “The dining halls were segregated. The movie show was segregated. We had to sit out on the outside. We were fighting for the United States, but we had to sit on the outside.”
Upon leaving the service, Fuller discovered that he didn’t have any civilian clothes to wear, so he wore his uniform for a couple of weeks. He soon wandered into a neighborhood church dance, where he met his future wife and asked her to dance. The two married in 1948 and have been together for almost 64 years.
“The uniform helped the impression I made,” he said. “I walked her home that night.”
Oakland County Commissioner Shelley Goodman Taub, R-Bloomfield Township, called Fuller an amazing, remarkable man who is strong and sharp-minded to this day.
“It is not only an honor to meet any veteran of World War II, but the Tuskegee Airmen are really special for what they went through,” she said. “The fact that they still went and still served in spite of all the doors closing in their face is just a miracle.”
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