Keith R. Smith | Remembering a Tuskegee General

Letters to the Editor
Letters to the Editor

These famed Black airmen of World War II fought two wars: one against the German Luftwaffe and one against the bigotry of their countrymen. Certainly, the shortest war was the one in the air. The more important one was on the ground! 

Now as we look back at these airmen of the previous century, we note that of this group there were three who stood out in all the armed forces of that era: These were the Tuskegee Generals! One: Four-star general of the U.S. Army Air Corps, Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., a West Point graduate and son of the first Black U. S. Army general, Brig. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis. Two: Daniel “Chappie’ James, the first Black four-star general in the U.S. Air Force. He flew 102 combat missions in Korea and 78 in Vietnam. And three: Two-star Maj. Gen. Lucius Theus (U.S. Air Force), who rose from the ranks to distinguish himself and all those enlisted men of the famed Tuskegee Airmen. 

Probably the least well-known of the three, I would like to tell you a little bit about Gen. Lucius Theus.

In October 1945, the second world war was barely over, and the troops were in the process of mustering out and going home to their loved ones. Some of us saw this as a time of opportunity and found ourselves reporting in for duty at the U.S. Army Air Corps Officer’s Candidate School at Maxwell Field, Montgomery, Alabama. I, for one, was still pursuing a set of pilot’s wings that had eluded me in the Navy two years earlier. (I had learned the Army was going to reopen its plot training program in 1946, but only for officers.) The Air Corps OCS was barely alive! Its wartime monthly enrollment was over a thousand “candidates” each month. Now they were lucky to get 30! In fact, there had been no September 1945 starting class for lack of enough interest.

Previously the Air Corps OCS had been at Miami Beach, and held in one of the plush hotels. Historically it had been a three-month affair, thus the term “Ninety-Day Wonder” for a second-lieutenant graduate. The school at Maxwell Field lasted four months and made use of the 1930s-style cadet barracks with the two-story pre-war buildings. They had a series of two large rooms (“cubicles”), each holding six candidates. Each two cubicles were joined by a large, shared latrine that accommodated the 12 candidates of the two cubicles. When I was there, with candidates from only three of the four classes, I judge that the candidate population was about 100 or so strong, so we all could live comfortably in one building.

As the candidates checked it at the OCS Orderly Room, we were assigned to our quarters alphabetically, told to stand by in our cubicles until called out for formation on the drill field. My last name beginning with “S” put me in the next-to-last cubicle for my class. I met my five roommates and while we waited for muster, we conversed lively to get acquainted and discovered that there was no one currently sharing our latrine from the adjoining cubicle. About five minutes before we were called to form up on the drill field, a master sergeant representing the OCS commandant entered our room and announced to our group that our next-door roommate would be a first sergeant named Lucius Theus, a Black classmate, and we were to treat him with all the respect due a first sergeant. He departed before we had time to ask any questions. A similar announcement was made at our first assembly on the drill field. Remember — this was five years prior to the time that President Harry Truman “integrated” the military services.

The six of us in my cubicle had no problems having a Black classmate share our latrine and living next door. In fact, after a week of inspections and understanding the work required to prepare for the daily inspections, we six visited the OCS commandant and volunteered to split our roommates up into the two rooms to better equalize the work effort. We were firmly informed that this would not be favorably considered in Montgomery, Alabama, so forget it. We did not point out that we were already flouting custom by sharing a latrine!

This OCS specifically taught the administration of the Air Corps squadron and Theus, being a first sergeant, knew as much if not more about this subject than the instructors. Thus, it was no surprise to us that for over three of the four months, he scored the best grades of any candidate in the class. We were also not surprised to see him move into second place for the final month of the program and to be a second-place holder and just miss achieving the Academic Award for the class of January 1946.

Theus was assigned to Tuskegee following OCS and I finally won my wings. One day I had the opportunity to land at the Lockbourne Air Force Base (which then was segregated) at Columbus, Ohio, just before the services were integrated. I knew Theus was stationed there. I looked him up and the two of us, first lieutenants, had a couple of hours to visit and catch up on the years since OCS. Our paths did not cross again while we were in the service, but from that time on Theus rose like a rocket in the night and I could track his career in the Air Force Times sold on any Air Force base. He schooled at a couple of civilian universities and several military schools and was soon a colonel. He had chosen the field of computers and was a leading authority at the time on information technology in finance and was called upon to address problems associated with race integration in the services. The next I knew, he was a general! 

In 1996 I was on a lonely drive from California to Vermont to visit my brother after the death of my wife, and I had the opportunity to drop in on Theus and his wife near Detroit, where he had retired. We had a nice visit, and he invited me to a meeting of the Tuskegee Airmen, where I enjoyed immensely meeting many of the Tuskegee pilots. Thereafter, we exchanged Christmas cards and news from then on until his death in 2007. 

I am extremely fortunate to have known this fine officer and a gentleman and his lovely wife. I thought it was time others knew about him.

Keith R. Smith

Jr. Major USAF (Ret.)

Canyon Country

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