Tuskegee Airman trail blazes through history

JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. --

In the early 20th century the military was a different experience for some.

Among those members was retired Chief Master Sgt. James Cotten, a Tuskegee Airman, who was drafted at the age of 18 in 1945.

“I learned about respect,” said Cotten. “Regardless of what color you are, whether you’re male or female, what got me through was my respect and understanding of people.”

Formed in 1941, Tuskegee Airmen was the name given to a group of U.S. Army Air Corps service members during and after World War II that were primarily assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group. The Tuskegee were comprised African-American Airmen who accomplished pilot, maintenance, air field management and many other duties.

“We were really doing something in the interest of the nation,” said Cotten. “We were considered to be elite personnel. We were taught every day that this was another day to excel.”

Being a part of the Tuskegee Airmen was a great opportunity for Cotten, however being a part of an elite unit that represented his heritage as an African-American also created pressure for him.

“I accepted that pressure and I wanted that,” he said. “I tried to carry myself in a manner where I would be respected. I always kept my shoes shined, my uniform well pressed and presented an appearance that I felt the American people would like to see.”

While Cotten, an air operations specialist, was stationed at Lockbourne Army Air Field, the U.S. military went through a lot of changes. In 1947 the U.S. Air Force became its own military branch and in 1948 the U.S. Military became desegregated; after which Cotton became the first African-American to be assigned to Langley Air Force Base.

“I felt very proud,” said Cotten. “I was treated with dignity and respect, and I treated my counterparts the same.”

From 1950 to 1966, Cotten was assigned too many other military installations until he retired as a chief master sergeant at McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey.

Even after serving 21 years in the U.S. Armed Forces, Cotten continued to work as a civilian with the Department of Defense for another 45 years while still living in New Jersey.

“If I was in another organization, I might not have been able to climb the ladder like I was able to,” said Cotten of the U.S. Air Force. “It’s because I listened, I became educated and I feel as though as a result of that I had some really good moments in the military.”