JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. --
In the early 20th century the military was a different
experience for some.
Among those members was U.S. Air Force retired Chief
Master Sgt. James Cotten, a Tuskegee Airman, who was drafted at the age of 18
“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 to 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.”