February 7, 2015 –
ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Army Reserve soldiers from the 85th Support Command, headquartered 25 miles northwest of Chicago, hosted a unit African American/Black History Month observance, with guest speaker, Oscar Lawton “Wilk” Wilkerson, 89, native Chicagoan and Tuskegee Airman, during their battle assembly weekend, Feb. 7.
“It is a tremendous privilege to truly have a living hero in our midst,” said Brig. Gen. Frederick R. Maiocco, Jr., Commanding General, 85th Support Command and Deputy Commanding General for Support, First Army Division West. “Every February we take time to honor Black History Month and recognize the incredible contributions that African American men and women make, not only in our Army, but across our country.”
Maiocco added that celebrating Black History Month not only recognized the achievements of African Americans, but it also helps to realize that black history is Army history and it is American history.
Following opening remarks, Maiocco introduced Wilkerson who shared insight to his experiences and service in the military during World War II. Wilkerson, joined the U.S. Army Air Forces Aviation Cadet training program in Tuskegee, Alabama and was commissioned there as a second lieutenant.
“A friend of mine and I were in high school and we were both interested in aviation, so we found out that there was availability to receive training in the [Army] Air Forces. We went to take the test, passed and were accepted into the [Army] Air Forces while we were in high school,” said Wilkerson. “Ten days after [high school] graduation we were on our way to Biloxi, [Mississippi] to join the [Army Air Forces]. When we got to Biloxi, we took the aptitude test and I went to pilot training …”
Wilkerson graduated as a B-25 pilot and earned his “Wings” in 1946; he was assigned to the 617th Bombardment Squadron, 477th Bombardment Group. He stated that although he was a documented Tuskegee Airman, he was not a combat pilot and that he was ‘riding their shoulders’ to perpetuate the legend that they built.
“While I was in training, my motivation was to get these wings and I wear them today proudly,” said Wilkerson displaying a replica of the wings, on his blazer, that he was once awarded.
Wilkerson explained that because he was already segregated at his base, he didn’t experience so much discrimination there, but explained other instances and when he left his base to go into town.
Although the Tuskegee Airmen helped pave the way for desegregation in the military, after leaving the military there was still a fight for equality according to Wilkerson.
“After the war, we were not able to go into commercial aviation, blacks weren’t accepted at that time,” said Wilkerson. “I couldn’t fly commercially, so I became a bus driver in Chicago. Later I got a job in radio and retired in 1988.”
Wilkerson worked for 18.5 years as a Chicago radio personality on stations such as WBEE Radio, earning the nickname "Weekend Willie" and WMAQ NBC Radio.
Wilkerson is also an active member in the Chicago “DODO” Chapter of the Tuskegee Airman, Inc. where he is part of the diminishing number of “Documented Original Tuskegee Airmen” (DOTA).
“The Dodo bird became extinct because it lost its ability to fly. When Tuskegee Airmen came back from the service, they wanted to get into commercial aviation, but they couldn’t, so they lost their ability to fly,” said Wilkerson. “This Chicago group decided they weren’t going to let this happen to this group so they organized this chapter.”
Although Wilkerson could not fly commercially after returning from the war, he and a friend later invested in a Cessna 172, single engine fixed-wing aircraft and flew it for 13 years.
Wilkerson stated that his motivation after his service was remembering the motto "set your standard at excellence." He is also a promoter of the Young Eagles program, established by the Experimental Aircraft Association, which gives children from the age of 8 to 17 their first plane ride free of charge.
Wilkerson said that if he could leave some thoughts with today’s youth it would be to “Stay in school, get your education because no one can take that away from you.”
The Arlington Heights observance, coordinated by the 85th Support Command Equal Opportunity Office, was Wilkerson’s second speaking engagement that day; earlier he also spoke at the 75th Training Command’s Great Lakes Division, located at Fort Sheridan, Illinois.
Wilkerson closed with remarks stating:
“Sit together and help your fellow man and together you both can accomplish most anything.”