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Interview with Alexander Jefferson [1/16/2008]

Interviewer:

January the 16th, 2008. We will be interviewing Mr. Alexander Jefferson for the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress. Present in the room is Miss Pat Beck from the Detroit Free Press, Mr. William Burnett from the Southfield Veterans Commission, Miss Ethyl Grossman from the Southfield Veterans Commission, Mr. Greg Pumian (phonetic) from the Southfield Veterans Commission, Mr. Tim Warcus (phonetic) who is our photographer also from the Southfield Veterans Commission. And so Mr. Jefferson, give us the background, where you were born and when.

Alexander Jefferson:

Glad to be here. Alexander Jefferson, lieutenant colonel, retired USAAC. Born in Detroit, Michigan, November 15th, 1921. Attended Chadsey High School in Detroit. Grew up in -- By the way, lived at 28th and Michigan Avenue.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

In Detroit.

Interviewer:

All right.

Alexander Jefferson:

The only black family in a Polish neighborhood.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

So I was a nerd.

Interviewer:

Oh, okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

Newbury School. Condon Intermediate on Bucannon and the Boulevard, West Boulevard.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

My mother -- In the 7th grade my mother wanted me to have a college education, and Condon did not offer Latin, so she raised all kinds of sand and transferred me to Munger which was next to Chadsey High School on Martin and McGraw. I attended Munger for the 7th and 8th grades and went to Chadsey for the 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th. Therefore, I had three and a half years of Latin in a college preparatory course.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

Went to Clark College, Atlanta, Georgia. My mother's a graduate of Clark. She came out of Clark in 1910 with a degree in pedagogy. Bingo. Everybody says what the hell is pedagogy. Science of teaching. She was a schoolteacher. She married my dad and they came up to Detroit. My dad just got out of South Carolina, circumstances that he never explained, and he was a laborer. He worked at a factory on Marquette and Trumboldt in Detroit, the Detroit Lubricator, the factory made -- controlled by the man who discovered the lubricator for locomotives, McCoy. It was called the Detroit Lubricator. My dad was a laborer. Hard physical labor. One day I was flunking high school, literally, I had to take him his lunch one day in July. When I got there, they told me my dad was out in the foundry, and he was stripped to his waist pouring hot aluminium making carburetors. The temperature was about 120, 130. I said, Lord, you let me get out of this place and I'll never get in a foundry again. I went back to school and started making A's and B's in chemistry and biology. Finished Chadsey in 1942, and I wanted to fly. Quite naturally at that time blacks did not fly. Negros at that time. We were colored. Let me back up. Shall I go through how we got into -- how we got into the Army Air Corps?

Interviewer:

Yes. Just tell me what were you doing before you went up to the Service and how you got into the Service?

Alexander Jefferson:

Four years of Clark College, majored in chemistry and biology. Also put in -- I minored in physics and math. Put in a year at Howard University.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

In organic chemistry, before I went into the Army Air Corps.

Interviewer:

Okay. Did you have any other family members who had been in the military?

Alexander Jefferson:

No family members. I had an uncle -- an uncle in World War I. No. Two. Two in World War I.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

In fact, Charles was a member of the Calvary. I don't know exactly what number but all I remember him in his Calvary breeches. But that's about it. Nobody else was in the Army that I know of.

Interviewer:

Okay. And how did you actually enter the Service? Volunteer? Drafted?

Alexander Jefferson:

Volunteer.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

Because if I had been -- if I had been drafted, I would make $21 a month, sleeping on the ground, dodging behind trees. And being black, I would have gone to the quartermaster; heavy, nasty, dirty work. But I wanted to fly.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

Because I had been making -- I had been putting together model airplanes and, of course, I knew that as a cadet I'd make $75 a month. And after nine months you become a second lieutenant and make $150 a month plus $75. So with the gold bar and the wings and the money and all the pretty girls, now which would you take?

Interviewer:

That makes sense.

Alexander Jefferson:

That makes sense.

Interviewer:

So that was your impetus for enlisting and this was during the war?

Alexander Jefferson:

Volunteer.

Interviewer:

Volunteer.

Alexander Jefferson:

Of course, I had to go down to the federal building in Detroit, took the exam, and the limit was 116 pounds. I weighed 115 and two or three ounces. The guy said, Go downstairs and drink some water. Went back upstairs and got on the scale, I was 116 and one ounce. That's how I made it.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

But I was skinny. Going through college I think I weighed 90 pounds dripping wet. But at least I survived.

Interviewer:

All right. So you passed the exam and what was next?

Alexander Jefferson:

Then he told me to go home. I thought I was going to go down to Tuskegee Army Airfield and go into the cadets. But they told me to go home and wait. That's why I went to Howard University for a year.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

And after -- In April of '43 I got a letter that said come to Tuskegee Army Airfield. That's when I entered the training at Tuskegee.

Interviewer:

Okay. How did you get to Tuskegee, by way of train?

Alexander Jefferson:

By way of train.

Interviewer:

Train.

Alexander Jefferson:

Train. And the old southern way, you go from Detroit to Cincinnati, change to the LNN, and you get to that coach right behind the coal bearing car with all the soot, nasty odor, segregation, discrimination. But, see, I had been through that, so to me it didn't make any difference. I knew how to cope with it.

Interviewer:

Sure, sure. So you were on the train going to Tuskegee. So when you arrive at Tuskegee, what happens? Start us there.

Alexander Jefferson:

Same old thing, you always arrive at Tuskegee, they make an arrangement, you arrive at Chehaw. Chehaw is a little station about 10 miles away from Tuskegee Army Air Base. And you always arrive at night. Psychologically they had you. And 10:30, 11:00, you're dumped off with five or six other guys at this little joint, little place out in the middle of nowhere, and a truck will show up, 15 minutes late. And, of course, you were harassed. The old hazing attitude.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

But I knew about this and to me didn't make any difference. I was prepared.

Interviewer:

Okay. What happened after you got on the truck?

Alexander Jefferson:

The usual thing of a hazing.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

You're a dummy and quite naturally you go through the process.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

See, you understand now, at least I understood because I did a little research, I knew about this, training some of these men to take orders, learning how to take orders and to follow directions. Many of the men had no idea. They had never been told how to take orders and to follow directions.

Interviewer:

Okay. So what was the process once you got to Tuskegee and the indoctrination process, your assignments and classrooms and what was that about?

Alexander Jefferson:

Classrooms. Well, normally -- well, the first two and half or three months you're in pre-flight, strictly indoctrination, just like basic training. Running and ripping and romping, classrooms and physical exercise. But primary, after two and a half months you go to primary which was your first induction into flying.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

You were sent over to Tuskegee Institute. By the way, Tuskegee Army Airfield is 10 miles away from Tuskegee Institute. The institute had a basic plan with the War Department. They provided primary training. The first time a man would actually get into an airplane was the PT-17, and it was a basic training with civilian pilots. Chief Anderson, Charles Anderson, was the basic instructor. He was -- No. He was in -- he was over in instruction with eight or ten other men, and this is where we had our first instruction in basic flying. After possibly 100 men start out, two and a half months later 75 men would graduate. 25 or 30 washed out because they couldn't take instruction. Some of them couldn't fly, uncoordinated. It was a combination of things.

Interviewer:

Right, right. So what was learning how to fly like as far as your primary training?

Alexander Jefferson:

It was exciting, first time in a Stearman, because we were in a Stearman, it was exciting, and I had a good time. I enjoyed it. Introduction to flying. But see, I had had 10 hours previous to that.

Interviewer:

Oh. Prior to going into the Service?

Alexander Jefferson:

Yes. This was off the beaten path.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

Approximately a mile and a half from where I lived, there's an airfield on the corner of Ford Road and Wyoming. Ford Road and Wyoming. I used to skip school, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th grades. I'd skip school for a day a week and walk out to this place and work and fool around in airplanes. This is where I used to wash airplanes and work with this guy, and he took me up for a flight. So, therefore, I had a little -- I had a little knowledge. By the way, I wasn't flying now, don't get me wrong.

Interviewer:

But you were used to flying.

Alexander Jefferson:

Used to flying.

Interviewer:

Okay. So after you finished primary, what was the next step?

Alexander Jefferson:

Then you go to basic. You go to primary over at the Army Airfield.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

This is the regular Army Airfield. But our instructors were officers.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

Now, the instructors at primary were civilian men, civilians. Instructors at the regular air base were officers.

Interviewer:

Oh, okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

These were white officers, by the way.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

Because by that time no blacks had been in the Army Air Corps long enough to become an officer, to have the experience to come back and be our instructors.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

So after two and a half months of basic training and a BT, basic trainer, then you graduate from that and you go next to two and a half months at Tuskegee and advanced trainer in an AT-6. The AT-6 is the one with retractable landing gear.

Interviewer:

Oh, okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

And approximately 35 or 40 miles faster.

Interviewer:

Okay. All right. So you progress through all your training. What was it like getting adjusted to military life for you? Was it -- what was it like?

Alexander Jefferson:

It was a change but you had to learn how to follow orders and to become militaristic. Some of the men didn't do it. They were washed out. They couldn't take the hazing. Much of the hazing was done friendly type, learning how to cope with the military training. I graduated and I got through it.

Interviewer:

So once you graduated, where did you go then?

Alexander Jefferson:

You receive your wings, second lieutenant, and you stayed right at Tuskegee for the next month flying the P-40. Usually you see the one, the single engine with the shark's mouth right there on base. Half of the class, by the way, half of my class went to single engine, the P-40. The other half went to B-25s, the two-engine bomber. Right on the base. We stayed there for one month getting added hours. Then after the one month we were sent to Selfridge Air Force Base right outside of Detroit at Mount Clemens. Selfridge.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

We were trained into the P-39, that's the Airacobra. The P-39 is the one with the engine that sits behind you with a long drive shaft underneath your seat --

Interviewer:

Right.

Alexander Jefferson:

-- to the propellar.

Interviewer:

Right.

Alexander Jefferson:

And a 37 millimeter cannon that fired through the propeller.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

We were trained in the P-39 because at that time three of our squadrons, three of the squadrons that had already been formed, were flying outside of Naples, Italy, in P-39s, coast patrol. And I was to be trained as a replacement pilot to that -- to those called the 332nd Fighter Group, the 332nd Fighter Group.

Interviewer:

And what is this, while we're here, what type plane is this?

Alexander Jefferson:

This is the P-51 Mustang. The P-51 Mustang.

Interviewer:

Okay. We don't have to get into it right now.

Alexander Jefferson:

We'll get into it because after I got over there, they were transferred from the P-39 into the P-51.

Interviewer:

Okay. Now, you were at Selfridge which is here in Michigan. You were trained in the P-39.

Alexander Jefferson:

P-39.

Interviewer:

And how long were you here at Selfridge?

Alexander Jefferson:

I was there from March to May. No, March to April. March to April.

Interviewer:

About two months?

Alexander Jefferson:

Two and a half months.

Interviewer:

Okay. All right.

Alexander Jefferson:

Flying the P-39.

Interviewer:

And how did you get from Tuskegee to Selfridge? By train?

Alexander Jefferson:

By train. By train. By train.

Interviewer:

Okay. That was the mode of travel.

Alexander Jefferson:

It was segregated mode of transportation during World War II.

Interviewer:

Okay. Were you able to visit home while you were at Selfridge?

Alexander Jefferson:

Oh, yes. Absolutely.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

On weekends. In fact, during the day if you had a car, you could drive -- I could drive home and stay at home and drive back. But it was inconvenient. I'd only go home on weekends.

Interviewer:

Sure. Okay. Go ahead.

Alexander Jefferson:

Training at Selfridge was the P-39, long range, mainly getting acquainted with the P-39. Oh, by the way, our instructors were Tuskegee airmen who had gone over with the 99th.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

Who had served with the 99th with the P-40 across North Africa. These men had put in their 25 missions: Charlie Dryden -- Charles Dryden, Stan Watson, and who was the third guy. God, I can't remember his name. But they were our instructors in P-39s at Selfridge.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

We had acquired possibly 200 hours and trying to clamor to get into the Officers Club. Well, that's another story. We got kicked out of Selfridge, literally.

Interviewer:

You mean you got kicked out of the Selfridge Officers Club?

Alexander Jefferson:

Out of Selfridge Air Force Base, period.

Interviewer:

Is that right?

Alexander Jefferson:

Our clamoring to get into the Officers Club, into Lufbery Hall, by the way, named after Lufbery, after the guy who discovered the Lufbery Circle. Our entrance into it, confrontation got to the newspapers, the NAACP and others. And one day I was out over Lake Huron flying gunnery where you're firing at a target towed by another plane. And the radio said, all officers report to the post theater on the double, as you are. Quite naturally you dropped everything, you stopped, you landed, walked to the post theater. And at the time there were approximately 40 to 50 black officers on post. Approximately 150, 200 white officers on post. The great majority of black officers were second lieutenants, possibly four or five first lieutenants. These were the combat veterans who had come back from overseas. We were milling around in the post theater, and as if what's going on, nobody knows. All of a sudden somebody said, Ten-hut, we stood up, hop to. Down the aisle strolls a two-star general. We said to ourselves, what the heck's going on? At, ease. Had a seat. He rambled on and on for about two or three minutes, and then these are the words I remember. These words stick with me. Gentlemen, this is my airfield. As long as I'm in command, there will be no socialization between white and colored officers. Are there any questions? What the heck are you going to say?

Interviewer:

Right.

Alexander Jefferson:

If there's any questions, I will deal with that man personally. Ten-hut. We stood up. He walked out. That was Thursday. They locked the gates. We could not leave post. White officers could leave. The significance is that we were under arrest. Saturday morning they backed in a Pullman train and put us on the Pullman train with all of our enlisted mechanics. All of our mechanics were black. That train left Selfridge, went to Port Huron, through the tunnel to Canada, across Ontario to Niagara Falls or thereabouts, then proceeded to go south. To this day we have never seen a PCS.

Interviewer:

PCS being what?

Alexander Jefferson:

Permanent change of station.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

Orders transferring us from Selfridge to Walterboro, South Carolina. 45 miles west of Charleston, 85 miles northwest of Savanna. A small airfield that was built along the eastern seaboard in case of an invasion. Staffed by a group of non-coms, white non-coms. When the train stopped, we jumped off quite naturally, pinks and greens, a new air base, and every 20 feet was a little white soldier with a rifle. And we were curious. Later on, five or ten minutes later they disappeared. We found out later that they had been told that there was a bad bunch of N, I can't use the N word, who had rioted at Selfridge Air Force Base and had been sent south. We were rioters. I was only at Walterboro Army Air Base for possibly two weeks, and my class was sent overseas. We were the replacement pilots. We went to Hampton Roads, Virginia, and we were sent overseas.

Interviewer:

Before we get there, now what actually happened at Selfridge? Did you try to enter the --

Alexander Jefferson:

Tried to enter the Officers Club.

Interviewer:

And they wouldn't let you?

Alexander Jefferson:

No. Had guards on the gate -- on the doors. We were rebuffed. Meanwhile -- oh, meanwhile they took a room in the barracks in building 304, and in one of the rooms put a wooden bar in there and said, Okay, guys, this is your bar. This is your bar.

Interviewer:

And so that started all this?

Alexander Jefferson:

That started all that mess.

Interviewer:

And so --

Alexander Jefferson:

The newspapers got it, NAACP had it. Quite naturally all of our parents knew about it.

Interviewer:

Were there any scuffles?

Alexander Jefferson:

No physical. No physical violence. Just the whole idea that we were denied entrance to the Officers Club.

Interviewer:

Okay. All right. Now you're back at Hampton Roads.

Alexander Jefferson:

Hampton Roads. We were put on a boat, and the boat zigzagged across the ocean. We had state rooms on the top deck.

Interviewer:

Okay. You remember what year this might have been?

Alexander Jefferson:

May. Oh, no, no. I know, because June 7th we were on -- June the 7th we were on the ocean, going across the ocean. D-Day. D-Day.

Interviewer:

What year was that?

Alexander Jefferson:

'44. June '44.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

We got into Oran, North Africa on the 9th. Yeah, 9th of June.

Interviewer:

Okay. So you zigzagged across.

Alexander Jefferson:

Yes, one ship all by itself.

Interviewer:

Okay. So where did you land in North Africa?

Alexander Jefferson:

Oran, North Africa. Through Gibraltar to Oran, North Africa. And then a small ship took us over to Naples the next two or three or four or five days, a week, I don't remember.

Interviewer:

How long did it take you to get across the ocean?

Alexander Jefferson:

Four days, five days.

Interviewer:

What was that like for a pilot?

Alexander Jefferson:

It was enjoyable. We were on the top deck sunning ourselves at the swimming pool. We had a ball. We had a good time.

Interviewer:

Okay. It was like an ocean liner then, not a troop ship.

Alexander Jefferson:

No, it wasn't a troop ship. This was an ocean liner. We had state rooms on the top deck. We had nurses. Oh, God, did we have fun.

Interviewer:

So now you're in Africa.

Alexander Jefferson:

Yes. North Africa.

Interviewer:

What happened then?

Alexander Jefferson:

We were only there two or three days, very uneventful. Got over to Naples, stayed in Naples two or three days. And then a truck ride in the back end of a truck, across Italy to Ramitelli. Ramitelli was our base where the three 100th, the 301st, and the 302nd squadrons. 16 airplanes to a squadron, with all the pilots, with enlisted personnel, and so forth. At that time, by the way, there were 15 -- my class -- Let me back up. My class is '44A, January A, February B, March C. I graduated January '44, stayed at Selfridge until February, and I went over to Walterboro in April, May, and got overseas. And I joined -- by the way, the truck pulled in, the truck with 15 -- There were 15 of us in '44A. The truck pulled into the air base the morning of June the 28th, a date I will never forget. June 28. They were taking off. The last mission at the 332nd was taking off. The 332nd, by the way, were flying P-47s.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

Thunderbolts. And we sat there at the end of the runway watching the takeoff. And we watched a P-47 start down the runway, pull up abruptly, stall, and go in.

Interviewer:

Wow.

Alexander Jefferson:

Our invitation to combat.

Interviewer:

Wow.

Alexander Jefferson:

That was mind boggling.

Interviewer:

Malfunction, was it mechanical or did he get shot?

Alexander Jefferson:

We still don't know whether the guy was -- what he did. We surmised that he was -- he had his trim tabs adjusted wrong. Sometimes we look back, we think about it, what an invitation to combat to see another guy die right in front of your eyes. But after all, nobody gives a damn. You're too busy surviving.

Interviewer:

Right, right.

Alexander Jefferson:

I was assigned to the 301st Fighter Squadron. Meanwhile, that was the last flight of the P-47s. So I was there for about two weeks, about ten days, and we were assigned P-51 Mustangs. They brought in brand new P -- no, they were P-51s from another group. The P-51s came from the 325th Fighter Group. They were checkered tails. Black and -- black and yellow squares. I started out with the rest of the guys in P-51s. Transition. And I made every mission. We started missions about ten days later. And I made every mission until the one I was shot down. But while we were flying transition which means you take off, fly four or five hours, and fly around, make 10 or 15 landings, get accustomed to the airplane. I was assigned to a tent with Othel Dickson. Othel was in the class ahead of me. O-t-h-e-l Dickson. Othel Dickson was a hot pilot. He took off, transition, and decided to do some hot flying, and he buzzed the tower. And buzzed the tower, pulled up in a slow roll, and fell out of it.

Interviewer:

Fell out of the plane?

Alexander Jefferson:

Missed the ground by 10 feet. Scared the hell out of everybody on base. Everybody on base quite naturally watched this. And to prove himself, he turned around, and I suspect to say that I could do better, and he did it again. And this time when he fell out of it, he went in. Halfway between our base and the 52nd Fighter Group. We find out that he was doing acrobatics. You see you have an 85-gallon tank sitting behind you, and the tank was full, which meant that the equilibrium and the center of gravity was off. Othel Dickson did not read the tech orders. In fact, none of us read the darned tech orders. We simply walked out, you walk to the airplane, and you crawled up into it, and the mechanic says here's the throttle, here's the landing gear, here's how you check your mags, and you take off. Typically today you're driving a Lincoln, so you get into a Chevy and say, here's the key, here's the lights, here's the brakes, here's the gear shift, and you go. All of a sudden Colonel Davis -- By the way, Colonel Davis, Benjamin Oliver Davis, Jr., mandated read tech orders. So we sat down and had a session on learning the tech orders on the airplane. I flew 18 and one-half missions. All the 18 missions were long-range escorts up at altitude. The 19th mission was the one we were strafing. That's when I got blown away.

Interviewer:

Those 18 missions, that was your initiation into combat?

Alexander Jefferson:

Yeah.

Interviewer:

Okay. And how was it in your initiation into combat, what was that emotionally for you, the first 18?

Alexander Jefferson:

It was exciting. Start out with 75 or 80 P-51s starting up their engines at the same time. Utter bedlam. It seemed like bedlam but its organized bedlam because every man knew exactly what he was doing. You're assigned to a ship, so you start, you get in it, and when you start up, everybody else all up and down the line, all the planes are starting at the same time, and you're strapped in. Your mechanic is strapping you in. And you're waiting for the starting. Waiting for the squadron commander. When he starts out, you're assigned a ship and a flight. Oh, first of all, you were assigned to an element leader. I'm a latecomer. I'm brand new. I'm assigned to an element leader. Here's the element, I'm number two, I'm here. Wherever he goes, I stay with him, the two of us together. Now, the element leader has a flight leader. A flight leader and number one and number two. My element leader is number three. I'm number four. So there are four of us in a flight. A, B, C, D. We are four flights to a squadron. Because there are 16 planes to a squadron. Four, eight, twelve, sixteen. And when the squadron commander who is number 1, he's A, A flight, he starts off, he pulls off. One, two, three, four, and they all pull off and all go down to the end of the runway to take off. We get to the end of the runway, there are four squadrons at this one long strip, two squadrons at each end. The 301st and the 302nd at this end. The 99th and the 100th at the other end. The 99th pulls out on the strip and they start one, two, three, four coming through. And as they go off, we're parked and we wait for them to take off. The 301st takes off the other way. Then the 100th takes off this way. And then the 302nd takes off the other way. When all of them take off together, they all meet up together, all 64 airplanes. 64 plus two on each squadron for those who might abort. Each squadron puts up two extra men a team, so that if anybody aborts, has trouble, somebody can take their place. When all 64 get together, we head out going north to rendezvous with the B-17s, the B-24s.

Interviewer:

Okay. And those would be the bombers that you escorted?

Alexander Jefferson:

Those were the bombers that we were escorting. And at a certain time, we take off at a certain time to meet them at a certain progress along the way. We may escort them from the beginning up to the bomb site, and by that time we turn them loose and another group would take over from the bomb site and bring them back. But it was all coordinated.

Interviewer:

Sure. So you did 18 and a half of those. Did any of those 18 and a half, did they get challenging?

Alexander Jefferson:

Oh, yes, there were a couple of times. My element leader shot down a German FW-190. I didn't even see the darn thing because I'm back here watching the tail end, keeping him in sight, but at the same time watching behind. I never shot my guns except on strafing. Oh, after escorting the B-17s, B-24s, when we were turned loose we could go down and see what we could find: trains, barges, tanks, whatever, trucks along the road. That's where we would fire there. But I never fired my guns at another aircraft.

Interviewer:

Okay. All right. Now, you mentioned on your 18 and a half, so that one-half flight, what happened? And what year was that and when?

Alexander Jefferson:

This was August the 12th, 1944.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

We were assigned to strafe radar stations on the coast of southern France. The 301st had a target outside the city of Toulon right on the cliffs. All 16 airplanes started out. We started in at 15,000 feet. First four guys peeled off, the first four, the second four behind them, the third four, and the last four go down and strafe these radar stations. Quite naturally when the first four start out at 15,000 feet, peel off, second, third, fourth, and typically if you've ever played whip, the last guy always got left, by the time the first guy starts in, they shoved everything to the wall quite naturally, and they're doing 400 miles an hour going across the top of the target. And by the time you came to -- I'm last. I'm tailing Charlie. I'm bubble blue 4. Oh, by the way, bubble was the code name of the 301st.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

Bubble blue. Blue was number 4. 4th. Red, white, yellow, blue flight. Bubble blue 4. Bingo, that's me.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

Look up and the whole side of the cliff, little red, they're shooting 20 millimeters, 37 millimeters, and you get to the cliff and of course the radio is yak-yak-yak and sparkling, radio is going mad. By the time I get there, I saw Danny, number two -- one, two -- I saw Danny when he got hit. We were doing about 400. Everything is in the red. And I seen him smoking. He goes off to the side. I go right across the top of the target. I got hits on the target. I see knocking hell out of the damned thing. All of a sudden, boom. I look up. There's a hole in the top of the canopy. Damned shell came up through the floor right in front of me with fire, and the shell went out through the top of the canopy. And to this day kids say, Well, Mr. Jefferson, what did you do? I said, Hell, you do what you've got to do. So I tell kids last night, they asked me, how did you get out? Pull back on the stick to get some altitude, and I still don't know how high, but it got hot and I had to get out. As the plane goes up, you reach up and pull the little red knob, and the canopy goes off.

Interviewer:

When you mean it got hot --

Alexander Jefferson:

The fire right in front. Of course I had gloves.

Interviewer:

Okay. So that bullet had started a fire when it came through?

Alexander Jefferson:

The fire came up.

Interviewer:

Up through the floor?

Alexander Jefferson:

Right from the floor right in front of the stick. And of course you had gloves, oxygen mask, and helmet. But I had to get out. And as you go up with your left hand, your racking the forward trim tab, you've got a little wheel that you turn. If you turn the stick loose, the nose goes down. These trim tabs. You pull it up anyway, and you turn the stick loose, the nose dips, and as soon as the nose dips, you had straps here, straps here, held by a big buckle. When you hit it, it came loose. Bang. When the nose dipped, I came out. And when the nose dipped, I came out. I remember the damned tail going by. I pulled the D ring. Pull the D ring and the parachute popped. When the parachute popped, I'm in the trees because I remember everything was green. I look over and somebody says, weren’t you scared? You don't have time enough to get scared. I drew the pictures in the book. But sitting right on the side over there, there was a German (German words). I said, Oh, hell, okay. You've got me. That was close.

Interviewer:

Now, where was this where you actually landed?

Alexander Jefferson:

Right there.

Interviewer:

What city, do you know?

Alexander Jefferson:

Toulon.

Interviewer:

Toulon.

Alexander Jefferson:

T-o-u-l-o-n, Toulon, right there.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

About a quarter mile past the radar stations.

Interviewer:

Okay. How many Germans were surrounding you?

Alexander Jefferson:

I don't know. Damned Germans were there. They got me. From there went to --

Interviewer:

How was it getting out of the trees? Were you high enough that your chute was stuck in the trees or were you hung up there or what was the situation?

Alexander Jefferson:

I don't remember.

Interviewer:

Did they have to cut the parachute down or did you have to release yourself and fall to the ground?

Alexander Jefferson:

I was close enough to -- I was close enough to get out of the dang thing and fall to the ground. Yeah, I was close enough. I was close enough.

Interviewer:

And they escorted you?

Alexander Jefferson:

From there, bingo. Enlisted men. They were enlisted Germans. They had me. And from there they brought Danny in, Robert Daniels. They went out and picked him up out of the water. He was afraid to bail out.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

They got him. And the two of us went up the Rhone Valley on the back end of a truck, and horse and wagon, train. We went up the Rhone Valley to Avignon. That's where we met Richard Macon. Macon was from the 99th Fighter Squadron and his target was 50 miles away. He doesn't remember getting out of his plane. We found out later, when we got back to the States, we talked to Shelby, Shelby Westbrook, and Shelby was on his wing. Shelby Westbrook said the shell hit the top of the canopy, and Macon done a half roll and then did an outside loop. Shelby says, when I went by him, he was going into an outside loop. When we saw Macon, his eyes were bloodshot, red as his tail. And every time we -- every time we'd shake riding on the back end of this wagon pulled by a horse, he'd pass out because he had a fractured -- a broken neck and broken collarbone. The Germans finally put him in a hospital. And when we got to Germany, I never saw him again until we got back to the States because they put him in a hospital.

Interviewer:

So were these individuals your classmates, a part of your class of '44A, were these Shelby, Danny, Westbrook?

Alexander Jefferson:

Daniels was '43K, the month before me. Macon was '44B, the month after me. Macon only had three missions. Daniels had 50.

Interviewer:

Oh, okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

He had 50. I'm right in the middle. I'm '44A.

Interviewer:

Okay. Now, tell us a little bit about your POW experience.

Alexander Jefferson:

We were escorted by two German enlisted men, and these enlisted guys treated us like officers. No beatings. No torture. They escorted us up to Frankfurt on the Main. That's where we were interrogated. Frankfurt on the Main. Formal interrogation. And food, we ate their cheese. They gave us cheese and grapes or whatever it was along the way. We ate whatever they got. We ate. They ate. We had no trouble with them.

Interviewer:

So all in all you were treated halfway decent?

Alexander Jefferson:

Treated decently.

Interviewer:

To be a prisoner of war.

Alexander Jefferson:

Yeah.

Interviewer:

So that was on your way there. Where did you finally go?

Alexander Jefferson:

We finally got to Frankfurt on the Main where we were interrogated, and that's where the guy said he knew more about me than I knew about myself. He had my complete high school grades, had all my marks at Clark College, knew all my marks at Howard University, even knew how much taxes my dad paid on his house. German intelligence, buddy.

Interviewer:

Did you ever find out how they got this?

Alexander Jefferson:

Well, when I got back I found out that you can go down to the county office, and at the county office you can find out how much taxes you pay and the guy next door. Somebody who was here funneling all this stuff back to Germany. When I got to Stalag Luft III, there were 5,000 white flying officers who had been shot down over German occupied territory. They knew everything about those guys also.

Interviewer:

Wow.

Alexander Jefferson:

Every time a B-17 went down, you had four officers: pilot, co-pilot, navigator, bombadier. On some of those raids they lost fifty B-17s. Go back next day, lose sixty. They knew everything about every one of those officers.

Interviewer:

Sure. Sure.

Alexander Jefferson:

German intelligence.

Interviewer:

Yeah. So you were interrogated, and I assume they wanted to know pretty much -- all that they knew about you but they wanted to know about your mission, the purpose, what was the purpose of it?

Alexander Jefferson:

They knew that I didn't know anything about the mission.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

When I got up in the morning and went into briefing, they said, you know, they pull back the curtain and the red line says southern France. I didn't know why. By the way, I did not know that the invasion was coming off on August the 15th. And the Germans knew that I didn't know. I'm simply a peon. All I do is fly, literally.

Interviewer:

So that old Army axiom, the need to know.

Alexander Jefferson:

That's right.

Interviewer:

The need to know.

Alexander Jefferson:

But simply to show that they knew more about me than I knew about myself, that's all.

Interviewer:

In essence, that would have been intimidating I guess to realize what these guys know, a little intimidating. You were at the Stalag --

Alexander Jefferson:

III. Stalag Luft III, 80 miles east of Berlin.

Interviewer:

Okay. What was that like and how long were you there?

Alexander Jefferson:

I was there from September to January '45. Like a country club. No beatings, no torture. The only thing, didn't have enough food. American discipline. The military discipline inside the camp. Senior American officer is the guy who spoke to the Germans. I never spoke to the Germans after that.

Interviewer:

Was that during -- did it get bitterly cold?

Alexander Jefferson:

It got colder than heck.

Interviewer:

Yeah, I would imagine, yeah.

Alexander Jefferson:

I was at -- that's the same camp that the guys went out through the tunnels in March, The Great Escape. They did that in March and April. I was there in --

Interviewer:

September.

Alexander Jefferson:

-- September.

Interviewer:

Through January.

Alexander Jefferson:

Through January. That's when the Russians started west. To prevent us from being captured by the Russians, they put us out on the road, and we walked 80 kilometers at 20 below zero. And the German guards, they were the (German words), the old men, gray haired. Hell, we carried their goddamn rifles for them.

Interviewer:

So the younger guys were on the front line, I guess, the younger Germans.

Alexander Jefferson:

That's right. In fact, they didn't want to be captured by the Russians either.

Interviewer:

That's what I heard.

Alexander Jefferson:

They were afraid of the Russians.

Interviewer:

Just as an aside, did you -- and this is probably up to this particular point, I'll pick up again at your Stalag; but as far as communicating with your family back home and that stuff all during that period of time.

Alexander Jefferson:

During that period of time never -- the letters -- I wrote home but I never received anything from them. Because they never -- the mail never caught up with me. I wasn't at Stalag Luft III long enough for the mail to catch up with me. And by the time I got to VII-A, Stalag VII-A, which was near Munich, I was still writing home. I never got any mail myself.

Interviewer:

Okay. Before you got shot down, were you communicating periodically with your family before you got shot down?

Alexander Jefferson:

Absolutely.

Interviewer:

And the normal communication process?

Alexander Jefferson:

Absolutely. It was normal.

Interviewer:

Okay. And you say you were -- now you were at VII-A. And that was another prisoner of war camp?

Alexander Jefferson:

Yeah, VII-A, Stalag VII-A. That's where all these POWs were being amassed because Germany was losing, and all these prisoners of war were being amassed at VII-A and some of these others. That's when Patton's Third Army liberated the camp on April the 29th.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

Conditions in the place were abominable. Flea, lice infested. It was horrible. The first -- when we first got there, we slept on mattresses filled with straw. We refused to go inside the barracks because inside the barracks there were the tiers, bunks made of 2 x 4 tiers, flea infested. It was horrible.

Interviewer:

Let me ask this. With respect to when you were in these various POW camps, did the Germans, did they practice segregation, they kept blacks or everybody together?

Alexander Jefferson:

There weren't enough to segregate.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

When I got to Stalag Luft III, I was number four black. Scotty Hascock (phonetic) was there, Woody Morgan, and Smith, with Daniels and myself. We were four and five. So, therefore, we went into a room with just like anybody else.

Interviewer:

Did you guys kind of stick together, all of you? Did the whites try to separate you from the rest of it?

Alexander Jefferson:

I went one way. Danny went another way.

Interviewer:

So the prison was integrated?

Alexander Jefferson:

Yes, definitely, yes.

Interviewer:

Okay. That's all I was trying to get at.

Alexander Jefferson:

I went into a room with -- Well, ironically, the rooms were so crowded, there were nine men in a room. So they took out a double bunk and put in a triple bunk. So they sent a man, a representative of each room to pick out the guy going into the room. There were about 150, 200 of us amassed, and each room representative came out to pick out the roommate. I'm standing there in line. I'm the only black. And down comes these guys picking out guys to go into the room. And a tall, hillbilly comes by and says, By cracky, I think I'll take this boy. Oh, God. Here I go again. Racism in Germany.

Interviewer:

In prison.

Alexander Jefferson:

Yeah. But standing right behind him was a colonel. And the colonel says, Lieutenant. Yes, sir. You go with him. Yes, sir. So I go with this guy.

Interviewer:

The hillbilly.

Alexander Jefferson:

Yeah.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

And here I go again. Racism, segregation. I'm a veteran here. Get into the room. Everything is great. The guys are great. And next day up and down the halls things are going on, all of a sudden security, security, security. What the hell you mean security? Security, security. Then all of a sudden the guys in the room open up books on the table. They're passports. What the hell is this? Then all of a sudden it occurred to me why I was chosen. They were sure of my identity.

Interviewer:

Oh, oh, okay. You could have been a German spy. Oh, I got you.

Alexander Jefferson:

This is the room where all the guys were making out the passports for the guys who were going to escape.

Interviewer:

Oh, okay. That's interesting. So they knew you could not have been a German spy.

Alexander Jefferson:

There you go.

Interviewer:

Based on the color of your skin.

Alexander Jefferson:

There you go.

Interviewer:

So how interesting was that, not necessarily giving out any public secrets, how interesting was that to be there?

Alexander Jefferson:

Oh, it was interesting. Sitting there and see how things are going on.

Interviewer:

So you were the center, you were kind of like in the center of the network there.

Alexander Jefferson:

Literally I was a spectator. I didn't take part in any of the -- I was simply a spectator. In fact, today in Detroit one of the roommates, Gill, happens to be living -- he lives in -- not Redford -- Rochester Hills, one of the guys in the room with me.

Interviewer:

That's interesting.

Alexander Jefferson:

In fact, we see each other every Tuesday in the Veterans Hospital, they have a session for POWs, every Tuesday at 10:00 at the Veterans Hospital in Detroit, and I see Gill every time. So we were there until April 29th. No. We were there at Stalag VII-A until April 29th, '45.

Interviewer:

Okay. So you were imprisoned for how many months?

Alexander Jefferson:

Nine months.

Interviewer:

Nine months. Okay. All right. Similarly you said it wasn't -- Go ahead. Go ahead.

Alexander Jefferson:

We were liberated by Patton. A couple days later we're sitting there waiting for transportation back to Le Havre for the boat to come home, and somebody said there's a place down there with a lot of dead people. What the hell are you talking about? They said they've got dead people down there stacked up like cordwood.

Interviewer:

Wow.

Alexander Jefferson:

We got a Jeep. We had to go find this place. You could smell it a mile before you got to it. Ovens were still warm.

Interviewer:

Wow.

Alexander Jefferson:

Dachau.

Interviewer:

Oh, boy.

Alexander Jefferson:

Thousands, thousands of dead bodies everywhere. The odor was horrendous. I tell everybody that ordinarily on Saturday during the summer everybody's barbecuing in your neighborhood, you smell barbecue, but the odor of human flesh is something I'll never forget. Horrendous. Table covered with rings, you know, great big pile, gold rings, diamond rings. Before you burn the body, you have somebody pulling off rings. Table -- another table covered with amalgam, the gold. Before you burn the body, you have somebody with a pair of pliers pulling out the goddamn gold and amalgam. And every time I give one of these lectures somebody says, Well, Mr. Jefferson, you know, the Holocaust never happened, it's a hoax. And I have to use the words I can't use on TV to describe how they took a bulldozer and dug a big trench and used it to push all these dead bodies over into this trench. Talk about horrendous. But then when I give a presentation to some young blacks, Well, Mr. Jefferson. Hey, wait a minute. Back up. Doggone it, what's going on in Burundi? What's going on in Kenya? What went on in Kosovo? What happened in India between the Muslims and the Hindus? What's going on in Iraq today where we've lost 3,000 men? By the way, do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shi-ite? No. Talk to blacks. Do you know the difference between a Tutsi and a Hutu? You'd be surprised. Ignorance. But that gets off on a different story.

Interviewer:

Of your nine months in prison, how would you characterize it? Was it all bad? Obviously you were in prison. How would you characterize those nine months up to your libration?

Alexander Jefferson:

To me it was instructional. I learned a heck of a lot, in terms of history. I learned -- I learned a lot about myself. I learned a lot to understand the world, to understand other human beings, to understand other ethnic groups, how to survive, how to survive and what a lot of humans will do to other humans. Man's inhumanity to man is the basics. When I came home I wanted to be a research scientist, chemistry research scientist, but I found out I'd have to go back to school for two or three years. And an opportunity came to become a schoolteacher. With a science background, I became an elementary science schoolteacher. Maybe it's the best thing that ever happened. I enjoyed it, had a hell of a good time, and got to have some influence on young people. Young people. But life is beautiful. Got married. Had one child, had a girl. She died ten years ago. My wife died in '70. So literally Tuskegee airmen, doing presentations here, there, wherever. I wrote my book to put my ideas on -

Interviewer:

Why don't you just hold it up and give us the title there.

Alexander Jefferson:

Red Tail Captured, Red Tail Free. Life of a POW. That's Margo. Margo had a mind that was wide open.

Interviewer:

That was a girl friend when you were younger?

Alexander Jefferson:

Yes.

Interviewer:

From Michigan?

Alexander Jefferson:

She's from Washington, D.C. Met her while I was at Howard University, and she sent me a Dear John letter. You know the old Dear John letters?

Interviewer:

While you were in Tuskegee or when did you get the Dear John?

Alexander Jefferson:

It was sent to me as a POW.

Interviewer:

Oh.

Alexander Jefferson:

As a POW.

Interviewer:

She didn't write it while you were --

Alexander Jefferson:

She wrote it while I was a POW, and I got it when I got back. I went to find Margo, and some of my good buddies took care of Margo.

Interviewer:

That's another story.

Alexander Jefferson:

That's another story.

Interviewer:

All right. I'm going to back up a little bit, but once you had been liberated and you and your buddies stumbled on Dachau. Now, how many of you decided to get into a Jeep to go investigate this?

Alexander Jefferson:

Oh, I don't remember. Five or six. Five or six guys.

Interviewer:

Former POWs, a mix of POWs?

Alexander Jefferson:

Yeah, just a mix of POWs.

Interviewer:

I know you sort of emotionally -- you were -- how old were you at this time?

Alexander Jefferson:

22, 23.

Interviewer:

Okay. Emotionally how did this impact you, that shock emotion, if you can go back and pick that up at that time?

Alexander Jefferson:

To tell you the truth, it was a learning experience. You've got to understand I'm a veteran of segregation. Some of the guys who went into the Army Air Corps and went south the first time, they were insulted, they were afraid. Me? No. Every summer when I was in Detroit, every summer my uncle used to drive from Detroit to Atlanta. We would go down U.S. 25, U.S. 27. I knew exactly where to buy gasoline. We did not have any McDonald's or Popeyes or Trisha's Chicken. We knew how to carry our own food. I went to Clark College for four years. I knew segregation, how to get around it.

Interviewer:

Clark is right in Atlanta?

Alexander Jefferson:

Clark is in Atlanta. Went to Howard University in Washington, D.C., the most segregated city in the United States. Never went downtown. Segregation to me was something to get by. I knew how to survive. So when I watched -- when I saw Dachau, it simply emitted the fact that I knew man's inhumanity to man. And I got back home. Oh, by the way, coming down the gangplank, boat steaming through New York harbor, waving the flag, Statute of Liberty, coming down the gangplank, coming back to the States, to get back to the bottom of the gangplank a little white soldier says, whites to the right and niggers to the left. Coming back home. But back to reality.

Interviewer:

So to pick up a little bit here, once you left -- got liberated, you saw the graves, and what -- how did you finally get back home? Did you go to a point of debarkation?

Alexander Jefferson:

We went from Stalag VII-A over about 35 to 40 miles to Lancet, an air base, C-47s flew us from there to Verdon. And when the plane landed, they told us, find your way up to Le Havre. Well, we had to pass by Paris. I said, Hell, no. So I spent two weeks in Paris. I was AWOL.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

And then lo and behold when I finally decided, I got scared, frightened, hitched a ride to Le Havre, checked in, and the sergeant says, Take a cot, lieutenant. I said, well, where do I sign in? He said, nobody signs in. We'll get to you later. I could have stayed in Paris another two weeks.

Interviewer:

So you boarded a ship.

Alexander Jefferson:

Boarded a ship.

Interviewer:

Was it a regular troop ship?

Alexander Jefferson:

Regular troop ship.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

Regular troop ship from there to London, from England over across the Atlantic. Took about a week, two weeks, a long time.

Interviewer:

So this is where you were introduced to --

Alexander Jefferson:

Coming back to the reality.

Interviewer:

Blacks this way, whites that way.

Alexander Jefferson:

Back to reality.

Interviewer:

How did that impact you initially and also did your parents know you were coming home, your family know you were coming home?

Alexander Jefferson:

I give them a telephone call. I give them a telephone call from New York. And I was assigned back to Detroit. And then a 30-day leave in Atlantic City. After which I was assigned back to Tuskegee Army Airfield as an instrument instructor for new cadets coming through. See, the program was still going on, and I was an instrument instructor back at Tuskegee Army Airfield.

Interviewer:

Did you ever get to Detroit once you got back?

Alexander Jefferson:

Sure. Back and forth.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

And by the way, during the 30 days, I spent a week, two or three weeks at home, two or three weeks here, two or three weeks there. I had a 30-day leave. Then after going back to Tuskegee as an instrument instructor, on the weekends you had the use of an airplane. Base commander said you can leave here at 1600 Friday, I don't care where you go, you can take this AT-6, just so you're back on base at 0600 Monday morning. So we'd fly to Detroit for the weekend. Four-hour trip, four-and-a-half hour trip. Or fly to Washington or fly to Dallas or go to wherever for the weekend. We had a ball. We had a ball.

Interviewer:

So you stayed in the Service until 1970 when you retired?

Alexander Jefferson:

I stayed in the Service until '47.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

We were kicked out literally because Tuskegee Army Airfield closed in '46. We were transferred up to Lockbourne Air Force Base. Lockbourne is right outside of Columbus, Ohio. I was there until first part of '47. '46, '47. I can't remember the dates. And got married. Oh, I got married at Lockbourne because my wife was a parachute rigger. (Pause)

Alexander Jefferson:

Picking up. Oh, my wife was a parachute rigger at Tuskegee Army Airfield. When I came back, I'm an instructor. I'm instructing new cadets and I see this young thing riding up and down the line on one of these little -- these little scooters. She packed parachutes. And we strike up a conversation and a friendship. So when Tuskegee Army Airfield is closed up and we're transferred up to Lockbourne, she transfers up to Lockbourne also in her job as a parachute rigger, packer. And while we were there, we decided to be married. So we married, and six or eight months later I'm cashiered out of the Service, and we go to Detroit. We come to Detroit, and we set up residence here in Detroit. That's when I go back to school and find out I'd have to do two years of chemistry at Wayne State University. Talked to a science administrator, science educator, and said, Well, Mr. Jefferson, with your science background, with a semester of practiced teaching, I can guarantee you a job.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

By the way, we were making $3,000 a year. That was big money. God, I think about it now. And as a veteran, an extra $1,000.

Interviewer:

Wow.

Alexander Jefferson:

Yeah. $4,000 a year. That's how I started out at Duffield, yeah, Duffield. Duffield School, Shane and Lafayette. Boy, oh boy. 1948.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

Yeah, 1948. Years ago.

Interviewer:

So now you're back. I know you mentioned some names of your classmates and friends. Have you stayed in touch with people in your class?

Alexander Jefferson:

Oh, yeah. Oh, yes. Robert Martin in Chicago. There are only like two or three of us still living. Robert Martin in Chicago. Bynum. What the hell is Bynum's first name? Bynum is in San Diego. O'Neil is dead. That's all. Just the two or three of us.

Interviewer:

Okay. Mr. Jefferson, how old are you currently?

Alexander Jefferson:

86. November 15th. 86.

Interviewer:

Just to sort of wrap it up just a little bit, I know you have a very fulfilled life it seems. Your wartime experience, and this is just a generic question, your wartime experience and everything --

Alexander Jefferson:

How did I feel?

Interviewer:

Yes. How did that affect your life, so to speak, and how did it feel?

Alexander Jefferson:

Military, the military life during World War II is the best thing that ever happened. It opened up tremendous opportunities. Opened up avenues. I think many times if the war had not come along, I more than likely would have been a science major or research chemist or something. But the adventure of going all over the world and the possibility of I've been all over the world. Space available. In the Reserves, wherever you are, if there's a seat on an airplane, you can go. During the past years I've been all over the world. Far East, Alaska, you name it. It's opened up everything to me.

Interviewer:

Okay. Between '47 and '79 during the Reserves, what did you do?

Alexander Jefferson:

I was in the Reserve Squadron at Selfridge Air Force Base.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

We were the -- during the Cold War we were in a squadron, recovery squadron. Recovery squadron. If the B-52s went to Russia and they returned, more than likely Selfridge and these other bases would be bombed. Where would we go to recover these B-52s. I was in a squadron that was set up, portable, very mobile. We were mobile. To go into any small -- any city and set up a base to recover these B-52s. Recovery squadron.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

I was the executive officer in the 5504th. Don't put that in there. 5504th recovery squadron. I was the executive officer. And as the exec, because I had wings and a teacher's certificate, I was in charge of OJT, on-the-job training for all the enlisted personnel. I was in charge of making sure that they passed the O-5, the O-7, the O-9, in charge of all the promotions. This in itself was exciting, just the responsibility, opening up new venues.

Interviewer:

Okay. I probably have two more questions. From a life -- I know you mentioned your military experience, but from a life lessons standpoint, what did you let's say learn from the military service?

Alexander Jefferson:

I learned one thing. Nobody loves you except your mother.

Interviewer:

Okay.

Alexander Jefferson:

Everybody in the world is crazy except you and me. This is on a self protective attitude. Everybody's crazy except you and me. And sometimes I'm not so sure about you.

Interviewer:

I've heard that before.

Alexander Jefferson:

It protects you that you're on the alert. You keep up your guard. Making sure that when you make a decision, you've done your research, and you know what you're talking about in order to back up your word. You find out your word is not very much unless you do your research and you come up lacking. As an officer, I don't want to brag, I made captain before the zone. As an officer there's a certain time limit that you're allowed -- that you're eligible to make promotion. I made captain before the time limit. If you're turned down the second time, automatically you're cashed out. I made major before the zone. I made lieutenant colonel before the zone. Because of the record. Because I've learned that you have to be twice as good. As a black man, I had to be twice as good to attain the same thing as a white man. I still say it. I tell young people this every day. I was at Birney Elementary School last night and spoke to a bunch of young people and told them you've got to be excellent, not mediocre. That old saying, just so-so. You can't be just average. Because nobody wants a dumb-dumb.

Interviewer:

Okay. Well, just one more, what are you doing now? I see that you're fairly active.

Alexander Jefferson:

Lallygagging, loafing. I'm always available for presentation.

Interviewer:

You make presentation to schools and kids?

Alexander Jefferson:

Schools, rotary clubs, churches, you name it. In the Detroit chapter, we still have our Detroit chapter, a speakers bureau. In fact, things come up.

Interviewer:

Okay. And in closing, I know you gave us quite a bit, but just in closing is there anything that you would like to say just off the top of your head or in general?

Alexander Jefferson:

Life is beautiful. You don't get a darned thing out of it unless you put something into it. My attitude, you've got to put something into it. If you're not viable, nobody wants a dummy. And I've often said you get out of what you put into it. Life is still beautiful. I told Bill, I'm just waiting until February the 5th, I'm on my way. Every year -- I'm available 11 months of the year to speak. But February belongs to me. I go to Hawaii and sit on the beach and drink Mai Tais every year. Tuskegee airmen, they're a group of us have been doing this for the past 15 years. It gets better and better every year.

Interviewer:

That's wonderful.

Alexander Jefferson:

Life is beautiful.

Interviewer:

Well, Mr. Jefferson --

Alexander Jefferson:

It's been a pleasure.

Interviewer:

It's been our pleasure. I just want to say, this is the Southfield Veterans Commission. Today is January the 16th, 2008, at the Southfield Public Library, and we've just finished interviewing Mr. Alexander Jefferson of the Tuskegee Airmen. Thank you, sir.

Alexander Jefferson:

Thank you, sir.

Interviewer:

Pleasure.

Alexander Jefferson:

Beautiful.

 
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