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Authors: Walter J. Boyne

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BOOK: Air Force Eagles
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Marshall was fidgeting. Johnson's personality was so powerful that he hesitated to interrupt. Finally he said, "That's not the real reason I left, Colonel. I had a good deal here, checked out in both P-47s and B-25s. I'd have stayed as long as they'd let me, enjoying myself. I got out because my wife couldn't take it. There wasn't any base housing then, and we were living in an old run-down boarding house, cooking on a hotplate, fighting off the cockroaches. That wasn't the worst of it. She's a teacher, and they needed teachers badly in Columbus. The school board wouldn't hire her, even though there were other black teachers. A friend told her why she wasn't hired. The school board didn't want any 'uppity Negro woman from the base.' The fact that I was an officer kept her from getting a job."

"Why did you stay in the Reserves?"

"Colonel, I shot down two planes in Italy. If there's ever another war, I'm going to get three more and be the first Negro ace. So, I had to keep my hand in."

Bandfield pressed the issue with Johnson. "If you can't get fair treatment collectively as a segregated unit, how do you expect to get fair treatment individually in an integrated service?"

"I don't. The service has never been fair to me, not at West Point, not at Tuskegee, not in Italy, not here. But I don't care, not as long as I get to show what I can do." There was a slight shift in his tone as he reverted to his formula presentation. "And that's all that any Negro should demand. No preference because he's a Negro, but no handicap either."

Johnson suddenly leaned over to Marshall, striking like a cobra. "Damn it, John, you should never have left us. I need people like you, and you walked out on me. You should have told your wife to learn to take it. We're not going to change things by running. I've taken everything they've thrown at me ever since I entered West Point, and I'll keep on taking it."

Obviously taken aback, Marshall hesitated. ". . . Colonel, I didn't think you even knew who I was when I got out."

Johnson, obviously controlling his emotions, replied in a raspy near whisper. "I know
everyone
in my command, officer and enlisted. I keep people at a distance because a commander has to. But I had plans for you."

"I'm sorry, Colonel ..."

Suddenly Johnson stood up, close to losing his iron composure. "Enough of this. You go back to your big job with McNaughton, flying rocket planes—there are plenty of other good pilots here."

There was a stunned silence and then Johnson said in a broad, commanding tone, "Now get out of here, both of you. Colonel Bandfield, you can tell your Mr. Assistant Secretary Ruddick that Lockbourne is doing just fine. And you can tell him that no matter how he fights it, integration's coming!"

*

Palmdale, California/September 27, 1947

Ginny collected appreciative looks like hookers collect sailors. Now she was enjoying some from herself, leaning forward into the tri-fold mirror in their bedroom, cherry-red lips almost kissing their image. She was an ardent movie magazine fan and had devoted a lot of thought to her switch from a summer Lana Turner look to her own version of Rita Hayworth. Mouth slightly open, she was practicing a head-tossing laugh to check the bounce of the hair she'd brushed to curve over her right eye.

With a parting sigh, she rose to go in to give her husband another little dose of encouragement. Quick-marching out, she winked into the full-length mirror in the hallway, liking the way she moved, shoulders straight and sweater tight. Without knocking, she entered the spare bedroom that her husband used as a combination gym and den.

Ginny watched him exercise for a few moments, knowing he liked to show off for her, all the while contrasting the apartment-house beige of the ten-by-ten room with the luxury of her family home in Little Rock. Their drab apartment was exactly like the other twenty in the building, the building exactly like four others on the street. In a city it would have been subsidized housing; here it was where the engineers and pilots from Muroc lived. Finally, she drawled, "Like I was saying, this Marshall must think he's some kind of airborne Jackie Robinson."

Stan groaned as he finished his push-ups. She was off again! He loved her madly, but she drove him crazy.

"Listen to me, Stan, please! I'm tired of being a poor captain's wife, living in this desert-rat shanty. What's the point in my having a big-wheel daddy if you won't let him help you?"

Coleman stood up, not for his rights, but to do jumping jacks, pounding the shaky linoleum floor and bouncing the pictures on the wall in the next room. Six-feet tall, his blond hair was sweat-knit into a cap of curls.

Her tongue flickered over her lips, wondering if she'd ever be able to make him realize his potential. He was a big, good-looking man, a curly-haired Van Johnson type, and that counted in the Air Force as it did everywhere. With his looks, her brains, and her daddy's influence, he could go all the way to the top. If only he had her daddy's gumption, his get-up-and-go!

Stan got up and went, fleeing into the tiny bathroom to brush his teeth. Following, she nudged the door open with her foot, watching him with a tingling mixture of desire and frustration. Ginny loved his wide-set, heavy-lidded eyes; when he listened, they closed slightly, as if there were nothing more important in the world than what the speaker was saying. He had the leanly muscled physique of a tennis player; after they made love she liked to lie with her legs wrapped around him, squeezing him dry.

She stood there arms crossed, her foot tapping impatiently. Coleman had a battered metal tube of Ipana toothpaste on the edge of the sink and was forcing out a last spurt of the yellowish paste with the edge of his toothbrush.

"Staving off death again, Stan?"

Coleman shook his head sheepishly. His fear of death was quirky, bound up in a rueful conviction that only so many things remained to him—so many meals, so many Cokes, so many tubes of toothpaste. He was always stringing things out, getting the last squeeze from the tube so he wouldn't take another—perhaps the last!—from his fate-fixed supply. He fought this battle even with sex, rationing their encounters, firmly convinced that he had only so many orgasms allotted to him, intent on spreading them out. She could never convince him of her own use-it-or-lose-it philosophy.

He turned and, mouth foaming, shot her a wink, relying on his infectious good humor to soften her mood. Rinsing, his automatic broad smile snapped open as swiftly as a camera shutter to reveal even white teeth.

Immune to the grin, she asked, "When are you going to stand up for your rights?"

"Look, pussycat, your dad's already helped me, just getting me assigned at Muroc. I can't just go in and demand to fly a secret test aircraft."

"Some secret! Everybody knows about it. The real secret is that the test pilot is a jigaboo. And a civilian at that!"

"Don't talk like that, honey. Marshall got two kills in Italy, and he's one hell of a pilot." He put his hand out to her shoulder and she shrugged it away.

"If the Air Force can let a West Virginia hillbilly like Yeager fly Bell's airplane, I don't know why they can't let you fly the McNaughton. You know what they're saying out at Pancho's—the first man to break the sound barrier will be able to write his own ticket."

The reference to Pancho Barnes's ramshackle watering hole, which served as an informal club for the top test pilots, made him uncomfortable. A light drinker—there were only so many coming to him—he felt completely out of place at the boozing contests that went on there every night. Ginny loved it, drinking hard and then often going off to ride horseback with the other pilots at night. At least he hoped she was riding horseback.

"Yeah, sure, if he doesn't bust his ass! Nobody knows what will happen. The airplane could break up or go out of control."

"Yeager wouldn't be so hot to trot if he thought he was going to kill himself. I can't believe it's any more dangerous than what you're doing."

He hated it when she tried to sound knowledgeable. She couldn't tell a brick from a biplane, but that didn't keep her from speaking with authority. It came with the rich-father territory.

"Honey, I don't want you to do anything dangerous, I just want you to get ahead. If I don't push you, you'll just hang around flying airplanes for the rest of your life. There's no money in that, and no rank, either."

She was right. He liked to fly airplanes—and that wasn't enough to get ahead, not in peacetime, not with the Air Force melting like a lump of ice cream on a hot sidewalk. Promotions had been assured during the war, as the military expanded and the leaders were killed off. As soon as Japan surrendered, the services had collapsed in a frenzy of demobilization.

Ginny bored in. "Tell me this. How could a die-hard Southerner like Troy McNaughton ever let a colored pilot fly his airplanes anyway?"

He tossed a towel on the molding heap in the corner of the bathroom. "Hell, he probably never met the guy. From what 1 hear, McNaughton's all wrapped up in their secret programs in San Diego. I've never seen him at Muroc."

They were quiet for a while, then she said in the low, slow voice she used when her mind was made up, "You know, maybe I'll just talk this over with Daddy. He'll know how to handle McNaughton."

*

Muroc Army Air Base, California/October 7, 1947

Trucks jammed with racks of communications and telemetry gear were parked around the hangar doors like jackals feeding on a carcass. As signals from the twin SCR-584 radars filled the green screens, the men inside moved like a surgical team, keeping conversation at a minimum, eyes constantly flicking from the instruments to the aerial ballet unfolding above them.

A technician in a white jacket reached across the console to adjust a knob and the operator slapped his hand away.

"Hands off, Jack, I got this baby tuned the way I want it."

The team members' edginess was honed by the pervasive film of white grit intruding into instruments and lungs, as abrasive as the long-running competition between Bell Aircraft and McNaughton to build the first supersonic plane. Bell had gotten off to a faster start, but it had followed a more methodical test program; so far its bullet-shaped XS-1 had reached only .92 Mach. The McNaughton had been delayed in production, but its test program had rushed it ahead of the Bell entry. Last week, the swept-wing MS-447 had touched .95 Mach. Today it was going to try to go supersonic, to shatter what
Popular Science
called the sound barrier and what they hoped was a myth.

In the clear blue desert sky twenty thousand feet above them, tucked like a baby kangaroo in the B-29's bomb-bay pouch, the sleek research plane's white skin was frost-crusted from the chilled liquid oxygen in its fuel tanks. The bomber, its undersurfaces still painted in wartime black, droned in a holding pattern, waiting for permission to drop. One P-80 chase plane was escorting the bomber, another was positioned five miles ahead to pick up the rocket plane after it had expended its fuel and was gliding back.

A gray Cadillac pulled up and Troy McNaughton catapulted out of the back, shouting "Don't let them drop." Grabbing Bandfield by the arm, he pulled him into the hangar. "Goddamn it, why didn't you tell me Marshall was a Negro?"

The two squared off like fighting cocks, not for the first time in their lives. McNaughton was an inch taller and forty pounds heavier than Bandfield, but the younger man was in far better condition. As they stood there glaring, fists clenched, Bandfield remembered another day at Muroc when he'd almost hammered McNaughton. Four years had passed since then, and time, sun, and whiskey had not been kind to Troy. His once-silver hair hung yellowish-white over a florid face dotted by suspicious-looking brown spots, large and hard-edged.

Controlling himself, Bandfield moved back and said, "Look, General Varney called you and told you why I'm here—to ride herd on you! You saw my orders—and I'm going to protect the Air Force's interest. I don't care if the pilot is black, blue, or purple as long as he can fly the airplane."

"He's a friend of yours! They showed me your letter of recommendation."

"Sure, I recommended him. And he's been doing a great job. He'll make McNaughton famous when he goes supersonic today."

McNaughton motioned Bandfield to follow him into one of the tiny glassed-in engineering offices that lined the hangar. The dusty cubicle was in normal GI disarray, filled with wall charts showing which airplanes were in commission and which parts were in short supply. A stack of seven squared-off baseball betting pool sheets recorded the Yankees' recent World Series win over the Dodgers.

The older man slammed the door, then lowered his voice.

"Frank, you're supposed to be here to help me. Now, goddamn it, do it! I've been spending all my time on the ballistic missile program. I didn't even know that Marshall was colored, but now someone's tipped off Milo Ruddick! He asked me if I knew my test pilot was a nigger! 1 felt like a damn fool."

Bandfield suddenly understood his uneasiness about Ruddick; the man was playing a double game, pretending to be open-minded about integration when he was really a segregationist at heart.

Sputtering, his red face a patriotic flush against his white hair and blue suit, McNaughton went on. "Ruddick tells me that if I make a hero out of this nigger, I'll never get another contract."

"Milo Ruddick's too smart to say something like that, even if he believed it. And even if he did, you can't let some bastard bigot tell you what to do."

"Hell, I let everybody tell me what to do. Look how I let Varney shove you down my throat."

The older man picked up a dusty tech order and slammed it down on the battered desk. "Ruddick is calling the tune for Defense, and when he plays, I dance."

Bandfield modulated his voice carefully, masking his anger with sweet reason. "Wait a minute,
think
about this! You've got the entire range alerted, the telemetry is up, and we've got two P-80 chase planes just about ready to run out of fuel! You can't afford not to drop. The next time Yeager flies, he'll break the sound barrier, you can be damn sure of that! There'll only be one first time, Troy. If Yeager's first, Bell will pick up all the marbles."

BOOK: Air Force Eagles
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