Biography of George Bolden
Lieutenant, 618th Bomb Squadron, 477th Bomb Group, Tuskegee Airman, USAAF
I was born in Pittsburgh, Pa. on September 2, 1925. I am the youngest boy in a family of five children, two boys and three girls. I am the middle child, with one girl and one boy older than me and two girls younger. My brother is three years older than me and my sister is two years older, my next younger sister is six years my junior, and the baby of the family is eight years younger than me.
Our parents were Jesse E. Bolden Sr. and Laulie Alma Sullivan Bolden. Both of my parents are graduates of Tuskegee. My brother and sisters are also graduates of Tuskegee.
I attended Tuskegee when I was in the Army Air Forces. I had the opportunity to serve in the segregated Army Air Corps during 1943 to 1946. I will relate my experiences when I served in the Army.
I took an early interest in flying. Charles Lindberg crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. I was a toddler of two years old at that time. He was acclaimed a national hero for his feat. When I grew up, every time I saw an airplane, I would say it was Lindberg. When I became a teen, I, like many of my friends built model airplanes, not the plastic ones of today but ones made of balsa wood and tissue paper. When I reached my sophomore year in high school, the school counselor asked me to select my high school courses. I told her that I was interested in becoming an Army pilot and an engineer. She did not want me to pursue these fields. The Army did not take blacks for pilot training and all the black engineers that she knew were not practicing engineering but were working in the post offices as clerks or mail carriers. I insisted that I wanted to enter these two fields. When we could not agree on a suitable course, she requested that I bring my father to school to discuss my options. I brought my father to school the next day and he requested that she allow me to follow my plans. This called for me to take a college preparatory course of study in high school.
I succeeded in my goal to become both an Army Air Force Pilot and Engineer. During the second World War, the Army reluctantly allowed blacks to be trained as pilots, bombardiers and navigators. The reluctance of the Army to train blacks was because of a War Department report generated in 1925 at Maxwell Field in Alabama. The war college report stated that blacks did not make good soldiers. It was reported that they would show cowardice under battle conditions. Blacks did not have the ability to fly airplanes because they lacked the needed intelligence and physical dexterity. This report was made even though blacks have fought in every war the United States has been involved in. In World War I, black troops did not fight under American Commands because the American officers used them only for Quartermaster duty or labor battalions. The black troops that were used in battle were under the command of the French, who had black troops of their own. The French used Senegalese troops who they considered to be top troops.
Due to pressure from the black press and other black civil rights organizations the Army, established a flying school to train black pilots at Tuskegee Institute, Alabama. An Army training field was built approximately 10 miles from the main campus. This was done to maintain the policy established by the Army of segregation. They would not integrate existing training facilities. The first class of black pilots finished the school in 1942.
During my sister's sophomore year 1942, I accompanied her back to Tuskegee. There I met and talked to some of the cadets who were in training at that time. This further increased my desire to become an Army pilot. When I returned home and finished my senior year in high school, I realized that the Army had dropped it's requirement of two years of college for Aviation cadets. I was determined to apply for cadet training. When I finished high school at age seventeen, I decided to apply for cadet training. I would not reach my eighteenth birthday until September so I had the summer to think it over. When August came around, I decided to try my luck at becoming an aviation cadet. I went to the recruiting office to volunteer for the Air force. I signed all the papers and had my parents sign papers releasing me to join. With my papers in order I went to the recruiting office to take the mental and physical examinations.
A group of approximately 100 men were taking the exams the day I applied. At the end of two days testing, those who had passed all the requirements were assembled in one room and instructed to return in the morning to be sworn in. Approximately 90 of us reported to the recruiting station on the following day. A sergeant called off the names of those who were to be sworn in. As the names were called, the men assembled in an adjacent room. However, my name was not called, I approached the sergeant and asked if he had forgotten to call my name. He informed me that my name was not on the list, and I questioned why. He said he did not know why and that I should go see the Captain in charge of the recruiting station. He directed me to the Captain's office. I entered the office and asked to speak to the Captain, when I got to the Captain I asked why my name was not on the list to be sworn in. He looked at the papers on his desk and found my papers. He then told me that I was a special case and my papers had to go to Washington D.C. for approval. I asked how long would this take since I would be eighteen very soon and would have to sign up for the draft. He did not know how long it would take but I was told to go ahead and sign up for the draft when I turned eighteen. This put me in a position to be called by the draft board and inducted into the services. The Captain suggested that I inform the draft board that I was awaiting a call by the Army Air forces.
On my eighteenth birthday, I signed up for the draft as the law required. I was called by the draft board for physical examination one month later. I informed them that I was awaiting a call from the Army Air Force to be taken into the services. They assigned me a status of 1A and sent me back home. A month later, the board called me again. I informed them I was waiting to be called by the Army Air Forces. Another month passed and I was once again called by the draft board, this time they informed me that the next time I was called by them to be ready to leave for the Army or Navy.
Finally on December the 16th, the Captain from the recruiting station called and informed me that my papers had been returned from Washington. I was to report to the recruiting station early the next morning to be sworn into the Army Air Force. He also informed me to be ready to leave for camp the night that I was sworn in.
We had just received word from my brother, who was in the service that he was coming home for Christmas on leave. He had just finished his basic training. I asked the Captain if I could delay going into the services until I had a chance to see my brother, who I had not seen for two years. He said absolutely no. If I did not report when he told me I would be considered A.W.O.L and subject to arrest by the Military Police. In some respects it was a relief to be called into the service because of my 1 A status. I could not get a job any place. I even went to a candy company to be employed to pack candy in boxes, but they refused to hire me. Parents walking down the street would give me dirty glances and wonder why I was not in the services with their sons.
I reported to the recruiting station the next day and was sworn in. Once again, I said goodbye to my parents and left town that night for my first Army assignment. My first Base was Camp Lee, Virginia. When we arrived at camp, we were sent to a special area for cadets. We were mustered out on the parade grounds by a noncommissioned officer. After we had received our required shots we were lined up and told we were Air Force Cadets and we were going to start our flying training in the morning. We were asked who wanted to fly the China Clipper? I volunteered. This was the first lesson I learned in the Army. Do not volunteer for anything. The sergeant in charge informed me that I would be awakened at three in the morning for duty. This was my only experience of K.P. the China Clipper was their name for the dishwasher.
After a week stay at Camp Lee, we were shipped by troop train to Biloxi, Mississippi. It took us almost three days to go from Camp Lee to Biloxi by troop train. We were stationed at a field called Kessler Field. Here we were subjected to more testing, psychological and psychomotive examinations. After a month of testing I was finally shipped out of Kessler field. The results of the tests indicated that I could be trained as an aerial crewman. I was shipped to Tuskegee Institute, Alabama. My first assignment at Tuskegee was to be assigned to the C.T.D. (College Training Detachment) were I would take some college courses. I stayed in the C.T.D. group for about two weeks. Then I was transferred out to the Army Air Base, where I was enrolled in ground school.
After two weeks of ground school, a group of approximately 80 cadet were mustered out on the parade grounds. Our Tact officer called us to attention and informed us that we would be shipped out in the morning. We were to be the first group of black bombardiers. First we had to go to aerial gunnery school.
We were sent to Tyndall Field in Panama City, Florida. At Tyndall Field, we were housed in permanent open barracks. Instead of being housed in the cadet quarters, we learned that the permanent party of black troops were removed from these buildings and placed in tents. This was done so that we would not have to use the regular cadet quarters. We were to be segregated so we would not mingle with the white cadets who were training there. Our class was composed of 76 cadets and four student officers.
The officers were upset about our not being able to use the cadet facilities on the base. Captain Coleman Young, one of the commissioned student officers, informed us that we should protest these arrangements by writing a letter to the Adjutant Generals Office in Washington. We said this would not work, because to send a letter through channel meant that the letter would be trashed when it reached the base commander's desk. He informed us that the way to do this was to send two letters one through channels and one from the post office in town. All the cadets and officers agreed to sign the letter as a protest of our situation. We were also informed by the base commander that when we wanted to go into town, we were to call the motor pool and a bus would be sent to take us. This arrangement was made to keep us from using the public transportation on the base.
One night we decided to test this plan. We called the motor pool and requested a bus. A bus was dispatched to our quarters and we got on board to go into town. When we reached the gate to leave, the base sentry demanded to see our leave papers. We informed him that we were cadets and did not need papers to go into town. He made a wise crack and one of us made a wise crack back to him. He demanded that whoever made the remark get off the bus. Instead of one person getting off the bus, all 30 left the bus. The guard panicked and ran to his guard shack and pulled out a Thompson sub machine gun which he turned on us. He demanded that we get back on the bus. We complied with his request. The sentry then called the officer of the guard, who promptly arrived. He tried to call the base commander to verify our ability to leave the base on the bus from the motor pool. Since he could not get confirmation, he requested that we return to our barracks, which we did. The next morning, the base commander sent us an apology for the incident.
All of the 76 cadets and 4 student officers who reported to Tyndall Field for gunnery training graduated. The base commander was informed that we could not go to our next training base until the next month. He did not want us on his base for that period of time so he arranged with the Army for us to have a months leave at the convenience of the government. During our months stay at Tyndall Field, we did not hear from the Adjutant General's Office. However, we assumed our letter to him had been not arrived. On our next to last day at Tyndall Field, we were told that we were to get our equipment together and ship any items we would not need while on leave and pack them in our duffle bags.
Trucks would come at noon time to pick up the bags and ship them to our next base. The trucks came at noon time and picked up our bags. While we were at lunch, the commander of the base brought the Adjutant General around to inspect our quarters. Due to the rush job packing our equipment our barracks were a disaster area. The Adjutant General said these sloppy soldiers did not deserve a leave and told the base commander to cancel our leave. The base commander did not want to hear this, so he asked that we be given a second chance. It was agreed that a second inspection would be made the next morning. Captain Young, one of our student officers, suggested we clean up our quarters and be ready for the inspection the next day. He also suggested that we have a spit and polish honor guard in place to honor the inspector. We cleaned our barracks and were ready for the Adjutant General's inspection the next morning. We were scheduled to leave camp on a troop train at noon. We waited around for the inspection and finally received word to board buses at 11:30 to catch our train.
Our next base was Midland, Texas. This was our bombardiers school. At Midland, they built quarters for us that were similar to the white cadets, but outside of the white cadet areas. They converted open barracks into individual rooms, there were four rooms on each floor of the two story barracks. Each room housed four cadets. Since we were not allowed to visit the white cadets areas, we were also given our own special club, which was built into the barracks. Our student officers were housed with us instead of having quarters in the Bachelor Officers Quarters. The base commander suggested that we stay on base as much as possible. When we would have parties he would arrange to have black W.A.C.S. come to be our female company. Once again we graduated 76 cadets to officers and the four student officers in our class. After we graduated, the Army did not know where to send us. Our white counterparts were shipped out all over the country to overseas replacement units. We stayed at Midland for two days while a decision was made where to sent us. Finally we had orders to be shipped to Godman Field Ky. where the 477 Bombardment Group was located.
The 477th Bomber Group was located with half of the squadrons (615th & 616th) at Godman and half (617th & 618th) at Atterbury Ind. I was station with the 618th Squadron at Atterbury. When we arrived there was a surplus of bombardiers. Some of us were without crews. Those of us who did not have regular crew assignments would fly whenever we had a chance.
One day after I had flown on a flight with one of the crews and returned to the ground, the Operations officer informed me that I was grounded. This meant I was not to fly anymore until I was cleared for flight duty. I questioned why, and was told that I was to go to the Flight Surgeon's office immediately. I returned to my quarters and put on a class A uniform and reported to the Flight Surgeon's office. When I arrive, a couple of my buddies were leaving the office. I went into the office and reported to the clerk who told me to take a seat. In a few minutes the Flight Surgeon came to the door and called into an inner office. Seated around a table in the inner office was a group of field grade officers, (Majors, Lt. Colonels & Colonels). They questioned me about my desires to be in the Air Force. They informed me that the results of my psychological and psychomotive tests indicated that I was qualified to train for any air crew assignment. Would I like to take pilot training? I said the reason I joined the Air force was to train as a pilot. I was told I was grounded until orders could be cut sending me back to Tuskegee Army Air base for pilot training.
My mother, in one of her letters to me had mentioned that they heard that this would happen. I did not believe it because it was not normally done. The usual procedure was to take cadets who washed out, failed pilot training, and send them to the other schools. So I returned to Tuskegee Army Air Base for pilot training.
Our first instruction when we returned to Tuskegee was training at the Primary Flying School which was a contract pilot school. Our class number was 45F. I was instructed by a civilian instructor by the name of 0. Alfred Anderson, who was called Chief Anderson. After 10 hours of instruction, Chief had me taxi the PT-13D training plane to the wind tee on the ground and told me to solo. I taxied the plane to a takeoff point and took off, I circled the field and made a landing. My second landing was not as good as my first, as I came in too high and too fast. This caused me to bounce two or three times. When I taxied to the tee where my instructor was standing, he said to me, you almost killed yourself that time, well go up and try it again, only don't kill yourself this time. My third landing was made without incident. Chief Anderson told me later that he would have soloed me earlier but he thought I was going to land him in the small creek that surrounded the field. Upon completion of Primary Training, our class of 31 student officers and 48 cadets moved to the Tuskegee Army Air Field for Basic Training. At the airfield, all the instructors and base officers were white.
After we moved to the base, we were told we would not use the BT-16 basic trainer airplane but would go directly to the Advance trainer the AT-6-D. The difference between the AT-6 and the BT-16 is that the advance trainer the AT-6 is a more sophisticated airplane, with a variable pitch propeller and a retractable landing gear. 25 Student Officers and 34 cadets completed primary flight instruction and made up the basic class of 45F. We had lost 6 student officers and 14 cadets in primary. With the completion of primary and basic training, we were sent ahead to advance training. In advance training, individuals were separated out to train in the two categories of flying, fighter pilots or bomber pilots. This choice was made by the instructors with aid of the scores on the psychological tests. I was placed in the bomber group. We were introduced to the B-25J, twin engine bomber. This was to be our training plane for advance training. After 15 hours of flying, I was permitted to solo in the B-25J. In our training in basic, we were introduced to instrument flying, this is flying in bad weather. We were taught in the air and also on the ground. The ground equipment was machine called the link trainer.
When practiced in the air we were placed in the cockpit with a green celluloid screen covering the windshield, the student donned red goggles which blacked out the windshield so that the student could not see outside of the airplane, but the instructor or passenger could view the outside to avoid collision with other aircraft. The link trainer was a ground based machine and was programmed by a technician to simulate flight. We were also introduced to formation flying. This was a technique used to concentrate fire power. The object in formation flying was to see how close you could fly to your wing man without the two planes colliding. This type of flying was particularly scary at night.
After 1 month of training in advance, we were graduated as pilots. Of our original class of 31 student officers, we graduated 10 pilots, for 32% success rate.
After graduation, pilots were required to keep their flying proficiency by flying no less than four hours each month. They were not really required to do anything else. The base commanders decided to assign other duties to the pilots and air crews to keep them busy. This was true after the war had ended. I was assigned to the function of being a Technical Supply Officer. My duties were to keep a warehouse stocked with all the spare parts for all of the equipment on the field, especially the air planes. This function required me to contact other bases to secure parts and keep track of the supplies we had on hand. After 8 months of duty in this capacity, I was transferred from Tuskegee Army Air Field, Tuskegee, Alabama to Lockbourne Army Air Base, Columbus, Ohio to once again join the 477th Bomber Group. I was not assigned to an air crew when I arrived at Lockbourne but continued my duties as a Technical Supply Officer. In line with my assigned duties, I had at my disposal a C-47A to fly to various Supply depots to pick up supplies. Most of these trips I flew as Co-pilot with General Chappie James. I became very dissatisfied with my duties because of a conflict. I was constantly being called to explain to the Executive Officer why I missed the orientation lectures when I was away on a supply flight. Records were put in my official files indicating that this was a breach of conduct for an officer. I made a decision at that time to get out of the Army so I could pursue my ambition to become an engineer. By the first of the year (1947), I was discharged from the Army Air Forces. However, I did join the Army Air Force Reserves, where I was a put on inactive status until 1954 when I resigned my commission.
----- George Bolden
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