By Staff Sgt. Lindsey Maurice, 12th Flying Training Wing Public Affairs
RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE (AETCNS) Feb 22 06 - He stood silent, captivated by the hundreds of images on the wall before him. The memories of one of the most pivotal times in his life and American military history surfaced with every square foot.
The sepia images of pilots, navigators, bombardiers, maintenance crews and support personnel are displayed on the mural that runs the length of the hallway at the 99th Flying Training Squadron. It tells the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, a name hundreds of African-American men and women proudly carry.
One of these men is San Antonio native John Miles. Now 83 years old, Mr. Miles remembers when he was in his 20s as if it were yesterday. He had his whole life ahead of him when he left home for the aircraft mechanic journeyman rating school near Tuskegee, Ala., shortly after graduating high school.
“I had other interests at that time like playing sports,” Mr. Miles said. He had several sports-related college scholarships. But he had another calling. “As soon as I heard about Tuskegee I knew it was what I wanted to do,” he said. “I really wanted to learn a trade and work with my hands. It sounded like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so I jumped on the chance.”
The Tuskegee training base was relatively new when he arrived there. Before 1940, African-Americans were not allowed to fly in the U.S. military. After much deliberation, the Army Air Corps launched the “Tuskegee Experiment” in 1940, designed to test the ability of African-Americans to fly and maintain combat aircraft.
The Army Air Corps selected Tuskegee Institute as its hub because of its dedication to aeronautical training. It had the amenities, engineering and technical instructors and the right climate for year-round flying. It was the perfect place to become the center for African-American aviation. But the institute was by no means easy for those willing to try.
“Tuskegee was hard work,” Mr. Miles said. “We trained hard and we worked hard. But we knew what we were doing meant something. We were paving the way for future generations.”
Having to deal with racist people at that time added to the already stressful days. “We dealt with protestors outside the base every day, There were a lot of angry people who were against Tuskegee. They didn’t accept us and they made it clear every day. But we went on with life just the same. In the end we had the last say.”
Miles spent several years training and working at Tuskegee as an aircraft mechanic before taking a civil service job at Kelly Field in 1945. He said he was excited to return to San Antonio, but he would never forget his time spent at Tuskegee. “I have so many memories,” he said. “I remember seeing (the 99th Pursuit Squadron) deploy to Italy for the war. I remember the birth of my son. I remember all the great people I met there. It is definitely a time I’ll never forget.”
Working as an aircraft mechanic at Kelly for 26 years and retiring with 30 years of civil service, he had serviced everything from the P-51 Mustang to the C-5A Galaxy. Aside from his role in the integration of African-Americans into military aviation, Mr. Miles also helped with integration into America’s favorite pastime — baseball.
While he had always had a passion for the sport, he didn’t really start playing until he came to Kelly. While he was playing for the base team, the Kelly Field Brown Bombers, a Negro Baseball League scout saw him. He was immediately signed to the Chicago American Giants, earning $300 a month plus per diem. “Here they wanted to pay me to do something I love,” he said. “You can’t beat that.”
Since he was still working at Kelly at the time, he received special permission and used his personal time during the next four summers traveling and playing games seven days a week and twice on Sundays. “It was definitely hard work. We traveled all over the U.S. living out of a bus. But it was worth it just to be able to play,” he reminisced.
Miles hit 27 home runs in 1948, his second year in the league, to be among the league’s top hitters. The next year he led the Chicago American Giants to the second half Negro American League title. He also played with many baseball greats including Jackie Robinson, who went on to become the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball.
In 1951, he ended his professional baseball career in the minors playing with the Laredo Apaches of the Gulf Coast League - the only black player on the team. “It was difficult sometimes being the only black man,” he remembered. “I couldn’t stay in the same hotels or eat in restaurants with them, but I knew I was just as good a player as any other and I loved being on that field.” He went on to coach and manage local baseball and basketball teams over the next eight years.
He completed a law enforcement course at San Antonio Junior College and became a commissioned officer. He also became an international, free-lance photographer in 1991.
With so many life experiences behind him, Mr. Miles now spends his days educating today’s youth about the importance of working hard and following dreams. “The main thing I try and stress are three A’s — Attitude… Attend… and Apply,” he said. “If children can do that, they can do anything they set their mind to.”
Mr. Miles is the widower of Bernice Miles, father of six children and grandfather of 28. His children are all college graduates.