Colonel Louis Hill, Retired Air Force, says he has a unique story. Hill is an extremely modest man with life experiences that would impress anyone, though he states, “I’m no one special.” Hill lives by his father’s expression, “Do the most good for the largest number.”
Hill was raised by his parents, both college graduates, which was a feat in their day. He was the seventh of eight children, all whom went to college as well. Growing up in the South at that time had its challenges. Regarding segregation, Hill believed that “five percent of the population was in favor, another five percent against, and the balance just went along to get along.” It was not until age 16 that Hill was told “Go to the back of the bus!” Hill humorously added, “mainly because they did not have buses in my hometown.” He later married his college sweetheart Ecra Yvon Jett, and they had beautiful daughters Myrna E. Hill and Ecra Elaine Hill.
Hill taught high school following his Bachelor’s Degree in Chemistry and Mathematics fromAlabamaStateUniversityin 1938. He was deferred for entry into the military at that time. In 1942, he was drafted as a “buck” Private at the age of 26. Three months later he found himself in officer’s training and three months later a new 2LT officer in the Army Air Corps. His goal was to get to the Tuskegee Project which was formed in 1941 from political and social pressure, though he never formally submitted an application to the program. He made himself a nuisance in his pursuit, and was transferred 16 times before landing in the exact place he wanted to call his military home at the Tuskegee Army Airfield in September 1943. The Tuskegee Airmen were training to becomeAmerica’s first black military pilots in segregated units. Eleanor Roosevelt was a major champion of the Project, telling her President husband “those men can fly!”
Hill was 26 years old joining this testing ground and was called “The Old Man” in the group. He chose not to apply as a pilot, but rather wanted to work others through the program—a mentor and educator at heart. He worked in Cadet Classification in the Psychological and Motor Skill Testing Sections. His job was to ensure the program was successful by screening for candidates who were both stable and could withstand extreme stress. The personality and Psych tests, and the pressure to become two to three times as good as non-black counterparts, were key to the viability of the project. Hill was most proud of the caliber of candidates and colleagues he worked with atTuskegee. Black enlisted men were what Hill described as “extraordinary.” They were men of character and ambition with Master and Doctoral degrees, but were not seeking entry into the officers’ ranks at that time. At the beginning of the project, only five black pilots graduated the first year. Just before military segregation ended, 940 fighter pilots graduated in total. Tuskegee Airmen were considered any service man or woman that took part in any aspect of the fighter group, not just the pilots. Hill firmly believed that war was transitory and they would win the war. He taught and encouraged all he worked with to develop marketable skills to use following in peacetime.
The Tuskegee Airmen broke through a barrier of ignorance and proved that black men would handle themselves equally among the officers’ ranks, as brave countrymen, and outstanding aviators. Respect came from white fighter pilots who showed appreciation by nicknaming the black airmen the “Red Tail Angels.” These white pilots knew they were led to successful missions and safely returned back to base as a result of the black unit’s skill and bravery. The Army Air Corps’ 332nd Tuskegee Fighter Group and its four squadrons (the 99th, 100th, 301st, and 302nd) were commanded by West Pointer COL Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. who was an honors graduate, but endured discrimination and isolation by peers at the Military Academy all four years.
The war ended in 1945. Hill discovered his strengths, expertise and leadership in Logistics. He was transferred to Hawaiiand joined a group to prepare a separate location for the 477th Bombardment Group. Hill didn’t have enough points to make him eligible to get out of the service. There was an effort, where possible, to have black officers command black companies. In 1945, Hill deactivated these seven companies, and then activated the 10th Air Ammunition Squadron, and commanded as a Captain. He was quite proud, and rightly so, of their deficiency-free distinction. It was not until 1946 when Hill would be accepted as equal and received officer’s housing. In 1947, the United States Army Air Corps became the Unites States Air Force. In 1948, full integration occurred in theU.S. military.
Further along in Hill’s service he became a staff officer at the fighter wing headquarters in Columbus, Ohio. Four black fighter units and one bomber unit transferred to Ohioand were nicknamed “The Black Air Force,” Hill worked with an inspiring group of officers who shared his philosophy to lead and mentor. Later, Captain Hill was chosen to go on to AdvancedOfficersSchooland graduated in the top 10 percent. He was one of the first black officers and the only representative from the newly formed Air Force at the time. Hill moved on to Strategic Air Command and was promoted later to Integrated Major. He transferred to Englandand commanded the 3918th Maintenance Supply and Services Group. Major Hill always pushed for mainstreaming his career as a military officer. When asked about leading “Red Necks,” Hill stated, “I have no problem with them. They will be the ones with a problem.” Hill served in many other positions and locales in the service. In 1964, Hill was promoted to Colonel. His career in Air Force Logistics continued as Deputy Wing Commander for the 6200th Material Wing in support of all ofSoutheast Asia. Hill was ultimately assigned to Aerospace Defense Command as Commanding Director of Supply and Services for all radar sites of the world, as he managed four billion dollars of inventory. On June 1, 1971, Colonel Hill retired from active duty joining at that time thousands of original Tuskegee Airmen. Upon retirement, Hill was awarded the Legion of Merit.
Segregation was an interesting time in history and in Hill’s life and military career. Hill shared, “I always believed the movement that integration would occur.” He painted a picture of the ridiculousness of segregation.
Two days after Hill’s military retirement, he was employed by Northrop Aerospace Industry inLos Angeles. His great work and mentoring continued in the Aerospace Industry, retiring again after 10 years as Corporate Director of Logistics Engineering. He later became a community volunteer.
Hill was honored by President Clinton as one of the original Tuskegee Airmen on V Day at the 50th Anniversary inPearl Harbor. In 1995, Hill was an advisor to a documentary on the Tuskegee Airmen.
Ten years ago, Hill joined 15 other “originals” and rode atop the “Tuskegee Airmen: A Cut Above” float in the 121st Tournament of Roses Parade. In 2007, Hill, along with other original Tuskegee Airmen, was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President George W. Bush. President Bush autographed his award photograph with the words, “With Respect and Appreciation.” On 11/11/11, Hill was honored at the Nellis Air Force Base Veteran’s Day celebration and air show among other Tuskegee Airmen. Most recently, George Lucas’ film Red Tails, a story about the Tuskegee Project, was released in theatres everywhere. Lucas invited Hill to theHollywood preview where he wore his uniform and ribbons. Two days later, Hill was honored by the City ofLos Angeles and offered an interview with ABC news.
When asked about his greatest life accomplishments, Hill reflected, “I am proud of the impact I had on the Tuskegee Airmen. They deserve all the recognition and then some. I am also proud of the impact on men—officers and enlisted—year after year. I believe I inspired them to do something with their life. We all had everything to gain and nothing to lose.” Hill always stressed accomplishments instead of the individual people. He taught, “If you believe in yourself, you can do anything!” Hill’s biggest regret, “I wish I had finished a book about all of this that I started 10 years ago.”
(Editor’s note: Colonel Hill will be receiving an audio recorder as a gift fromParadiseVillageto help complete his life’s work and experiences in writing!)