95-year-old Paradise Village Original Tuskegee Airman Proud of Impact and Accomplishments

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!)

What are the most important lessons you have learned?

The Legacy Project began in 2004, when Karl Pillemer, a professor of human development at Cornell University, began collecting advice for living from American’s seniors. He gathered 1500 responses to the question: “What are the most important lessons you have learned over the course of your life?”

People from all over the nation in their 70’s and above shared their advice and wisdom for living a live with no regrets. A summary of his findings can be found in his recent book, 30 Lessons for Living-from the Wisest Americans.

Here is a summary of some of their thoughts.

How To Be Happy: The consensus of the elders is that we can’t wait for external events to bring about happiness. They suggest we can make a choice not to brood negatively about life. Don’t think on any past shortcomings or failures. Learn what you can from them, resolve to do better, and live on. Almost all elders viewed happiness as a choice, not the result of how live treats you.

On Aging: “Embrace it. Don’t fight it. Growing older is both an attitude and a process”, an 80 year old man said. The experts advice to the young: “Don’t waste your time worrying about getting old.”

Maintain social contacts. Avoid becoming isolated. When an invitation is issued, say yes. Take steps to stay engaged, and take advantage of opportunities to learn new things. Although many were initially reluctant, those who moved to a senior living community found more freedom to enjoy activities and relationships then they had before.

On Regrets: Travel more when your younger rather than wait until the children are grown or you are retired. Travel is so rewarding that is should take precedence over other things younger people spend money on. Create a bucket list now and start whittling it down.

Vist the web site for more advice and Meet The Elders videos.  www.legacyproject.human.cornell.edu

Jazz 88 All-Stars at the Liberty Hall Theatre

Jazz 88 All-Stars at the Liberty Hall Theatre

By Robert Bush | Posted January 30, 2012, 3:57 p.m.

Last night, another in a an excellent series of monthly jazz concerts was produced by the folks at Liberty Theatre at Paradise Village. This time, the featured act was the KSDS Jazz 88.3 All Stars, loaded with some of San Diego’s premier, yet under-sung players.

“The All-Stars were formed about eight years ago to do a promotional jingle for the radio station,” says drummer Barry Farrar, who has hosted one of KSDS’ best programs for more than 30 years, the always entertaining “Percussive Profiles,” which airs on Tuesdays at 10-12 p.m.

What makes “Percussive Profiles” such a satisfying show is the fact that it’s put together by a jazz drummer. There’s never a lack of enthusiasm, or absence of inside information, and Farrar, obviously knows and loves, the subject of jazz drumming. He also features live interviews with many drum legends on the show, an extra treat.

Since it’s inception, the All-Stars have focused the bulk of their attention to a celebration of the music recorded on the Blue Note label in the 1960s, and related material, including some excellent originals that reflect a similar oeuvre.

In that spirit, the band burst out of the gates with a version of Freddie Hubbard’s “Gibraltar,” a smoking tune from that tradition. Farrar set up a quasi-Latin groove, then trumpeter Steve Ebner and tenor saxophonist Bob Campbell jumped all over the intricate theme before launching into excellent, idiomatic solos.

As a soloist, Ebner navigates the divide between the breakneck velocity of Hubbard and the more nuanced chops of Woody Shaw quite well. Campbell usually reflects a tone similar to Stan Getz but his lines are more intense, like someone who has studied John Coltrane’s early work as well.

Joining Farrar in the rhythm section were two cats I wish I heard much more often: the ebullient Mikan Zlatkovich on piano, and the powerful veteran Bill Andrews on bass. I remember being enthralled by Andrews’ playing some 30 years ago, and he’s even better now. Zlatkovich is a master of the piano, on the opener, he displayed his absorption of McCoy Tyner, but you can hear everyone from Art Tatum to Bill Evans in his wide ranging personal distillation of the jazz piano aesthetic.

On “Senor Blues,” Ebner blew bright, fleet-fingered excursions with frequent stops at the blues, while Campbell wound tight arpeggios and knotty improvisations with a clear and calm tone. Zlatkovich seemed to watch his own handiwork with an ecstatic wonder, and Andrews took it into the basement with a solo loaded chock full of double-stops and slurring asides.

Blue Mitchell’s “Fugi Mama,” was an island-flavored tune in the spirit of Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas,” and it bounced along joyfully, powered by the manic ornamentation of Campbell and the squeezed notes of Ebner, who shot skeins of scalar harmony into the rafters. Zlatkovich picked up the last line of Ebner’s solo, repeated it, then sent it into several harmonically related neighborhoods before unleashing a torrent of fresh ideas.

Jeffery Smith, the Managing Artist Director of the Liberty Theatre, and a celebrated vocalist in his own right, joined the band for a sensitive, yet powerful reading of Bill Evans’ “Detour Ahead.” Smith has a muscular baritone that retains the clarity of a Johnny Hartman, and the elasticity of Leon Thomas. He’s got a command of the emotional center of a ballad, and he makes you think about the lyrics.

Zlatkovich’s “This Is For Horace,” followed a brief intermission, and it was probably the standout moment of the concert. An excellent, swinging tune, this one also visited the blues in a deep, gutbucket fashion–eliciting exciting solos from the whole band, especially from the composer.

Wayne Shorter’s elliptical, modal masterpiece, “Speak No Evil,” followed. The pianist struck a free, rubato intro that set up the melody, and the furious swing and swagger of its groove. Campbell started out slow and easy, before erupting into altissimo register screams and squeals. Zlatkovich set dizzying streams of back and forth melodic ideas into motion and rocked some explosive block chord harmony. Both Campbell and Zlatkovich tossed in heavy quotes from another Shorter tune, “Witch Hunt,” for good meausre.

To close out this excellent evening of classic mainstream music, the band stormed through Duke Ellington’s ever popular “Caravan.”

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Photo by Barbara Wise