Two Black men recall serving in Air Force after integration

Published: Aug. 14, 2020 at 2:58 PM CDT|Updated: Aug. 14, 2020 at 4:59 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Two retired Air Force sergeants were some of the first African-Americans to serve in the military after integration in 1948. The men have witnessed decades of change in our country.

William Hayes and Edward Medlin Both joined the Air Force in the 1950s and met in Germany in 1967.

In July of 1948, President Harry Truman issued an executive order putting an end to segregation in the armed forces and ordering the full integration of the military.

“Our wives and kids got to know each other in Germany, so we became friends and been that way ever since,” Medlin said. “It was not so much about me and Bill. It was about our families.”

The two friends were a part of a changing military, bearing witness to the civil rights movement as the country they served was making changes.

“I joined the service in 55, a lot of these things were going on now. I’m in the service, watching them happen,” Medlin said.

Along the way, the two friends were finding their path in a newly integrated Air Force.

“I got to Texas, and then again I was the only Black in the shop,” Hayes said. " I had a few problems.”

In the military, Medlin said the shared experience between Blacks and whites was discipline.

“So you’re able to adapt and deal with people, but were the white people able to adapt and deal with you. I learned some were and some weren’t,” Medlin said.

Hayes said things were usually OK on base, but when they left the base, the Blacks and whites separated.

“The French soldiers used to laugh at us, you know. You guys fighting for this country and you can’t go drink a beer with the guys downtown,” he said.

During their time in Germany, Hayes and Medlin began to get along with a group of men they were working with.

“They were in the American military but they were German nationals. They were from Germany, so we just clicked and we would go out to the bars and all, have drinks and became friends,” Hayes said.

The men continued to make friends in their retirement. Passing on their decades of knowledge to a much younger generation, volunteering as greeters at Howard Kennedy Elementary School.

“I saw a lot of kids that need help and I was trying to do what little I could to try and steer them in the right direction,” Medlin said.

Now the two men are witnessing protests for social change, which they say is taking on a different look.

“What appealed to me more than about anything else, no longer is it just Blacks doing this, other persons are saying this -- somebody is saying ‘why don’t we live up to what we say we are?‘” Medlin said.

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