It’s often asked what everyone can learn from America’s greatest generation, a term used to recognize those who lived through the Great Depression and fought in World War II.
What about selflessness?
Veteran Oscar Gadson Jr. exudes that quality.
Gadson, who is 100 years old, had the rare distinction of being both a Tuskegee Airman and a Buffalo Soldier in World War II. The Tuskegee Airmen constituted a famed group of African-American fighter pilots in the U.S. Army Air Corps, a precursor to the U.S. Air Force. The unit also included navigators, bombardiers, maintenance and support staff, instructors, and all the personnel who kept the planes and pilots in the air. The Buffalo Soldiers were U.S. Army soldiers who served in segregated units under white officers from the Civil War to the end of the Korean War. In World War II, they were part of the 92nd Infantry Division and made up the only all-black American ground unit to see full-scale combat.
Gadson trained as a pilot with the Tuskegee Airmen for about six months but never engaged in combat. However, as a Buffalo Soldier, he took part in a series of battles late in the war in Italy. When asked what it was like fighting for his country while he was part of a segregated unit, Gadson said he and his comrades had more pressing concerns.
“We were just a bunch of soldiers, that’s all, like any other outfit,” he said in a recent phone interview. “We didn’t have time to worry about anything like [segregation].”
Fought German forces in Italy
Gadson’s first training for the war, he explained, was as a Buffalo Soldier at Camp Croft in South Carolina. In later infantry training at Fort McClellan in Alabama, he applied to be part of an all-black aviation unit training in Tuskegee, Ala. That unit became the Tuskegee Airmen. After spending several months in pilot training, he returned to the 92nd Infantry Division.
At one point, Gadson remembered, it was uncertain if the 92nd would be pressed into action. A unit of all-black soldiers from the 369th Infantry Regiment, he noted, was only being used to unload ships for the war effort. It also participated in labor and security operations. Rumors surfaced that the U.S. government wouldn’t allow the 92nd Infantry Division to fight because they were black, he said.
But the Buffalo Soldiers were thrust into combat. Gadson took part in three offensives on German forces, including one in the spring of 1945 in the Po Valley in northern Italy. It was the final Allied push of the war in Italy. The 92nd Infantry Division was one of the U.S. units that advanced on the Germans, who were overwhelmed and surrendered on May 3, 1945, officially ending World War II in the Mediterranean.
`A sniper just missed my head’
Gadson, who earned medals for each of the three offensives he fought in, avoided any serious injuries in the war. But he came close. One day, the Germans aimed dozens of rounds of gunfire at his unit.
“I saw a hole in a sandbag that I hadn’t seen before,” Gadson said. “A sniper had just missed my head. The only reason he missed is because I leaned down to tie my shoe just before he got full pressure on the trigger. I heard the gun go off and saw where the bullet went. Right as I bent over, the bullet came sailing by my head.”
During the war, Gadson also heard radio broadcasts of Mildred Gillars, an American woman nicknamed “Axis Sally” who voiced Nazi propaganda in English to Allied forces in Europe and North Africa. The broadcasts were meant, in part, to make the Allies think it was futile fighting the Germans. “We heard her say things like, `Hello, 92nd division, we’ve been waiting for you,’” Gadson recalled. “`We have a warm reception for you.’”
Prior to the war, Gadson studied at Florida A&M University, a historically black college. After leaving the service, he took part in special medical programs at the University of Kansas and the University of Tennessee. He also completed a specialized program at the U.S. Communicable Disease Center in Atlanta, which later became the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). He worked for 40 years as a medical technologist at the VA hospital in Tuskegee and was registered in that field through the American Society for Clinical Pathology.
At one point, he earned an honorary bachelor’s degree in public service from Tuskegee University, a historically black college.
In 2012, Gadson and another Tuskegee airman, Herbert Carter, were guests of honor of Alabama Governor Robert Bentley as he signed a proclamation honoring the renowned aviation unit. “You fought not only the enemy across the sea, but you had to fight the enemy of racism in this country,” the Associated Press quoted Bentley as telling Gadson and Carter. “Not only did you have to be good pilots, you had to be the best.”
Five years later, Gadson was honored as the grand marshal at a Veterans Day parade put on by the Central Alabama Health Care System. The parade flowed through the campus of the Tuskegee VA and marked the 20th anniversary of the merger between the VA facilities in Tuskegee and Montgomery, Ala.
Gadson, who turned 100 on March 16, currently lives in Tuskegee. Asked how he’s feeling, he replied: “Oh pretty good. I’ve been a little sick, but I’m all right.”
Thank you, Mr. Gadson, for your service to our country. We salute you!