81-year-old US Armed Forces veteran James Gant has lived enough life for three people. He joined the Air Force in 1953 after struggling to get a job in the segregated workforce of the midwest. Throughout his military career, he served in both the Korean and Vietnam War, servicing the planes and working as a security police. Eventually, he became an honorary Tuskegee Airman. Fast forward to 2016, James is a loving father, husband and upstate NY resident who lives right in our backyard. His story is one of thousands but unlike any other. Today, as we celebrate and thank our United States Veterans, we wanted to tell James' story.
On his early life:
"Where I grew up was a terrible place. Chicago, Illinois. Yeah, I grew up in Chicago, on the south side of Chicago, up until I was about 12 years old. Then my mother got a divorce from my father and she got a job at a plant in Detroit, so we moved to Detroit from 12 to about 16. Two terrible places. I survived. A lot of my friends didn't, but I survived."
On why he joined the airforce:
"I enlisted in the military, and I think that was kind of my salvation. I quit high school in Detroit because of segregation. I was going to be a tool and die maker, but they wouldn't hire black people in the Ford plant at the time. It made me mad and I just lost interest and I enlisted in the Air Force.
The saddest part about it was when I was going to technical high school. That was the biggest disappointment in my life. The first thing they teach you is how to file any type of iron or metal with a hand file. You didn't get the machines, the milling machines, or the surface grinders. You didn't get to that until later. Two weeks you went through that. The next two weeks it was all academics. English, math, then drafting. You went through the drafting part and you draft up blueprints. Then for the next two weeks you're back in the shop. You did that for the whole year. When you get in the eleventh grade, they send you out to Ford and they hire people from there. Some of the guys working right next to me got the jobs but of course, they weren't black. They were my friends. In school and everything, we did everything together. But they went through the program and became journeymen but when my turn came up, they said no and so I joined the Air Force.
I went to Korea and I got out in '58 and went back to Detroit. They wanted to put me in a foundry. I didn't like that at all. That's where most black people worked in that time if you were male. That wasn't for me. So I reenlisted."
On how the military changed him:
"During my time in the military, there was a draft. There were a lot of people that had to go. When I went in, I was with a guy that was in World War II. He was in the Bataan Death March. He was my supervisor. He taught me a lot of things about mechanics. That was when I was down in Florida at Tyndall Air Force Base. That is where I met one of the Tuskegee Airmen [ed. note: The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-American military aviators in the United States]. That's when they made me a member. We serviced his plane. They were just transferring from prop aircraft to jets. He was all over the Gulf flying an F89 target practice. B29 bombers were pulling this target, and these Tuskegee Airmen were out shooting at the target in this jet."
On life after the military:
"I went back in the Air Force in '58. That's when I met my wife. She had just finished high school and I was on my second tour with the Air Force. So we met. We got married in 1960. Then we moved all around the country. To Oklahoma. To just about everywhere you can imagine. We traveled. Florida, Oklahoma, Texas. Then I wound up here from the Air Force. I retired in '76. I was going back to Detroit because I bought property there in Michigan, but I said I already bought this house here, and I said why go back? Because if I went back I had to get a house and a job. Here I had the house, so all I needed was the job. I was fortunate enough, the minute I retired I got a job with the sheriff's department the next day."
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