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As a boy in South Carolina in the late 1950s, Howard Williams Jr. knew that his father was serving his country, but that much of that same country viewed him as inferior because he was Black.
On long road trips between military bases in the South, motels had “Whites Only” signs in the windows. When Howard Williams Sr. — who later rose to the rank of colonel — was too tired to continue, the family would stretch out and sleep in the car rather than face the indignity of trying to get a room.
“Truman desegregated the military in 1948 but desegregation in the country took a lot longer than that,” Williams Jr., 68, told AARP Veteran Report. “There was a lot of discrimination back then, but my father didn’t let it stop him.”
It didn’t stop Williams Jr. either. Inspired by his father, he became an Army officer too, serving 22 years in the artillery and retiring as a lieutenant colonel. “He was principled and courageous, determined to be the best person he could be and the best military officer he could be — probably in that order,” said Williams Jr. “My father is my hero.”
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Over the course of more than a century, four generations of the Williams family have served in the U.S. Army, their experiences mirroring their country’s changing treatment of African Americans in uniform.
The first was Marion Williams, an enlisted man in the all-Black 371st Infantry Regiment under French command during World War I who was gassed on the frontlines.
His son Howard Williams Sr. joined up in 1953. He became a pilot and flew fixed-wing aircraft in Korea, after the conflict there had ended, and helicopters near the Cambodian border from 1967 to 1968 during the Vietnam War.
“He saw Vietnam from the air and said it was beautiful, but he never spoke about his combat experience,” said Williams Jr.
Howard Williams Jr. was the first in the family to attend West Point, where he was in the class of 1976.
It wasn’t always easy, but the Williams family persisted. “My father tells a story of taking me to a big Army football game when I was a toddler while he was doing basic training at Fort Benning,” said Williams Jr.