With the Tuskegee Airmen

Betty Bean
Government/Politics columnist

Local man looks back at changing times

One of the things Chester Bragg remembers about Dec. 7, 1941, was wondering what was happening to his brother Raymond. Chester was only 15, and had no clue that Pearl Harbor would begin something so big that it would swoop him up three years later and land him with one of the most famous fighting units in American history.

“I didn’t think it would last long enough to get me,” said Chester Bragg, who is 90. “But I got drafted. The Army turned me down, the Navy turned me down, the Marines. Everybody wanted big men, and I was a little man, 130 pounds. That left me to the Air Force.”

The family finally heard from Raymond, who survived but was never able to leave Pearl Harbor behind.

“Raymond suffered,” Chester said. “He never did get over that, he never did. He was shell shocked, seeing all that killing; some of his buddies got killed. He drew disability from the Veterans Administration and never did really get back to himself.”

He was a student at Nelson Merry High School in Jefferson County in 1941, and moved to Knoxville the following year. Everybody was worried about Adolf Hitler.

“I heard he was going to conquer the world – the whole world, the United States and all. He and Japan got together and they were going to whip us. He’d done whipped everybody in Europe except Russia, and that’s where he made his mistake. He overran his supply line because he was moving too fast…”

Chester Bragg holds a photograph of himself in his military uniform. Photo by Ruth White
Chester Bragg holds a photograph of himself in his military uniform. Photo by Ruth White

After basic training at Fort Benning, Chester was sent to Texas and then to Tuskegee, Ala. No draftee had many choices, and Chester’s were limited by his race.

“You didn’t have no options. You went to where all the Blacks were stationed, and that was Tuskegee, where they had an Air Force base. We got there in a group and they put us all in barracks…”

Chester was assigned to be a supply clerk for the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American fighter pilots. He remembers the sharp buzz of single and two-seater fighter planes taking off and landing at the air field – P39s, P37s P40s, P51 Mustangs.

His biggest adjustment to military life was being in Alabama.

“You still had to get in the back of the bus in Knoxville, but it wasn’t too bad here. Where I was at in Alabama, you was a n….. everywhere you went, except for being a soldier. And they still called you a n….. soldier. It was rough. Worse than it was here in Knoxville. They were still hanging people. They hanged a guy for being with a white woman; said he raped her. They were cruel and I don’t see how we made it.”

By the time he finished training, the war was nearly over in Europe. The Airmen would have been deployed to Japan if Harry S. Truman hadn’t opted to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Chester was glad he didn’t have to go, but was affected by the destruction unleashed on the Japanese.

Chester Bragg kept many articles on his days while serving with the Tuskegee Airmen.
Chester Bragg kept many articles on his days while serving with the Tuskegee Airmen.

“The President warned Japan, threw notes out of planes and told them what he was going to do if they didn’t surrender. They didn’t believe him. All I know is how powerful it was. That first one killed more than 180,000 people – babies, women, everybody. The second one was more powerful than the first one, and Japan gave up.

“I came home after that.”

Chester got some vocational training and opened a shoe shop for a while. He married Mary Thelma Olden in 1950 and had four sons, Gary, Ronald, Felix and Keith. He got a job as a janitor at the post office and after a while became a supervisor and worked there until retirement. Mary cleaned houses all over Knoxville. One of her longtime employers was the wife of E.B. “Banana” Bowles, a produce wholesaler who handed out bananas at the polls to get himself elected sheriff. Chester remembers Mrs. Bowles as “a mean old woman” who didn’t disguise her racism in front of the help.

The Braggs were pillars of Tabernacle Baptist Church, and Chester became an outstanding baseball coach, coaching little league teams for some 25 years.

He lost Mary on Feb. 26, and still lives in the tidy house where they held Thanksgivings and Easter egg hunts for their 19 grandchildren, 38 great-grandchildren and 29 great-great-grandchildren.

He reflects on the changes he’s seen and says things are better now.

And he’s proud of the role of the Tuskegee Airmen, something his sons didn’t hear much about when they were children.

“I never talked about it too much. I was never in no planes or anything like that.”

But he was still a part of history and a source of pride for his family.

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