Les Williams was the first African-American bomber pilot during World War II as one of the Tuskegee Airmen and broke racial barriers as a businessman in San Mateo County in the postwar years.
The Tuskegee Airmen were recently recognized in “Red Tails,” a film by George Lucas about the African-Americans trained to fly and maintain combat aircraft in Tuskegee, Ala. during World War II. The Tuskegee Airmen consisted of pilots, navigators, staff and personnel; they overcame prejudice and became one of the most highly respected fighter groups during World War II.
Lucas invited some Tuskegee Airmen to his estate for eight days, including Williams, and consulted with them.
“The film is very authentic. He consulted with us all the time. It’s well done,” Williams said. “I’m glad the story is being told, of the Tuskegee Airmen.”
How Williams got involved in the story was a long and challenging process for him.
Williams was born in San Francisco and raised in San Mateo. He skipped many grades in grammar school and began high school when he was 11. He graduated when he was 14, but didn’t want to go to college because he “was a shrimp,” he said.
Instead, he took up tap dancing and found his passion. For the next few years, he learned how to dance from professionals such as Bill Robinson, and taught lessons while working other odd jobs such as being a janitor at the Bay Meadows race track clubhouse.
Williams eventually moved back to San Mateo, offered dance classes in the area and returned to his studies. He graduated from San Mateo Junior College in 1939.
In 1941, after the attack at Pearl Harbor, the draft began. He didn’t want to be drafted because he didn’t want to be hurt or maimed as a soldier and thus unable to dance, he said.
“I wanted to be a pilot because I’d fallen in love with dance,” he said. “I applied to get in the Air Corps in San Francisco, passed all the tests and did very well, and then I was told to go back home and they’d write me a letter. They never wrote me a letter.”
He was drafted and went to Seattle where he was stationed at the docks. He met some men in his outfit who could play instruments, sing or dance. They made up a group.
“We volunteered to entertain the local clubs, like the Lions and the Rotary Club. One of the people that used to come to those luncheons to see us perform was Gen. Denson,” he said. “One night, we were taking a break on the bandstand. Here comes the general. He wanted us to know that he enjoyed our music and he that wanted to do something for us. So he says, what do you want to be? I raised my hand and I said, I want to be a pilot.”
With the help of a general, Williams was accepted in the Air Corps. Within a week, he was on a train to Tuskegee, Ala., the only place they were training black pilots, where he took a nine-month training course. While he was training, the Department of War decided African-Americans, who had been flying as fighter pilots, could fly as bomber pilots. Williams was one of nine in the first group of black bomber pilots ever commissioned by the Air Corps, he said.
After the war, Williams returned to San Mateo and reopened his dance studio. He went to Stanford University and got a bachelor’s of arts in history, and then, years later, studied at Stanford Law School. He practiced criminal law for a few years and then worked in real estate, all the time teaching dancing.
Williams’ book, “Victory: Tales of a Tuskegee Airman,” is a story of his experiences before, during and after his service as an African-American pilot during World War II.