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Black History Month

Two Veterans Share Their Story

by All Hands Magazine
28 February 2019

The decades of the 1950s and 1960s were a turning point in the fight for civil rights and universal justice, a movement in which the military was at the forefront. President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 998 in 1948, prohibiting discrimination in the armed forces “on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin.”

VIRIN: 190226-N-DO437-1001

The Korean War would be the first conflict in which African-American Sailors, Soldiers, Airmen and Marines served shoulder-to-shoulder in the same units as white service men. It wasn't always easy, however, and as late as 1970, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr. expressed concern over the treatment of African-Americans in the fleet. He issued Z-Gram #66, an order designed to “seek out and eliminate those demeaning areas of discrimination that plague our minority shipmates.”

Such treatment was something former Petty Officer 3rd Class Phillip Douglas was excruciatingly familiar with. The Vietnam veteran was the only African-American on his team of gunners' mates. He found himself relegated to menial work.

“I had an E-6 tell me that he didn't want me on his gun,” said Douglas. “So he put me in charge of the armory.”

All Hands Magazine recently sat down with Douglas and with retired Air Force Staff Sgt. Billy Bowen to talk about their experiences facing and overcoming discrimination and segregation.

“You can't fix yesterday,” said Bowen. “You must be focused on the future. Try to make things better. Use yesterday as a reminder and move forward, and try to make things better.”