By David Bedard
176th Wing Public Affairs
Growing up during the segregation era, Alaska Air National Guard Col. Lawrence “Larry” Campbell lived in an all-black Tulsa, Oklahoma, neighborhood and attended an all-black school.
In a 1991 interview provided to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum by his daughter, Sigrid Benezra, Campbell said he didn’t recall being subjected to discrimination because he rarely ventured outside of black neighborhoods or business districts.
Tulsa was the site of the June 1, 1921, race massacre when the Greenwood District, a haven for black businesses, was razed to the ground. Despite the atrocity, black businesses later flourished in the city, providing young Campbell places to shop within the constraints of segregation statutes.
Still, Campbell recalls his parents’ warnings of staying within the law’s boundaries.
“We all knew – our parents told us and everything – that to keep out of trouble, you followed the signs and did what the law said,” Campbell recalled. “When you went downtown, they had a fountain for the white people and a fountain for [blacks.]”
Ultimately, Campbell surmounted the constraints of segregation, joining the Army Air Forces and becoming the first black to pilot a jet fighter and the first black Air National Guard group commander when he took command of the 176th Tactical Airlift Group, which later became today’s 176th Wing.
Campbell said his family moved from Tulsa to Portland, Oregon, when his father landed a job supporting increased war production for World War II. He attended an integrated high school in an integrated community.
“The war had just begun, and my dad went to work in the shipyards,” he said. “It was a much better way of life.”
Campbell volunteered for military service, reporting to Biloxi, Mississippi, in 1945 to take examinations before assignment to Tuskegee, Alabama, for cadet pilot training.
“It was an experimental program to see if black people could fly,” Campbell said. “There was some thought they didn’t have the intelligence or the ability to fly airplanes and do command things in the military.”
Allied victories in Europe and Japan seemingly cut Campbell’s budding military career short.
“I got into the primary flying school and soloed before the war ended,” he said. “Since I was a volunteer after the war ended, they let me out, and I came home.”
Campbell attended college after coming home, and fate would have him put on an Air Force uniform to follow his aviation dream with renewed vigor, attending pilot training in 1947 at then Randolph Field, Texas, and Williams Field, Arizona, graduating as a second lieutenant in 1948 with pilot wings.
Though Campbell said flight school was integrated, he reported to a segregated unit at Lockbourne Air Force Base, Ohio, with the 100th Fighter Squadron flying P-47 Thunderbolt fighter bombers. Having flown the P-51 Mustang – a dedicated fighter – in training, Campbell said he would cross services to fly the Mustang again.
“The [Ohio] National Guard there had P-51s, and I would go over and borrow theirs because we flew P-51s in flight school,” he said. “That was the Cadillac of fighters. I really liked that one.”
According to Campbell’s National Air and Space Museum biography, he was the first black Air Force pilot to solo in a jet fighter, flying the P-80 Shooting Star.
“I also checked out in jets,” Campbell said. “I was lucky enough to be the first black to fly a jet. My roommate, Cyril Burke, soloed the next day in the jet.”
Executive Order 9981 ended military segregation with its issuance July 26, 1948, deactivating units with Tuskegee heritage and integrating the force. Campbell reported to Otis Air Force Base, Massachusetts, with the 33rd Maintenance Squadron. He left the regular Air Force in 1950 and joined the Air Force Reserve upon returning home to Portland to fly C-46 Commando cargo aircraft with the 65th Troop Carrier Squadron.
While on temporary duty in another state, Campbell said he ran into a contentious situation while socializing with white colleague Lt. Col. Leverett Richards. Richards brought Campbell to a segregated establishment without fully considering how the circumstances might unfold.
“I don’t think Lev was thinking,” Campbell recalled. “I know he probably knew better and had been exposed, but I don’t think he was thinking. We hit one of these cowboy joints — foot-stomping, butt-kicking cowboy joints — and the first thing that happened was they threw the both of us out, purely because I was black.”
In his full-time job Campbell worked for the Civil Aeronautics Board, now the National Transportation Safety Board, and he was offered a posting to Alaska in 1963.
“They had an opening up here, and they offered me an immediate promotion,” Campbell said. “It was a chance at adventure.”
Campbell said he transferred from the Air Force Reserve to the Alaska Air National Guard at the recommendation of a friend. When he joined, the Guard comprised the 144th Air Transport Squadron (Medium), which became the 176th Tactical Airlift Group in April 1969. Both units flew the C-123J Provider cargo aircraft.
According to a public affairs article by Sgt. Jackie Wilson in the February 1988 edition of The Guardian – the wing’s magazine before today’s eGuardian – Campbell flew one of the first relief missions into Seward following the devastating 1964 Good Friday Earthquake.
“At that time, we were flying the old C-123Js,” Campbell recalled. “We flew constantly. We went in, picked up people, and brought them out. We took in supplies, picked up people, brought them out. It went like that for days. We had the only planes and pilots that could get into some of those places.”
Campbell took command of the group in January 1972 as the unit’s first traditional weekend-drilling commander and the first black Air National Guard group commander in any state.
Campbell said he was impressed with Alaska Air Guardsmen during his time with them, citing their ability and willingness to do other jobs in order accomplish the mission with few people and resources.
“As far as I was concerned, the whole tenure – 10 years in the Guard – was the highlight [of my career],” he said. “There were so many things that went on that I found unique in this unit – some things that just didn’t happen in other outfits. It was a small outfit, and they had a lot to do, and people were willing to do it.”
Whether flying C-123s over Alaska mountain ranges or hotdogging P-51 fighters, Campbell said he realized his dream of becoming an aviator – a dream sparked by images of biplane fighters flying over the Randolph Field Administration Building, nicknamed the “Taj Mahal.”
“They used to have these pictures of the old open-cockpit fighters flying in echelon over the Taj Mahal down in Texas, and that’s what got me interested,” he said. “I thought: that’s the thing to do, boy. I wanted to become a pilot. Fortunately, I was able to do it.”