Retired Lt. Col. Enoch Woodhouse II’s mother told him to serve in the military. The year was 1941 and Pearl Harbor had just been bombed.
“My mother said to my brother and I, ‘America is at war. I want you boys to serve your country.’ Can you imagine, a black woman, that all she had was her two boys, to ask them to serve their country? We were being lynched, discriminated, mistreated. But she told us to ‘serve your country,’” he said.
Woodhouse, or Woody as his friends call him, spoke to Soldiers at the John F. Kennedy Auditorium, Monday, as part of a month long Black History Month Celebration at Fort Bragg.
“It’s not black history to me,” he said. “This is our history, this is American history.”
Woodhouse, an original Tuskegee Airman, joined the Army when he was 17 years old in 1944. Only five years previously in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had signed Public Law 18 into existence. The law provided for an expansion to the Army Air Corps and offered an opportunity for black men to become pilots in the Army.
The law didn’t change things overnight. Yancy Williams sued the War Department in January of 1941. He had been rejected by the Army Air Corps solely because of the color of his skin. He won his case and the Army Air Corps was opened up to African Americans.
The Tuskegee Institute in Alabama opened up to be the training ground for these new pilots.
The Tuskegee Airmen were made up of personnel from the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group. Woodhouse served with the 477th Bombardment Grp. as a finance officer until 1949, when he was discharged.
He then joined the newly created Air Force Reserve. Woodhouse earned his law degree from Boston University Law School. He served in the Air Force Judge Advocate General Office as a reservist. He retired from the Reserves in 1972 as a lieutenant colonel.
Woodhouse sites Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. as a person who inspired him the most throughout his life. Davis, a black man, graduated from West Point in 1936.
He was isolated from his peers, purposely given the “silent treatment” for his four years at the academy. He never had a roommate, he ate alone. He endured it, becoming the commander of the 99th Pursuit Squadron during World War II, the only black fighter pilot unit in the Army Air Corps.
Davis would later become the first African-American general officer in the Air Force. In 2017, the newest barracks at West Point were dedicated in his honor.
“In America, things may not be right … but in America we have a way of seeing that the arc of justice is complete. It means that as Americans — black, white, Asian or whoever — somehow, somewhere, we get our act together and we do the right thing,” Woodhouse said.
Woodhouse also shared the story of Thomas Hudner Jr. Hudner was a naval aviator during the Korean War. His wingman, Ensign Jesse Brown, crashed his plane during an operation.
Hudner went to go rescue him and crashed his plane as a result. When he finally made it back to his aircraft carrier, he was greeted with talk of a court martial. He had destroyed U.S. government property by trying to attempt what many would consider a failed rescue mission from the start.
Hudner received the Medal of Honor from President Truman for his actions. Hudner, a white man, had sacrificed everything to save Brown, a black man.
Woodhouse believes that as a nation, the U.S. can break through discrimination.
“We have to talk. If you don’t like what I’m doing, you can tell me in a civil way. And I can respond in a civil way. It’s all dialogue. Americans, we can do anything we want,” he said.