Tuesday, February 28, 2012

TOP STORY >> Veterans recall opportunities, challenges

Leader staff writer

Two retired Air Force master sergeants recently discussed the importance of having an education, their military careers and the challenges they faced as blacks during the civil rights struggle.

J.B. Moody of Sherwood and Parnell Fisher of Jacksonville, both Vietnam veterans, spoke at the Jacksonville Museum of Military History in celebration of Black History Month.

Both men were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Fisher also earned a Silver Star.

Edmond Davis, an American history and western civilization instructor at Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock, moderated the discussion before an audience that included Col. Brian Robinson, commander of the 19th Airlift Wing at the Little Rock Air Force Base, Jacksonville Alderman Reedie Ray and Arkansas Baptist students.

Parnell Fisher

Fisher was born in Wilmar in southeast Arkansas on Jan. 22, 1933. Three years later, his father, a sharecropper, moved the family to Bauxite in Saline County for a better opportunity working in the mines.

After the sixth-grade, Fisher could not attend Bauxite or Bryant schools because he was black. He had to ride a bus to Dunbar High School in Little Rock.

“I had to leave home early in the morning and came home late in the evening,” Fisher said.

He said that being the oldest child with two sisters and a brother, he was looked upon to set the tone for getting an education. His parents had an eighth-grade education. The minimum they required of their children was to get through high school.

Fisher dropped out from Dunbar in 1950 after the 11th-grade and joined the Air Force.

Fisher said he always wanted to fly. He said if he couldn’t fly, he would work on the planes and maybe get a chance to ride. The Air Force allowed him to experience flying for the first time.

Fisher was on the security forces guarding the planes. He said looking at the planes motivated him to put in a request to advance to an aircraft and engine mechanic. He said most blacks were assigned to medical, food service, supply or transportation roles.

Fisher said in the classroom he was one of two blacks. He did not let that deter him and focused all he could on the planes. He said the Air Force helped him meet many good people.

After he completed the 28-week aircraft and engine maintenance school, he was assigned to B-29 bombers as a scanner, watching the operating systems, the engine and flaps of the plane. He later moved to gunner, watching for hostile aircraft. Fisher then volunteered to be a boom operator on KC-97s, refueling planes in-flight.

He left the Air Force in 1954 as an airman second class. Fisher said there were few promotions at that time. He said his experience motivated him to further his education.

He returned to Arkansas and went back to school, working during the day and going to class at night. His family lived in Benton.

He earned his GED at Jones High School in North Little Rock. He then enrolled at Dunbar Junior College and transferred to Arkansas Baptist College, graduating in 1959 with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education.

He was sent to Vietnam in 1966 as a loadmaster and gunner on AC-47s.

Fisher earned a Silver Star in 1967 for saving an AC-47 and the crew during a mission over Vung Tau in Vietnam. Fisher was tossing flares out of the plane when trouble occurred.

“We had a malfunctioned flare. The engineer and I were throwing flares out the door. The flare went off, the parachute went out and the cup knocked out the engineer. It was dark. I chucked a handful of chute and flare and the chute caught the edge of the plane.”

Fisher said the 22-pound flare burns hot and bright with 23,000-candlepower.

“My first thought was I had to get it out and used a knife to cut the shroud lines. I was in the slipstream. I felt someone grab my belt to help hold me in the plane,” Fisher said.

Later that same year, Fisher received the Distinguished Flying Cross with his crew for relieving another plane during an intense battle in Vietnam with ground troops and the plane.

“Education is a key. You can’t take away what you strived to learn. If you dream hard enough and long enough, you can make them come true,” Fisher said.

Fisher was affected indirectly by the civil rights struggle. One night while taking classes at Arkansas Baptist, he and some students were on a break across the street at the College Inn restaurant at 17th and High streets. A couple of white policemen were sitting on the corner wanting to know what they were doing there.

“Those guys were looking for trouble,” Fisher said.

Fisher bit his tongue and told the policemen they were going to class. It was the closest Fisher got to becoming physical during the civil rights era. Fisher said after that he wrote letters, attended church and prayed.

Fisher worked at Alcoa until being laid off and then worked at a plumbing company. Fisher decided the benefits of the Air Force were better than what he was doing and re-enlisted in 1959.

Upon re-entering the Air Force, Fisher was an in-flight refueler on KB-50s. Fisher was re-assigned in 1963 and entered C-130 loadmaster training.

After the Vietnam War, Fisher was transferred to vehicle maintenance.

Fisher retired from the Air Force on Oct. 1, 1977, as the vehicle maintenance superintendent at LRAFB. Fisher operated his own auto repair shop, Parnell’s Auto Service, until the mid-80s on Loop Road (where Marty’s Mufflers is today). He’s now the lead auto technician at the LRAFB’s auto skills center. Fisher and his wife, Vermond, have been married 52 years and they have three children.

“The service gave us a way out of a really hard life, simply because of the color of our skin. We had to prove to be twice as good as the next person, if they were white. We had to show determination. Do the best you know how. I tried to be a pioneer and tried to set an example, to see what is in the heart and in the soul,” Fisher said.

“The Air Force is a way of life with unlimited opportunities. I recommend any young person to check out what the Air Force has to offer. It was rewarding,” Fisher said.

J.B. Moody

J.B. Moody was born in Parkin (Cross County) on June 20, 1940. He was a son of a sharecropper and one of eight children. Moody was the first in his family to graduate from high school.

Moody did not graduate until he was 19 years old. Parkin’s school year was separated into terms so students could work in the fields, but they had to make up the classes during the summer. He said he was voted in high school as the most unlikely to succeed.

“I was determined to make a liar out of them,” Moody said.

Moody’s interest in planes began as a youngster while working in the farm fields. He said the C-47s would pass overhead and the hum of the propellers was mesmerizing.

“I wanted to be up there, and not down in the cotton field. I couldn’t see driving a tractor for someone else,” Moody said.

With limited opportunities, Moody joined the Air Force.

“My love for flying robbed me of my education,” Moody said.

He had dream of obtaining a four-year degree. He said people who worked normal hours could go to school, but a flier was gone on temporary duty assignment so often, that they could not attend classes on a regular basis. Later on Moody did earn an associate’s degree in flight engineering from the Community College of the Air Force.

Moody got a rude awaking in racial equality in July 1959 in Little Rock. After enlisting in the Air Force, he said the recruits had to stay in the city until they were sent to basic training. Moody said whites spent the nights in nice hotels and the blacks spent the night at local black families’ homes contracted by the government to provide boarding. He said it was strange staying at person’s home you didn’t know.

During basic training Moody said he had no problems and was treated well. He was one of three black students in his classes.

Moody was a crew chief and flight mechanic on C-123s, C-47s, C-54s, C-131 A-models and AC-130s. The flight mechanic job title was changed to flight engineer. As a flight engineer Moody did a pre-flight inspection and troubleshooting while the plane was on the ground. In-flight, Moody operated the systems of the planes.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Moody experienced racial discrimination and disrespect for service members. He said during the civil rights struggle he was arrested once and after the commanding officer got finished with him, Moody said that was enough.

Moody still bristles about racial inequality during in his stay at Seymour Johnson AFB in Goldsboro, N.C.

“It still offends me,” he said.

While at Seymour Johnson, Moody was passed up for promotions. It took seven years for Moody to be promoted to staff sergeant.

He said it caused him to think about giving up his military career.

Moody saw anger directed toward the military during the Vietnam War.

He came home on emergency leave because his father was sick. He learned that if you wore your uniform on a commercial flight, servicemen would get a discount.

“A kid kicked me on the leg. It made me sick. I was serving the country and you are spitting at me and kicking at me. It was not a good feeling,” Moody said. But he said his parents thought his being in the military was great and were very supportive.

Moody received the Distinguished Flying Cross on Aug. 19, 1972. He was a crew member on an AC-130 gunship that destroyed supply routes along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the Mekong Delta.

His favorite assignment was in Guam, where he was a hurricane hunter. Moody was a flight examiner and flight engineer on the WC-130, flying into the eye of typhoons.

Moody retired from the Air Force at LRAFB in 1986 after a 27-year career. It took 22 years for Moody’s rise in rank from airman first class to chief.

He worked for Interstate Airlines in Little Rock for a year. Then Moody taught the flight engineer training program at the base from 1987 until retiring in 2004.

Moody and his wife, Ella, have been married for 36 years. Together they have three children. Moody is a deacon at Saint Peter’s Rock Baptist Church in Cato.

Looking back, Moody said he wouldn’t change anything in his military career.

“Don’t give up. There will be people who will do their best to knock you down, but keep trying. I kept working hard and learned all I could about the job. I had to be better than good,” Moody said.