Biloxi Days: Mr. Trent

In the late 60s and early 70s the Civil Rights Movement burned hot and fierce, fighting its fight into every area of American life, including the military where, as many Americans don't know, the first full integration took place during the Truman presidency. 

Racism was strictly suppressed in the military, which I discovered first hand as a young First Lieutenant maintenance officer stationed at Keesler Air Force Base outside of Biloxi, Mississippi.

For example, the Air Force decreed that airman performance reports should reflect an assessment of how an airman was doing at not being a racist —they certainly couldn’t phrase it like that, but we all knew what it was.

The USAF’s Civil Rights Policy said that airman performance reports should “emphasize issues involving racism, sexism, and sexual harassment,” including “Air Force human relations education which provided solid coverage of prejudice and discrimination, and sufficient attention given to service-specific issues and applications; and skill development effectively integrated with performance.” The statement should “focus on modern forms of racism and sexism should include supplemental treatment of the more traditional forms. Modern racism and sexism should be addressed in human relations education at all levels.”

The Air Force policy required a “Human Relations Statement” in airman performance reports, among other things.

The airman performance report forms didn’t have much room for civil rights assessments. The miscellaneous “other comments” block was supposed to be used for the assessment of the airman’s human relations. But that block only had room for about two lines of text.

Because non-coms, especially non-com mechanics, in the Air Force were not known for their literary capabilities, to simplify matters it quickly became common to merely insert a boilerplate statement like, “The ratee actively supports USAF Human Relations policy.”

But there was one other wrinkle: What gave the rater the ability, not to mention the right, to rate an airman’s ability at civilized race relations?


Soon after Colonel James M. Slaughter and I arrived at Keesler Air Force Base in early 1969, just as the base ramped up the T-28 flight training squadron to prepare foreign (mostly Vietnamese) pilots for “Vietnamization,” Colonel Slaughter decided that the 3380th Maintenance Squadron should have its own, separate Non-Destructive Inspection (NDI) Shop.

According to a recent US Air Force job description NDI techs are “responsible for employing noninvasive methods to inspect the insides of metal objects. Nondestructive Inspection specialists identify possible defects in systems and equipment before anything can become a dangerous problem. Utilizing everything from x-rays to ultrasound, these experts find the smallest imperfections and take the corrective measures needed to keep our equipment working safely.” 

Colonel Slaughter assigned me the task of designing, equipping, and staffing Keesler’s new NDI shop. After several months of planning and research, including a few visits to nearby Air Force bases with existing NDI shops, we walled off a corner of the Fabrication building and set up the new NDI shop. We sent several civilian welders and sheet metal fabricators to a special NDI school, and Mr. Gill, the civilian Fabrication Branch chief, hired Mr. Amos Trent, a retired full bird colonel in the Mississippi Army Reserves, as shop chief.

This created a uniquely awkward situation. Not only did Mr. Trent think highly of himself, but he was a stone cold, life-long old fashioned Southern racist. His attitude was well known in the Fabrication Branch from the day he first arrived to interview for the NDI shop foreman job. Mr. Trent would drop the N-word in casual conversation and didn’t think black airman were capable of technical work on aircraft parts and equipment.

Mr. Trent’s racism didn’t matter much when the NDI shop was first formed because his NDI techs were other civilian white boys from the Biloxi area.

Then Staff Sergeant Lawrence arrived. Sergeant Lawrence was a very tall, quiet, unassuming black NDI tech who had worked at NDI shops at two other Air Force bases before arriving at Keesler.

“This is Sergeant Lawrence, sir,” Chief Master Sergeant Ralph Johns said as he and Sgt. Lawrence entered my office in Hangar 5.

Chief Johns, Field Maintenance Superintendent, would be the only military non-com in Staff Sergeant Lawrence’s chain of command. Sergeant Lawrence’s boss, however, was the irremediable cracker, Army Reserve Colonel Mr. Trent, while Mr. Trent’s boss was Mr. Gill, not a racist as far as we knew, but also a native of Beulah Land. Gill’s boss was the crusty old by-the-book Chief Johns. And Chief Johns’ boss was me, greenest of greenhorns. Field Maintenance Squadron Commander.

After a welcoming chat, Sergeant Lawrence left the office. Johns and I discussed the situation in the NDI shop. We agreed that there was no point buying trouble, but that we would make it clear to Sergeant Lawrence that if there was any hint of racism on the job that he should immediately report it and we’d take corrective action up to and including the removal of Mr. Trent. Johns also made it clear to Mr. Gill that we didn’t want to hear any racial complaints coming out of the NDI shop. We all agreed to visit the shop to check things out not less than once a day.

As it turned out, the NDI shop was working out pretty well, contributing effectively to the metal inspection and repair process, finding problems before they got serious, proposing fixes, etc. Not only was Sergeant Lawrence turning out to be a hot-shot NDI tech, training his fellow (and less experienced) civilian techs on various NDI techniques, we did not hear any complaints from him that he was being insulted or otherwise harassed.

After six months it was time for Sergeant Lawrence’s Airman Performance Report, which was to be written by Mr. Trent.

Mr. Trent, being a reserve Army officer, had only written a few performance reports in his career and they were all Officer Performance Reports. He had never written an Air Force performance report, much less an enlisted airman’s performance report. And he certainly had never written a “Human Relations Statement.”

As Squadron Commander I had to review and endorse all airman performance reports. Usually, this was a routine process. Nearly all of them I'd read rated the subject airman as somewhere between outstanding and superior. You had to go out of your way to get anything less than outstanding. So most of the time I just glanced at the APRs and signed them off.

But, of course, I was interested in Mr. Trent’s review of Sergeant Lawrence.

There it was, top of that day’s pile of papers to sign. Prepared and signed by Mr. Trent. Reviewed by Mr. Gill and endorsed by Sergeant Johns (who hated writing and paperwork of any and all kinds) and initialed by Field Maintenance’s Admin officer, Second Lieutenant Lee Perlmutter, fresh out of college and Officer Training School with a degree in English.

Not surprisingly, Sergeant Lawrence was rated Superior, the highest rating, on every measure.

At the bottom of the form was Mr. Trent’s “human relations statement” about Sergeant Lawrence: “Sergeant Lawrence has done such a good job in the Non-Destructive Inspection Shop that we don’t even consider him black anymore.”

“Lee!” I shouted. “Come in and take a look at this.”

Perlmutter entered my office.

“Read that,” as I pointed to “OTHER COMMENTS.”

“Oh, Oh!” Perlmutter shouted. “How did that get in there?”

“That’s what I want to know.”

He snatched it up saying, “I’ll fix it. Just a minute.”

Soon Perlmutter came back with a revised “OTHER COMMENTS” — “Sergeant Lawrence actively supports the human relations policies and programs of the USAF.”

I signed it.

2 Responses to "Biloxi Days: Mr. Trent"

  1. William Ray   April 17, 2019 at 10:00 am

    Thanks for recording advanced race relations in the gallant South.

    Reply
  2. Marco McClean   April 17, 2019 at 5:16 pm

    Best yet in this series, Major Mark. Wonderful!

    Reply

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