Portraits of Valor, Iowa's Tuskegee Airmen: Robert Williams

  • Published
  • By Col. Mark Chidley
  • 132d Wing Public Affairs

Robert W Williams (1922-1997)

Born in Ottumwa, Iowa, Robert “Bob” Williams was a Tuskegee Airman and pioneer Aviator who spearheaded a movie project about them.  Robert’s father was a pilot and he encouraged his two sons to learn.  Eventually they became three of only 102 black pilots in the United States at that time. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Bob tried to join the Army Air Corps, but was at first denied enlistment due to the color of his skin. Eventually he was allowed to join in 1943 and he received his training at Tuskegee, Alabama, a segregated facility which trained black pilots. He graduated third in his class.   

During WWII, Williams was a member of the 100th Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group, and flew missions over Italy, Germany and Czechoslovakia.  He is credited with destroying two FW-190’s and damaging another FW-190. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with six oak leaf clusters, and the Presidential Distinguished Unit Citation, among others.

In 1952, Bob wrote a story of his experiences as a fighter pilot. He persevered over the next 43 years to get his story told. In 1995, the HBO movie, “THE TUSKEGEE AIRMEN” aired, educating a nation to the accomplishments of these American heroes.  The film detailed how the "Fighting 99th"--the first squadron of black combat fighter pilots and the vanguard of nearly 1,000 black fliers--overcame racism for the right to serve their country, and emerged from the war wreathed with honor, but with little public acclaim.  The film earned three Emmy Awards, a Peabody, a Cable Ace Award and two NAACP Image Awards. 

Tuskegee Airmen Incorporated, which honors the accomplishments and perpetuates the history of African-Americans who participated in the Army Air Corps during WWII, added the Captain Robert W. Williams Military Award to its National Military Awards.  It is open to active component, reserve or guard members serving in any Branch of the US armed services and goes to a company grade officer who has exhibited outstanding performance in both professional and community service.

As for The Duchess Arlene on static display outside the front gate of the 132d, it was Bob’s airplane made famous in the movie.  He named it after a girlfriend he had written to while in flight training and she sent him a glamour shot of herself inscribed “Your duchess Arlene.”  She was Arlene Roberts, with her own trailblazing story.