African American Heritage Month: Olympian, weather forecaster and pilot blazes the way

  • Published
  • By Jerry White
  • 501st Combat Support Wing Historian
Archie Williams, 1936 Olympic Gold Medal winner was later Archie Williams, Air Force Weather officer and pilot. 

With a need for thousands of weather officers in the expanding Army Air Forces in World War II, a Meteorology Aviation Cadet program trained more than 5,600 weather officers at five universities nationwide by the time the last class graduated in mid-1944. This program took only the best and brightest young men and, in nine months, provided nearly the equivalent of a graduate degree in meteorology. While the pressure to perform was intense, one 1943 cadet had already succeeded in the demands of appearing on the world stage.

Archie F. Williams was one of the legendary African-American track stars whose decisive victories at the 1936 Berlin Olympics publicly demolished Hitler's propaganda of Aryan supremacy. Growing up in Oakland, Calif., he initially started college at San Mateo Community College, south of San Francisco and then transferred to the University of California at Berkeley for the mechanical engineering program in the fall of 1935. Coming under the tutelage of Cal's legendary track coach, Brutus Hamilton, he gained notice in the spring of 1936 at the Long Beach Relays and Pacific Coast Conference track championship. He then went to the NCAA track meet in Chicago and earned an invitation to the Olympic trials after setting an NCAA record of 46.1 seconds in the 400 meter sprint. Winning at the Olympic finals in New York City, he traveled to Germany with Jesse Owens and the rest of the Olympic track team where he earned his gold medal in the 400 meter dash. Archie's track career was cut short in 1937 after tearing a hamstring muscle.

An early aviation enthusiast, he completed the Civilian Pilot Training program after graduating from Berkeley in 1939. He was one of 91 African-Americans to

earn their private pilot license in CPT's first year. He worked for an airport flying service at Oakland Airport, Calif., building up his flying time and earning a flight instructor license. In August 1941, Archie moved to Tuskegee, Ala., and worked as a civilian flight instructor for the Tuskegee Army Flying School, teaching both

CPT students and some of the first Tuskegee pilot candidates. Not eligible for military flight training, but having earned an engineering degree, he was then offered the Meteorology Aviation Cadet program. He graduated from the UCLA program and was commissioned on Sept. 6, 1943.

Returning to Tuskegee, virtually the only base available for black AAF officers at that time, now 2nd Lieutenant Williams first worked in the base weather station as a forecaster and briefing officer. He was able to get into a flying instructor course in September 1944 and was one of the first four Tuskegee-trained service pilots. He then transferred to the Basic Flight Instruction course and taught both instrument flying and weather classes to Tuskegee aviation cadets.

Archie Williams remained in Air Weather Service the rest of his career, as weather officers who were also rated pilots were almost always in short supply.

After completing a two-year AFIT program, he served as a forecaster with the 20th Weather Squadron in Japan during the Korea War, where he managed to log four B-29 combat missions over North Korea. After commanding weather detachments on Long Island and in Alaska, he retired at March AFB, Calif., on May 31, 1964 as a lieutenant colonel and command pilot.

Before retiring, he completed his teaching certification. After teaching for one year in Riverside, he moved to Marin County, California, where he taught math and physical science at Sir Francis Drake High School for 20 years. Lt. Col. Archie F. Williams died June 23, 1993, leaving his widow, Vesta Williams and two sons, Carlos and Archie, Jr.

(Previously published in the March-April 2006 Air Force Weather Agency OBSERVER magazine.)