Captain Leslie A. Williams

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Leslie Alan Williams

Birthplace: San Mateo, San Mateo County, California, United States
Death: 2015 (94-95)
California, United States
Place of Burial: Skylawn Memorial Park San Mateo San Mateo County California
Immediate Family:

Son of nn Williams
Husband of Elsie Virginia Williams
Father of Penelope "Penny" Williams; Paula Williams and Patrick Williams

Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About Captain Leslie A. Williams

Leslie A. Williams, a former member of the Tuskegee Airmen, which broke the military color barrier during World War II, has died in California. He was 95.

Williams died Monday of natural causes at his home in Patterson, said his daughter Penny Williams.

A native of San Francisco, Williams was drafted into the Army in 1939 and trained for nine months at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama.

The Tuskegee Airmen were an elite group of African-American fighter pilots in the U.S. Army Air Corps who trained during the time of government-sanctioned Jim Crow laws.

"In those days, no one had to salute blacks, but we could be court-martialed if we didn't salute a white officer. The discrimination was bad," Williams recalled during a 2009 interview with KTEH-TV, a public television station in San Jose.

Williams, who grew up in San Mateo, earned his wings in 1943 when he graduated with the first African-American bomber pilot group. But by the time the full African-American cockpit crew was trained and ready for combat, World War II was over. So he missed the opportunity to fly in overseas combat, Williams told the Stanford Lawyer, a publication of Stanford University Law School, in 2008.

After leaving the Army, Williams went on to run a dance studio in San Mateo. When he was 60, he graduated with a law degree from Stanford University and practiced law for 20 years.

In 2007, Williams was present at the U.S. Capitol when President George W. Bush presented members of the Tuskegee Airmen with the Congressional Gold Medal.

Williams is survived by his wife, Elsie, daughters Penny and Paula, two grandsons and two great-grandchildren.

Williams grew up in a middle-class family in a nice area of San Mateo, where his parents owned a successful cafeteria. “It was always busy in there,” he recalls. “And it employed 20 or so staff; it was one of the reasons so many blacks came to San Mateo.”

The Great Depression changed all that. The family business closed and money was tight. By the time Williams graduated from high school he had to find a way to pay for college tuition. He turned to his passion—tap dancing—and opened a small studio to finance his studies. He graduated from San Mateo Junior College in 1939 but liked teaching dance so much he kept the business going. Then Pearl Harbor was hit. Williams joined his friends—all white—in applying for the Army Air Corps.

“I wanted to serve. I was very patriotic,” he recalls, “And I didn’t want to get drafted because I thought that as a black man I’d be drafted as an infantryman. And I’d seen so many infantrymen after WWI with amputated limbs. Dancing was my life. I thought—I’d rather crash and die than wind up unable to dance. So I set my sights on flying.”

His application was never even processed and he was soon drafted into the lowest level of service: the quartermasters.

To keep his spirits up, he joined fellow quartermasters in a dance troupe—and they were soon performing for officers and visiting dignitaries. It was after one performance that a general congratulated Williams on the show and asked if he could help him in any way. “I immediately said that I wanted to be a pilot,” he recalls.

By the following week, Williams was on his way to Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama where an experimental training program for “negroes” had just been established. The military, like much of American society, was segregated and African Americans had not been allowed to fly. The racism that Williams encountered from the white flight instructors was fierce, and the Tuskegee Airmen had to endure a lot of abuse to get through their training.

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Captain Leslie A. Williams's Timeline

San Mateo, San Mateo County, California, United States
Age 95
California, United States
Skylawn Memorial Park San Mateo San Mateo County California