One of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen, Brig. Gen. Enoch “Woody” Woodhouse, visited the Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division Newport on Feb. 6 to share his military and life experiences with the workforce, as part of the command’s Black History Month celebration.
The 96-year-old Roxbury, Massachusetts, native spoke with insight, sentimentality, and humor, as he conveyed how he joined the legendary all-Black fighter pilot unit and dealt with racism within and outside of the military.
“It is very exciting to have Brig. Gen. Enoch ‘Woody’ Woodhouse with us today. This is a real piece of American history,” Division Newport Commanding Officer Capt. Chad Hennings said, when introducing the guest speaker.
Woodhouse began his presentation by recalling a date that would change his life forever —Dec. 7, 1941, the day Pearl Harbor was attacked.
“My mother said to my brother and I, ‘America is at war. I want you boys to serve your country,’” Woodhouse said. “Imagine a Black woman telling all she had in the world, her two sons, to fight for America while we grew up seeing pictures of Black people being lynched and mistreated.”
At age 17, Woodhouse enlisted in the U.S. Army and eventually served in the U.S. Army Air Corps, the precursor to the U.S. Air Force. His brother became one of the first Black Marines.
“You do the right thing, no matter what your circumstances are,” Woodhouse said. “So what was the right thing? We signed up. I was going off to defend democracy, which perhaps didn’t defend me, but I did the right thing.”
It didn’t take long for Woodhouse to realize that doing the right thing, wouldn’t always be easy.
Having never been farther south than New York City, Woodhouse was traveling on a train from Boston to Texas for basic training. However, when the train reached a scheduled stop in St. Louis, a white conductor tapped him on the shoulder and made him disembark.
“I was the only Black guy on a train full of kids fresh out of high school,” Woodhouse said. “The guy tapped me not-so-gently on the shoulder and said ‘get off the train.’ So I got off the train with my duffle bag and $8 in my pocket.”
A Black porter informed Woodhouse that Black people weren’t allowed to ride that train. The train he was allowed to ride arrived six hours later, causing him to show up late for his assignment, much to the chagrin of his white drill sergeant.
After basic training, Woodhouse was transferred to the U.S. Army Air Corps in Ogden, Utah, where he was assigned to Squadron F, an all-Black squadron. Squadron F primarily did housekeeping, such as upkeep of the roads and peeling potatoes for the unit. Woodhouse was fortunate to get one of the more coveted jobs as a waiter in the Officer’s Club.
“It had its advantages,” Woodhouse said. “I got to eat good food and take good food back to the barracks. I shared my steaks.”
Woodhouse, who spoke several languages, always kept his favorite book close by − a book written by 14th-century Italian poet/writer Dante Alighieri, who is most famous for writing “Inferno.” While cleaning the Officer’s Club one evening, a lieutenant spotted the book. When he learned that it belonged to Woodhouse, the impressed lieutenant told him he would help him apply for Officer Candidate School.
Commissioned a second lieutenant at age 19, Woodhouse was assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group, better known as the Tuskegee Airmen, where he became paymaster/finance officer for the squadron, which consisted of 992 pilots and more than 14,000 other personnel. The squadron was led by Benjamin Oliver Davis Jr. and compiled an outstanding record in combat during World War II.
“It was a trustworthy position because you were paid by cash,” Woodhouse said. “Every person was supposed to be paid on the first of the month. But a lot of our Black troops would be sent on TDY (temporary duty assignment). When they presented their orders to be paid by the first of the month, they were told the finance office doesn’t have sufficient funds or the finance office closes at 2 o’clock. Colonel Davis flew me out to every place where our men were on TDY to see that they were paid on the first of the month.”
Woodhouse continued to captivate the audience with stories from his days in the military, which included assignments in other countries. He then welcomed people to ask questions.
When asked what motivated him to keep going when things got tough, Woodhouse responded, “The main reason was I was sent out to do the right thing. My mother told me, ‘boy, serve our country.’ I didn’t want to let her down. I wasn’t raised like that.”
Woodhouse concluded his presentation with his vision for America.
“My vision of America is not utopia,” Woodhouse said. “Let’s treat each other decently. Let’s treat each other fairly, as we want to be treated. We shouldn’t let our differences divide us. The future of America is indeterminate. It depends on all of us. We’re making the vision for America. People can have different political views, but we should not let those different views divide us on our common voyage of making America a true democracy.”
Woodhouse joined the Massachusetts Reserves after his active duty service and retired as a lieutenant colonel. In 2022, he was appointed to the rank of brigadier general by Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker. In 2007, Woodhouse, along with other Tuskegee Airmen, received the Congressional Gold Medal from President George W. Bush.
Following a standing ovation after his presentation at Division Newport, Woodhouse was presented with a photo taken with Hennings and Technical Director Ron Vien.
Division Newport’s leadership also thanked Don Gomes, Division Newport’s Affirmative Employment Program and Special Emphasis Program Manager and David Rhodes, lead of the special emphasis Black program, for their work in organizing the event.
A video from the presentation is posted here:
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