Herb Thorpe had never seen segregation with his own eyes until he passed through Louisiana in the winter of 1942.
“I had come down from Brooklyn,” he explains, “I’d never seen anything like that.”
Travelling to Biloxi, Mississippi by way of Salt Lake City, Thorpe was en route by train to a screening camp for would-be cadets of the Tuskegee Institute, where all black military aviators were trained at the time.
“I had Pullman tickets from Salt Lake City all the way to Louisiana,” Thorpe recalls. “I had dining car privileges, I had sleeping car privileges, but that was restricted to African Americans at that time.”
Despite racial segregation laws in various states, the privileges afforded by Thorpe’s ticket were honored by the train line — until he reached New Orleans.
“I had Army orders, so the train company honored those orders until I got to Louisiana,” Thorpe remembers. “In Louisiana, they told me they could no longer allow me to be on those cars.”
In the station at New Orleans, Thorpe’s introduction to institutionalized racism would continue. “I went right up to the main counter, I didn’t know the difference,” he says. “I just slid up to the counter an gave the guy my ticket.”
Thorpe says the clerk curtly redirected him — “your counter is in the back.”
“I walked around back, and that was the first time I’d seen, you know, drinking fountains marked ‘colored, white,’” Thorpe recalls. “And over the doors into the station were the signs that said ‘white, colored.’”
Life in Brooklyn wasn’t a vacuum, and he had heard of segregation abstractly, says Thorpe. “I’d heard stories about it, I said ‘well, some of you guys, maybe you’re kidding or something.’”
“But people who’d come up from the south, they’d lived through that, they knew what it was like. Me, I never had firsthand experience until I went to New Orleans.”
“So, I went into the ‘colored’ entrance,” Thorpe says, “and I went to the window, and the clerk that told me to go around back, he was the same guy.”
New Orleans was the last stop before the screening camp in Biloxi, and from there Thorpe would go to Tuskegee, Alabama for flight school. He hoped to fight to in a war that he had witnessed arrive on his country’s doorstep from a hastily built camp in the sleepy Mohawk Valley.
Thorpe graduated high school and entered an economy still in the throes of the greatest financial crisis ever encountered. Like so many of his generation, his best chance at securing employment came through enrollment in one of the government programs comprising President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
“Factories are shut down, you know, everything’s closed, there’s no work, and so kids are wandering the streets,” Thorpe recalls of the depression era. “So, the president started a youth camp program called the CCC — Civilian Conservation Corps — in the ‘30s, and he opened camps up across the country.” The CCC was to carry out development of government-owned land
and conservation of natural resources.
Absent other opportunity, Thorpe joined the CCC. He was assigned to a camp in Van Etten, New York, not far from Elmira. “That was the fall of 1940, ‘cause it was right after high school,” he recalls.
The Van Etten camp, for reasons unclear, would close down sometime in the next year. “They closed the camp, so they had to send the campers somewhere,” says Thorpe. “So they sent a bunch of us up here, up to Camden.”
The new camp — in a hamlet called Empeyville, some five miles north of Camden — wouldn’t host Thorpe for long. “I don’t think I was there more than a month, something like that,” he says.
It was during this brief window that the trajectory of Thorpe’s young adult life, and indeed the trajectory of history, changed suddenly.
“I was sitting in the office on December the seventh, 1941,” Thorpe says, reaching deep into his memory. “I used to work in the office sometimes anyway, so I had access to the office and I was sitting there and the radio was on. And that’s when they said that the Japanese had just, uh, bombed Pearl Harbor.”
Thorpe, like countless of his peers, would be spurred to action by the news. After his momentary stay in Empeyville, Thorpe would be assigned to a CCC camp in Beltsville, Maryland in early 1942. Before the end of the year, his days as a CCC worker were over.
“By the fall of ‘42, I was back in Brooklyn,” says Thorpe. “And when I was back in Brooklyn, I was back in the same old places. I was looking around for something to do, so I decided to enlist.”
After enlistment, Thorpe would attend basic training in Salt Lake City, Utah, before making the cross-country trek to Tuskegee for flight school. By the time he began cadet training, it was the spring of 1943.
At the institute, says Thorpe, cadets were separated into fighter and bomber flight schools. “Myself and a group of us were selected to go to what’s called multi-engine training,” he explains. “We were sent to gunnery school in Florida. I trained in the B-17 on the belly turret,” he says, referring to the machine mounted on the plane’s underside.
Thorpe’s training continued, this time on a different plane — and in the pilot’s chair.
“I guess that was one of the first real exciting things that really happened to me — flying by myself,” Thorpe says. The solo flight in a B-25 bomber was the final phase of the training process, and he was officially ready to ship out to Europe as a member of the 477th Bombardment Group.
However, the war came to an end before Thorpe or any member of the 477th was deployed. “When I qualified as a pilot in a B-25, it was fall of 1945,” he says, the war having ended in both theaters by mid-August. As a result, Herb Thorpe never flew in combat, instead serving out his term and returning home.
“I went back to Brooklyn in ‘46, in the fall of ‘46,” Thorpe remembers. “And then I enrolled in college under the G.I. bill — you know, the government would pay your tuition for you to go to college.”
He graduated from New York University with a degree in electrical engineering. Thorpe married his wife, Jessie, in 1951, and returned to government work after finding employment at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
“And they were going to close that, close the navy yard, so I applied to other government laboratories, and I wound up in the Rome Air Development Center here in Griffiss.”
“That’s how I ended up in Rome.”
The Thorpes would settle in Westmoreland, working and raising a family only a few miles from the quiet wood north of Camden where Herb’s life and the course of a nation changed so many years ago.