By Capt. Sarah E.M. Schwennesen, 66th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
/ Published March 08, 2006
HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. -- This history of one Air Force chief and his son, who became an Army colonel, is about strong faith and determination in the face of obstacles and unimaginable odds.
Col. Wayne Richardson is the U.S. Military Group commander in Ecuador and also the first black Military Group commander in South America. His story of rising to an Army Green Beret is intricately tied to that of his father, who persevered through inequalities to achieve the rank of chief master sergeant.
"He was a pathfinder," Colonel Richardson said of his father. "If he was in the Army, he'd be the guy out in front cutting down the bushes and swinging the machete to lead the way for everyone. He broke down walls."
His father, retired Chief Master Sgt. Walter Richardson joined the Air Force in 1949, not out of any particular desire to be in the military, but to support his sister, Dorothy, through college.
Jan. 13, 1949, Walter Richardson left college and was sworn into the Air Force.
He was in the last all-black flight to go through basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, and was offered two career choices, "we could be truck drivers or cooks. I decided that since I was 19 and had never driven a car in my life, I thought it would be interesting to be a truck driver," he said.
Before he started his career training, Chief Richardson was accepted into an all-black Air Force performance group called "Operation Happiness" by a first lieutenant troupe director who would later become the first black Airman to be promoted to the rank of four-star general, General Daniel "Chappie" James Jr.
After the performing stint, he was sent to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, as a young Airman without an Air Force Specialty Code and met his first challenge there.
When the unit's first sergeant told him the grass needed cutting, then-Airman Richardson learned there were no lawnmowers. He devised a sling out of an old metal ring that he sharpened and used it to cut grass, impressing his superiors. After several more months of odd-jobs, the first sergeant asked him what he would like to do. His quick response indicating aircraft maintenance ensured his selection to be sent to Japan for 16 weeks to learn the trade, where Chief Richardson was an honor graduate.
In 1958, the family received an assignment to Japan and traveled from Florida to California by car, to catch their flight out of Travis, AFB. "Back then there were no hotel accommodations for blacks and the only option was to find blacks who would take you in; the black Airmen would provide lists of families who would do this to help each other out when traveling cross-country. I stopped at Catholic churches for help in finding hotels that would let us stay during this trip," Chief Richardson.
Despite the conditions, the chief said, "It's all about attitude. You can let an attitude drive you in any direction you want." For the first six years of his elementary education, Colonel Richardson was taught by General "Chappie" James' mother, Mrs. James. He said she taught him about seizing opportunity.
"My mother and Mrs. James always said opportunities are there and you have to work at it and don't let people belittle you, don't let those words that fold up your goals make you lose track of where you are going."
He never did. Following Japan was a pivotal tour in the test cell at Dover AFB, Del., where Chief Richardson worked on the C-133 propulsion system and made history.
Then-Tech. Sgt. Richardson quickly became the expert on the C-133 propulsion system and commonly received calls night and day from places as far as Vietnam and Korea for assistance in troubleshooting problems with the plane's engines.
"But he was not getting recognized for his performance. It was almost 10 years since his promotion to technical sergeant. and he still hadn't been promoted, despite his test cell having the best operational readiness rate and he being the best in his field," Colonel Richardson said.
A critical moment came after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. "My mother was hounding him [dad] about why he wasn't getting promoted and he didn't get bitter or mad, he kept a positive attitude," the colonel said. Unbeknownst to him, she wrote a letter to then-President Lyndon B. Johnson about how much he deserved the promotion that he was denied.
Colonel Richardson said his dad came home and told his mom "she couldn't just write to the president about his career and not tell him about it." The following day, then-Tech. Sgt. Richardson was called into the wing commander's office where he was presented with his master sergeant stripes.
"I remember him coming home with the master sergeant stripes on, I thought it was the best day in the world," Colonel Richardson said. "This was a huge jump."
Chief Richardson said he was the first African American to be promoted to Master Sgt. in the field maintenance squadron at Dover because his reputation and work on the C-133 led to engine discoveries that would later save many lives.
After being promoted to chief master sergeant, he had the opportunity to develop a future important general in his wing at Clark Air Base in the Philippines in 1969.
"There was a young captain who was an F-4 flyer with 57 missions over North Vietnam. He was a hotshot pilot and thought he knew it all.
The chief saw something in the captain and told him to listen to him and he would make him one of the finest Air Force officers.
He listened. The captain later became Gen. Lloyd W. "Fig" Newton, the first black American to become a Thunderbird pilot. General Newton retired as Air Education and Training Command commander.
Looking back on his long and varied past, Chief Richardson credits his success to his mother. "All through my early years on Jackson Street in Pensacola [where he was raised], being raised by an unwedded mother, the words were echoed 'not likely to succeed.' But I was out to prove that it could be different."
Colonel Richardson, today, lives up to his father's advice through his own words of wisdom for Soldiers and Airmen. "Focus on performance and don't think about yourself. You are doing this and if you quit now then what happens to the guy coming up behind you, what happens to your child? Open those doors and keep on going. If it is something that you want to do in your heart of hearts, keep going. Don't get bitter, it just eats you up and gives the other guy satisfaction. Do what the leaders want to get done and do the job right to take care of the troops," he said.
Col. Wayne Richardson, U.S. Military Group commander in Ecuador and an Army green beret, growls around his unlit cigar, "Don't let anybody tell you 'you can't do it.'" As the first black Military Group commander in South America, this is more than an idle observation.
A straight-talking, hard-charging bear of a man, he is always on the prowl, jumping at every opportunity to escape the confines of his office to work directly with his people to improve mission accomplishment. He is the quintessential hard-core special forces leader who always tells it how it is.
Professional to the core, the story of how he got to his present position is one that commands respect. Intricately tied to that of his father, the tale is one about perseverance, guts, and the fading legacy of a system tainted by racism and inequality.
The colonel's experiences in the Army are proof that focusing on performance and being outstanding are what got him recognized. "I wanted to go into the Special Forces and be a Green Beret. In the officer's ranks, there is not a heavy population of blacks. But this was the mission I wanted to do, and like my father said, 'If it is what you want to do, you go do it. Don't let anybody tell you can't do it.'"
The colonel never forgot his responsibility to mentor others; that's why when he was stationed in Florida he would visit a youth prison during black history month each year.
"The kids would say, 'It's different for you man,' and I would reply, 'It's not different for me, my dad had no money and we drove on, but I had a dad who loved me and told me not to give up.'
"The lesson is: there isn't an easy road. Go straight ahead and when you get to the top of the hill, the view will be great. You'll feel better at the end of the day when you've done something and accomplished it yourself," the colonel said.
Both the colonel and the chief champion America as the land of opportunity. Due to Colonel Richardson's assignments in Latin America, an El Salvadoran wife and his other global assignments, he has a world-wide perspective about America's blessings.
Colonel Richardson said, "This is truly the land of opportunity. There are very few places you can go in Latin America where you can be born in down-stricken poverty and end up as a rich guy. But in America, every opportunity is afforded and if you want it, you can get it. It doesn't matter who you are, someone will always want to take you down, but you have to drive on."
Despite the subtle discrimination he encountered during his career, the Colonel has maintained this guiding focus during his career. "I wouldn't let it affect me professionally."
Due to his father's position, Colonel Richardson was fortunate to take part in historic events, something that also nurtured his military aspirations.
"In January 1973, when the prisoners of war were flown back from the Hanoi Hilton, I got to stand next to my dad [representing all of the noncommissioned officers in the Philippines] and the official party greeting the returning POWs. I got to shake Jeremiah Denton's hand [one of the longest held POWs in the Hanoi Hilton].
Though the chief is out of the military now, he still remains focused on Airmen doing their absolute best. Final guidance from Chief Richardson to all Airmen is that "just to be accepted to wear the uniform of the U.S. military is an honor; it puts you head and shoulders above anyone else.
"It takes away a selfish attitude and puts you in an unselfish mode where you will go anytime, to anywhere to help others. Take pride in the fact that you are willing to serve for far less money than you deserve and you do it cheerfully. Continue to honor this tradition.
"Honor the fact that we can represent the greatest nation in the world for the willingness to give to others," he said.