July 20, 1921 – September 1988
Fred Archer was the first Black person to earn the rank of Chief Master Sergeant in the U.S. Air Force.
There are so many unsung heroes in the world, and there are so many people in the world that has never heard the songs these heroes sang. They left ever lasting impressions on the world by living lives committed to making changes, making the world a better place to live. They would even give their lives for that commitment. If one doesn’t live a committed life, that life doesn’t seem to make a difference. Here is the story of one of those heroes.
Fred Archer was born in New York in 1921. He was 17 years old when he entered the New York National Guard in 1939. He served two years in the infantry prior to going on active duty with the Army Air Corps in 1941. He entered the service at a time when racial segregation was a way of life in the military.
A study of African Americans by the War Department in 1925 erroneously and unfortunately concluded that Afro-Americans lacked the basic skills and qualifications necessary to fly and maintain aircraft. The services were also segregated. Initially, Afro-Americans were usually assigned to tasks such as cooks, drivers, and other unskilled labor jobs. It wasn’t until pressure was applied by several civilian sources and from the president’s wife, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, that the government became willing to investigate the possibility that Blacks might be able to fly planes. Mrs. Roosevelt knew that Blacks could fly as a result of a flight she took with Charles “Chief” Anderson, the first African American to receive a pilot’s license in the United States. With pressure, Congress created the 99th Pursuit Squadron in 1941 to see if Blacks were capable of operating and maintaining aircraft. This is when Chief Archer began his active duty service. He and 13 other Blacks left New York for Chanute Field, Illinois where they received their technical training. Chief Archer was quoted in an article in the Desert Airman (February 10, 1989) as saying: “Due to segregation most of us in the 99th didn’t go to tech-school; tech-school was brought to us.” These airmen ended up at Tuskegee Airfield to become the support crew for a group of pilots that would later be called the Tuskegee Airmen, the flat African Americans to enter the Army Air Corps.
Most of his career he has been NCOIC and that means Noncommissioned Officer In Charge of whatever shop he was in, and it’s always been munitions maintenance, A&E (Armament and Electronics) which was at Davis Monthan AFB, AZ.
The 99th was called to battle during World War 11. They fought fiercely over the Mediterranean area, not only with the enemy but also with the segregated style in the U.S. military such as White Americans telling the enemy that Afro-Americans had tails. Men in the 99th proved themselves to be truly outstanding American airmen and pilots. In Europe the 332nd Fighter Group joined them. The 332nd had many nicknames including, Schwartze Vogelmenschen (Black flying men), a name given to them by the Germans who both respected and feared them. The White American bomber pilots called them “Black Red Tail Angels” because they painted their P-47 thunderbolts and P-51 mustangs with distinctive blood red tail markings, and they never lost a bomber they escorted over Europe. The 332nd came home with 150 medals, including Flying Crosses, Legions of Merit, Silver Stars, Purple Hearts, Croix De Guerre, and a Red Star of Yugoslavia.
Returning home after World War II did not mean the battles were over for Black airmen. They still had to battle discrimination and segregation on the homefront. Mrs. Archer described an example of discrimination when they were stationed in North Carolina at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. It was time for the Archer’s only son, Steve, to start first grade. Initially the school would not accept him because of his color. Without accepting help from civil rights organizations, Chief Archer solved this problem on his own. Several weeks later Steve was accepted in the previous all White school. Chief Archer had a quiet style of solving problems. When he was told that no Black could be a member of the NCO club at Davis Monthan, he applied anyway, and a couple of weeks later his application was approved. Mrs. Archer described another incident of discrimination when she and her husband had to sit upstairs in what she believes was the Fox theater in downtown Tucson when they were first stationed here. They never returned to the Fox or any other theater except drive ins during their initial seven-year stay in Tucson.
No stranger to segregation, Sgt. Archer had been sent to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, the same bus system that Rosa Parks rode with until her feet got tired. One incident that really stands out in Mrs. Archer’s mind is when her husband was sent to Texas to pick up another airman that was AWOL and Sgt. Archer was told that he couldn’t sit in the same train car with his White prisoner.
While Sgt. Archer was stationed at Lockbourne Air Force Base in Ohio along with all the other Black airmen, President Truman issued Executive Order #9981 in July, 1948, declaring an end to segregation in the military. In 1949 Chief Archer was assigned to Davis Monthan Air Force Base here in Tucson. When he first arrived, according to Mrs. Archer, he was told: “We don’t know what to do with you. You’ve got too much rank [Master Sergeant] to even drive a garbage truck.” They soon figured out what to do with him — he was made NCOIC of the Armament Shop. Desert life prompted Sgt. Archer to call Frances and after describing the desert, he proposed marriage and invited her to come to Tucson because “misery loves company.”
Chief Archer was the first Afro-American to earn the rank of CMSgt. and the first to be nominated (three times) for the position of Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. His military decorations include the Bronze Star, Meritorious Service Medal with clusters, Air Force Commendation medal, and 15 other service awards. He has posthumously been nominated by officer at Davis Monthan for the Memorialization Program at Tactical Air Command headquarters. If chosen, a building at Langley Meld, Virginia will be named in his honor. He served 33 years in the military and saw duty in World War II, the Korean Conflict, and the Vietnam War. He retired from the Air Force in 1974.
Chief Archer not only served his country through an amazing and magnificent military career, he also continued to serve his community during his retirement years. Mrs. Archer says that he only retired for two years before he became involved with the Model Cities Program, a program that Mrs. Archer herself had been involved in, and in 1978 he was made the first Director of the “A” Mountain Neighborhood Center, an institution that “was his heart” according to Mrs. Archer. He designed the plans for the entire center (with a few changes). Being a modest man however, he didn’t even put his name on the drawings though he had spent seven Saturday mornings meticulously drawing plans. There were many positive accomplishments that Sgt. Archer did not share with his family. That was his style. The center that he worked so hard to acquire along with the swimming pool, now appropriately bears the chief s name. One of the lakes in Silverlake Park carries his name as well as the Tucson Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. In addition to his work at the center, he was also a member of several civic organizations.
Chief Archer was truly a hero. He overcame many hurdles and barriers in life, not just for himself, but for the benefit of others as well. This unsung hero has sung a song of life that will forever have an impact on the way we live. CMSgt. Archer departed this life in September, 1988. The saying that “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away” may be true. However, the memory of Chief Archer will not fade; it will remain alive in the hearts and minds of Tucsonans and others throughout the United States.
The CAF Red Tail Squadron is a volunteer-driven organization dedicated to educating audiences across the country about the history and legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, America’s first black military pilots and their support personnel. Learn more at www.redtail.org.