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The Pursuit of Untold Stories

  • Published
  • By U.S. Staff Sergeant Jay Molden
  • Air Combat Command

The United States Air Force was desegregated in May of 1949.

It was that same year that late Chief Master Sgt Claude Vann Jr. became one of the first few black people to enlist following years of a segregated force.

This year on November 1st, Command Chief Master Sgt. David Wade of Air Combat Command and Command Chief Master Sgt. Christopher Gradel of the 1st Fighter Wing visited Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base to meet with retired Lt. Col. Claude Vann III. They discussed late CMSgt Claude Vann Jr.'s barrier breaking past and how he had a hand in laying the foundation of the future of the USAF.

When Gradel took on his role as Command Chief of the 1st Fighter Wing, he noticed that it seemed as though the Air Force was doing a great job highlighting contributions of past officers of aviation, but that on the walls walking into the building, there is no representation of enlisted leaders that have come through the 1st Fighter Wing.

“We’ve done a great job on one side,” Gradel said. “But when you talk about our enlisted heritage, our enlisted roots, we haven’t done a great job and there’s room for improvement.”

After bringing this to Wade’s attention, Wade said, “the inclusion is not just our officers on the wall, but the enlisted corps and what the enlisted corps has done for air power.”

Gradel and his executive assistant, Tech. Sgt. Loverta De Graitis, began combing through the 1st Fighter Wing’s history. While doing this they stumbled across a photo of Vann Jr. from 1949, who was what is now known as a maintenance command chief.

This sparked the question, could this be the first black CMSgt in the Air Force?

In an article published in November of 1977, Vann Jr. was quoted saying, “every day presents itself with a new unique situation because this job (as a Senior Enlisted Advisor), is a very challenging one. It is also a rewarding one when you see how many positive changes that have come about. Since taking over this job, I have had so many good, positive experiences.”

“[From] 49’ into the 70’s, what Claude Vann Jr. did for our Air Force, moved it forward, but we’re still doing that work today,” Wade said. “Looking at his life and his legacy and knowing that we’re carrying it on today, it makes me proud.”

While visiting Maxwell-Gunter AFB, Wade, Gradel and Vann sat down with Master Sgt Timothy Watson, Superintendent of the Air Force Enlisted Heritage Research Institute, to address the possibility of exemplifying the accomplishments of late Vann Jr. in the “Barrier Breakers” exhibit.

As they spread his photos and letters of appreciation from throughout his career across the table, Vann III pulled a neatly folded green fatigue blouse from a bag. The shoulders, each embraced by eight chevrons, U.S. Air Force on one side of the chest, Vann on the other and the Tactical Air Command shield on the front right pocket. TAC is the lineage and the precursor to ACC.

“He had a way about him,” Vann III said. “I just wish he lived long enough to smell the roses that he’s getting now.”

During an interview with Wade and Gradel, Wade said, “we must first look into the past before stepping into the future,” expressing the significance of acknowledging the accomplishments of our enlisted members and the mistakes that were made, how they shaped where the force is today, and where it is going in the future.

Following months of research, Watson found that Vann Jr. was not the first black CMSgt in the Air Force, but was the first black aircraft maintenance CMSgt.

This prompts another question: how many more Untold Stories are waiting to be discovered?

Watch the Untold Stories short documentary here: