Charles Lewis in World War II

Charles Lewis, a Cincinnati native, was called up to the U.S. Army in April 1943. While part of a segregated unit of the Army Air Corps, he wrote letters to his wife nearly every day they were apart. These letters give us a great insight into the African American experience in the Army Air Corps. Here Charles wears his uniform in a photograph taken while home in Cincinnati during leave from Keesler Field, Mississippi.

Charles and Garnetta Lewis were in some ways a very typical couple during World War II. They were young and newly married, with Charles working at Wright Aeronautical on an aircraft assembly line. They were a devoted couple, shown here posing for formal photographs in matching suits.

In his first letter home to his wife, September 1943, Lewis describes the camp, Mississippi and the racism he encounters there, and the type of aircraft with which he could be working.

Lewis writes of his feelings at having to spend his first holiday, Thanksgiving 1943, away from his wife. He is homesick, but he goes on to say that he has a lot to be thankful for and has faith that he will be survive the war.

Lewis writes of his feelings at having to spend his first holiday, Thanksgiving 1943, away from his wife. He is homesick, but he goes on to say that he has a lot to be thankful for and has faith that he will be survive the war.

In his first letter from his new posting at Moody Field, Georgia, January 1944, Lewis discusses his bitter disappointment at being sent for further south. He points out that the conditions are much worse in Georgia than they were in Mississippi, and that the posting itself was a broken promise.

Lewis participated in Army base glee clubs while in training. This program from April 1944 shows Lewis as a performer for one of the numbers in the Moody Field variety show "Contact."

Only a few of Garnetta Lewis's letters to her husband survived the war and the years of storage after the war. In this one from April 1944, Garnetta Lewis describes her dismay over the sudden death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. She writes, "To-day has been a very sad day for me and a many more. Our President died and I can't seem to understand so suddenly."

In this excerpt from an April 1944 letter from Charles to Garnetta Lewis from Moody Field, Georgia, we get a much fuller picture of why Lewis was so upset at being posted in the South again. Lewis describes the racism African American solidiers endured at these postings, both from the Army and the surrounding communities. Trigger warning: language.

In this excerpt from an April 1944 letter from Charles to Garnetta Lewis from Moody Field, Georgia, we get a much fuller picture of why Lewis was so upset at being posted in the South again. Lewis describes the racism African American solidiers endured at these postings, both from the Army and the surrounding communities. Trigger warning: language.

Lewis was deployed in the China-Burma-India Theater in the summer of 1944. In this first letter to Garnetta from that posting, Lewis talks about the trip to India. He also describes an unfortunate reality for many soldiers: the inability to tell their loved ones exactly where they were, due to "operational concerns" reinforced by Army censors.

Lewis took many photographs of his fellow soldiers while stationed in India. This collage shows some of the small-format (less than 2") images he took and sent or brought home.

Although Lewis's unit was segregated, he worked with many different races as part of the plane's crew. This photograph shows Lewis with two Caucasian soldiers on the base in India.

Lewis was very interested in aircraft. Because of regulations, he couldn't tell his wife specifics of his work, but he did photograph everyday work (and goofing off) of the unit. This photograph shows a crew member seated on the wing of one of the "Hump Express" planes flown by the unit.

In this excerpt from a November 1944 letter, Lewis tells his wife about a "run" from India to China to Burma.

This photograph is one of the few we know for certain was taken in Burma; we have none explicitly described as from China, and most are from India. In a letter, Lewis described this as a "Burmese ceremony."

Charles and Garnetta exchanged many greeting cards while Charles was in the Army. This Valentine's Day card from Garnetta to Charles Lewis shows the military theme of many of the cards of the era.

While overseas, Lewis was unable to get home; the trip would have taken longer than any leave. He was, however, given "rest leave" and spent it at the Red Cross's Cosmos Camp in Calcutta, the club for African American soldiers. This receipt shows he paid seven Rupees a night (about $.30) for his lodging in the dormitory, and stayed seven nights.

In his letters, Lewis described some of the incidents that happened to fellow soldiers and equipment while in India, such as this one with a plane on fire.

Lewis wrote about this "Monkey Temple" as one of the most intriguing sites around his base. He visited multiple times and took many shots of the monkeys.

In his letters, Lewis describes this scene of a snake charmer with awe and disbelief.

Many World War II planes were named and decorated by their crews, such as the "Walden Belle" shown here.

Charles wrote Garnetta how much he enjoyed taking photographs of the things he encountered, and very much looked forward to telling her the stories of the photographs. This one goes undescribed in his letters, but appears to be a group of female traditional musicians in India.

In this excerpt from an August 1945 letter, Lewis writes his wife beside himself with excitement about the end of the war with Japan. He expresses optimism that he won't be in India much longer, and hopes he'll be home by Thanksgiving. Later in the letter, he imagines what she'll think of how much he's changed.

In this excerpt from an August 1945 letter, Lewis writes his wife beside himself with excitement about the end of the war with Japan. He expresses optimism that he won't be in India much longer, and hopes he'll be home by Thanksgiving. Later in the letter, he imagines what she'll think of how much he's changed.

In his last letter from his post in Bengal, India, Lewis describes his journey to Karachi. The journey of over 1,000 miles took over 10 hours by plane.

This Christmas 1945 program is from the base in Karachi, the next-to-last holiday Lewis spent in India (he was also in India for New Year's Day 1946).

After a two-month journey by ship, Lewis arrived in the U.S. to the port of San Francisco in March 1946, crossing under the Golden Gate Bridge at 7:30 a.m. This letter details his arrival and his attempts to contact his wife to let her know he'd be home, at long last, very soon.

It is likely Lewis maintained contact with at least some of the members of his unit after the war. While in service, Lewis was a valuable member of the crew of his aircraft and a leader of his unit. He was promoted several times while in the military and left the Air Corps as a staff sergeant.

Credits: Story

From the Collection of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Curators: Gina Armstrong, Cori Silbernagel and Richard Cooper

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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