African American Korean War vet says Air Force ‘opened the whole wide world’

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It’s often called the “Forgotten War,” but the Korean War changed the face of the American military. African Americans were allowed to serve side-by-side with people of all other races for the first time.

During the mid-1950s, a little more than four percent of active duty Air Force personnel were black. Among them was Amelia Cunningham, one of the few black women to enlist in 1954. While she says she had no clue about what she wanted to do with her life, she says it was the best decision she ever made.

“That military it just opened the whole wide world for me,” she said.

As a morning report clerk at Manhattan Beach Air Force Base in New York for three years, it was her job to keep track of the airmen.

Throughout her career, she met people from all over, got to travel the world, and even dabbled in her true passion by participating in military shows as a dancer, like her idol Josephine Baker.

She says her only regret was, “not going to officers school and not making it a 20, 30 year career because I was (snap) and I was taking care of my airmen or serving for even longer.”

Sill spunky at age 85, Cunningham is preparing for one more journey: a trip to Washington, D.C. to see the Korean War Memorial for the first time. She says she’s also looking forward to meeting fellow veterans, and swapping stories about their lives before and after the war.

In her case, she says she took full advantage of everything to came with being a veteran after the war. She finished college on the G.I. Bill and became a Fulbright Hays Scholar,  which allowed her to teach for a year in England.

“I got to meet the Queen Mother who was a very gracious lady,” Cunningham remembers.

For the next 43 years, she worked as an educator for CPS and continued to travel, but she never forgot her time in the Air Force.

“It’s a great opportunity, it opened my world,” she said. “I tell people come to Air Force because we sleep on clean sheets.”

As she prepares for her Honor Flight, she’s bracing herself for the emotions it will bring. While it’s going to be difficult, she says she’s forever thankful for the time she spent in the Air Force.

“I don’t want to start crying, but it’s going to be difficult seeing all those names on that wall,” she said.

Ms. Cunningham joins will be joined by 100 other Korean and World War II veterans flying to D.C. with Honor Flight Chicago Wednesday morning.


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