As a student at Winchester’s Oliver High School in the 1950s, John Prewitt remembers reading about far away places in his geography textbook. While he was fascinated by what he read, Prewitt didn’t think there would ever be a way for him to travel and see the world firsthand.
Then a few former Oliver High students came home to visit while on leave from the Air Force, and Prewitt was so impressed with their stories, he decided to try the military himself.
It was a decision that led to visits around the world, from Hawaii to Greenland to the North Pole.
On May 28, 1954, 17-year-old Prewitt graduated from Oliver High, and enlisted in the Air Force the next day.
“I turned 18 in French Morocco, and I went to Paris and London,”¿Prewitt said in a phone interview from his home in New Jersey.
For an African-American man in small town Kentucky, Prewitt said the Air Force presented opportunities he might never have had otherwise. His 20-year career began with basic training at Sampson Air Force Base in New York, and technical training at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss. His first assignment was as a radio operator on a refueling plane, based at Castle Air Force Base in Merced, Calif.
“I was responsible for all the air-to-ground communications as an airborne radio operator. The most notable activity was air refueling one of the Air Force’s first B-52s,” Prewitt said.
His work as a radio operator took him to Dow Air Force Base in Bangor, Maine, where he flew on missions to Newfoundland, Greenland, and even the North Pole.
By 1959, he was transferred to Tachikawa Air Force Base in Japan, where he flew with the 6th Troop Carrier Squadron. By that time, technology had changed and pilots were operating radio equipment themselves. Prewitt was offered the opportunity to cross train, and he opted to become a loadmaster.
Another transfer led him to Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, Calif., in 1962. His duties included regular flights to Cape Canaveral, Fla., transporting missiles for NASA, including the first Gemini booster rocket and the Atlas missile.
Prewitt said he was fortunate because he rarely encountered overt racism within the military. When traveling, he stayed with friends or on military bases and avoided situations where there was the possibility of discrimination. At Cape Canaveral, however, there was no military base, and Prewitt found it difficult to find food and lodging.
“There were no facilities for an African-American. The government had entrusted me with a multi-million dollar aircraft, and a multi-million dollar rocket, but I couldn’t go to a restaurant to get a sandwich, nor could I go to a hotel or motel and get a room,” Prewitt said.
Growing up in Winchester, Prewitt was aware of racial discrimination, attending the segregated Oliver High School.
“It’s frustrating right now to even think about something like that taking place, but during that time, we were going through a lot of turmoil, so we just had to accept it and go along with it,” Prewitt said.
Within the military, soldiers typically respected one another because they relied on each other to complete their jobs. Racism was less obvious, Prewitt said, like passing over African-American soldiers for promotions.
When President John F. Kennedytook office in 1961, Prewitt said there were some noticeable changes in the way African-Americans were treated, but attitudes didn’t really change along with the laws. Public facilities may have been more open to African-Americans, but many people still clung to racist ideologies.
Prewitt was stationed at Travis until 1965, where he met his future wife, Joanne, and the couple married in 1967.
After leaving California, Prewitt was sent to Da Nang Air Force Base in Vietnam. At that point, Prewitt was a 10-year Air Force veteran.
“Our mission was to resupply any and all areas that needed our services. We did that resupply via take-offs and landings or aerial delivery,” Prewitt said.
In Vietnam, Prewitt logged 824 combat sorties, take-offs and landings in hostile areas, and 522 hours and 22 minutes of flight time.
He was also the only African-American on his crew.
“It was easier in Vietnam only because we actually had to depend on one another both on base and off to exist. You didn’t know when you had to come together to protect one another. Here in the United States, we knew who was who, and you avoided whenever possible, those type of individuals,” Prewitt said.
There were a few incidents when Prewitt encountered other soldiers off base.
“Every once in awhile, we would go into Saigon, and you would run into some racist comments from your own military people,” Prewitt said, although “no one would dare do that on base.”