Civil Rights, Law, and the Federal Courts: The Life of Cecil Poole, 1914-1997

Military Service: Trials and Tribulations


I liked trial work. When I was an enlisted man up in New Hampshire, I was, of course, a member of a bar, and so I was called upon to defend some of the soldiers in courts martial, because though there was a designated trial judge advocate and a designated defense counsel, enlisted people mistrusted them and thought that they would be delivered into the hands of the Philistines if they took their counsel. So they went through what they called a Form 20; every soldier had a Form 20 that listed who he was, date of birth, where he came from, his schooling, and what his occupation was. That way, theoretically, they could assign you to something that would be befitting your educational skill. Well, as you may know, in those days the armed services were

thoroughly and entirely segregated. So I was working for the National Labor Relations Board. I told you that, didn't I?


Yes, you did.


I got my draft notice while I was in Washington with the NLRB [National Labor Relations Board], and they sent me to the North Atlantic Wing of the Air Transport Command based in Manchester, New Hampshire. That was about, I guess, probably forty miles from Boston. I was assigned to an all-black squadron, which was primarily one that did labor work.


You were doing some courts martial?


Yes. Not right away. What really happened was, there was a soldier—a Caucasian soldier—who got into a tremendous thing with his commanding officer, and they were out to really take his hide off. He didn't want the defense counsel that was selected for him to defend him, because he felt that he had no chance. So they went through these forms. These forms were coded by having holes in them at certain places. And where you could find this long needle to go through there, it would pick out people, so they could see who on there had training.


They found you.


I became a staff sergeant very quickly. My commanding officer said, "I'm not going to let you hang around as a private." So within about four or five months I was a staff sergeant. My commanding officer came and said, "The commandant of the base wants you come up to headquarters." And I said, "What have I done?" And he said, "What they want you to do is they want you to defend somebody from one of the other outfits who is in trouble." So I went up there, and they explained to me what it was.

The base trial judge advocate was a fellow named—I've forgotten his first name. His name was Oberg. Major Oberg explained to me that this man had really been a hard person to deal with, that he'd been in trouble before, and he had threatened his commanding officer. In fact, he was a big, powerful guy. He said he rejected the defense counsel. "And so we looked up these names, and we found your name and four or five others." He took this to him, and he looked at it, and he said, "Hey, who is this guy?" And he said, you know, "This is not a white noncom?" Major Oberg said, "He's not," and he said, "That's the one I want." So, I got the manuals and the specifications and all that, and I went to the trial.


I realized that a court martial is not like a courtroom. You had to exercise some discretion as to how you objected to things. I decided that I wasn't going to object to anything that wasn't important. If it was important, I would; and I did make some objections on several occasions, much to the disgust of the trial judge advocate. There was a law judge. They always had somebody on a court martial who was called the law judge, and he may or may not be a lawyer, but in this Grenier [Field] appeal he was. So several times, he sustained my objections. They convicted this man, let me tell you that. There was no way in the world that he was not going to be convicted. I think there were three specifications. They used to have the charge, and they'd have the specification that underlay a charge. One of the specifications they dropped.


Thanks to your help?




So that was a success.


Oh yes, and he was very glad. They sent him to jail for three years. They had said he was looking at fifteen. But he got three years in jail and a dishonorable discharge and so forth. He asked me to come down to the stockade shortly after that. I remember he put his hand through—he was in the cell, and I was going to shake hands, and there was a sentry on duty, and he said, "No, you can't touch him. But wait a minute, I think you're allowed to have him come out of there and into the conference room." So I went into the conference room with him and he thanked me. He said, "I'm never going to forget this." He said, "Look, I'll do that time, don't worry about me, I'll do that time," he said, "but boy," he said "that was sure some—" He said, "You should have seen that major's face when they sustained your objections."

My fame kind of spread rapidly on the base, and I got several other calls to represent. But I became selective. I knew not to get into too much of that. And besides, I did have a responsible occupation. Grenier Field was the headquarters of the Northwest Base of the Air Transport Command, and its mission was to ship planes and supplies overseas to England. The planes would get loaded up at Omaha, Nebraska—they were huge cargo planes—and they would bring them to New Hampshire, and there they would load them with all the things that had to be loaded, and they had to be precisely loaded because of the weight. So I had charge of a crew that loaded these things.


Let me just interrupt you a minute and ask you about the courts martial again. Don't they have a pretty solid case before they even bring a court martial, so that defending must be difficult?


Well, they did have a solid case. The commanding officer testified. And I remember I asked the commanding officer—I said, "I'm informed, Captain, that this wasn't the first time there had been some altercation involving this soldier." He said, "I wouldn't call it an altercation," he said, "I called it a publication." And I looked at the law judge and I said, "I'm not sure that's a responsive answer," and the law judge said, "It isn't." He said, "Captain, can you answer the question?"


Was that true of the other people you defended too, that they had a really strong case?


I think, altogether, I did four. On one case what they did was they came with the proposition that if he would plead to this, they would forget the rest of it, and he did. On the other two, they were hopeless. They could not possibly make it, and so what I did was I worked out a plea. As I say, I had other things to do on the base. Eventually, I went off to Officer Candidate School. I may have told you about that.


I don't believe so.


I went to Officer Candidate School; they called it the Air Force Administrative School, in that that would distinguish it from the pilot training school. They had just moved from San Antonio, Texas, to Montgomery, Alabama.


I'll bet you didn't look forward to that too much.


That bastion of ignorance. But I got along well after my initial problems. I had been there about three weeks when I inquired—and I was the only black person in the class. In fact, in the school itself there were two others. They didn't have any other schools.

One morning we were told we were going to go to what they called aquatics. That's a fancy name for "get your swimming training." So, we went there and we were in the water—some guys couldn't swim at all—and a jeep drove up, and in the jeep there was a young tactical officer. He talked to the person who was in charge of the training for us and the person called me—they had to call everybody mister down there—"Mr. Poole," he said, "the lieutenant wants to talk to you." So I got out of the water, and I wondered, To what do I owe this honor?


The lieutenant was from Malden, Massachusetts. I can't remember his name, but I can see him. He said, "Mr. Poole, the commandant has ordered that you and your two comrades"—now you understand these guys are ahead of me in school, so I'm not a comrade to them—"have your aquatics training elsewhere." Here's what it was. This was at a place called Maxwell Field, Alabama. They had long, long runways for what were the largest bombers in the world, the B-29, that split Maxwell Field into two. On the one side was the field, the administrative offices, the barracks, the cadet barracks, and swimming pool and recreation facilities and all that. On the other side of these runways was where there was a black labor battalion. This battalion had its own swimming pool, its own barracks, its own mess hall, its own theater, and so they had no occasion to be on the other side of the runway unless they were on assignment of some sort.

It was at this place that the tactical officer [ordered us to swim]. I had seen it, but I had never been over there. I had only been there two or three weeks. I said, "Well, why that?" He said, "Why? Because the commandant has ordered it." I said, "I won't do it." He said, "It's not my order. I know how you must feel about it. I just have to tell you what the commandant said." And I said, "I won't do it." He said, "Anyhow, the commandant wants to see you." So I dried myself off and put on my uniform and we drove over to the commandant's headquarters.

When I got there, to my surprise, these other two black soldiers were there. They were ahead of me. I didn't know what they were doing there. I said, "Why are you here?" They said, "Well, I guess they're going to tell us what they told you." They had us come inside, and the commandant was sitting at this long desk, and on each side there were a couple of training officers with him. He looked at me and said, "Mr. Poole, I understand you have expressed some dissatisfaction with our aquatics program." This is where I made a mistake. I guess I felt so humiliated that I didn't use my judgment, and I said something flippantly to him. I said, "No, sir." He said "You didn't?" I said, "No, sir, I don't know what it is yet." It didn't go over very big. So he said, "The order is that you and your comrades"—and that used to make me shrink because it ran roughshod over the whole thing. You know, you saluted these guys. He said, "I understand that you said you would not participate in it." I said, "Sir, what I said was that I think that order is wrong, and I think it is a humiliating order, and I told the tactical officer that I would not obey that order." The commandant almost came out of his chair. He said, "What do you mean you won't obey that order? This is an order, and when you get an order, you obey an order in the military." I said, "I think, sir, that is so, unless the

order is so offensive that it can't be a valid order." I just stood there.

And then he asked the other two how they felt about it. And each of them said, well, he didn't think it was right, but it was an order and he would obey it. Then he came back to me and said, "Now, you see what your colleagues said. What about you?" I told him that I didn't think they should be responsible for what I said and did. If they felt differently, okay, but I didn't, and that was the way I felt about it. So then he said—he became conciliatory—"What were you in civilian life, a social worker?" I said, "No, sir." And he said, "What were you?" And I said, "Well, I was an attorney for the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C." "Oh, well," he said, "you came into the service to help your people, didn't you?" Mistake number two was I said, "No, I came in because I was drafted." Oh, he didn't like that. I could have done without that, by the way. He then said, "Well, don't you think you'll be more help if you get a commission? Can't you do more for your feelings if you get a commission than if not?"


He said, "Well, this is an order, and if you disobey that order, you will be court martialed, do you understand that? I said, "Yes, sir, I understand that." And he said, "We'll put a court martial together before you can turn around." I said, "I would make one request. I would like to see if I could get counsel of my own selection." I named two people. One of them was Thurgood Marshall. He didn't know Thurgood Marshall from a hole in the head.

Then he became conciliatory again, and he said, "Maybe what you ought to do is maybe you should resign from the academy here." And I said, "Sir, if I did that, I could never prove that I would otherwise have been able to finish this training." I said, "I don't think I'm going to have any trouble with the academic or the physical part of the cadetship here, and I won't resign. I mean no offense to you, but I'm not going to resign. I think this is wrong; I feel humiliated; and I am a soldier. I have a dilemma. I mean, how far can I go? I don't know. I need some legal advice." He asked me some more questions about where I came from, what I did and so forth, and my education.

Then they retired and left us standing there. They went into the commandant's inner office. My two comrades, as he had put it, were standing. When he asked them about it and they said they would obey if it was an order, I had said, "I don't speak for them. And I hope that nothing that I say or do is going to

prejudice them, but their feelings are not mine. I will be responsible for my own feelings, and I hope that they will not suffer at all by it." They said, "What can we do?" I said, "Well, I don't know, but there is no way that I'm going to do this, and I guess you can say goodbye to me after a while, because they'll sure put me in the stockade, but I'm going to do so." So they dismissed those two, and then I stayed there by myself.

Then one of the sergeant majors came out of the office and said, "Mr. Poole, you are to go to your quarters and remain there until further notice." I said, "Is this what you call house arrest?" "Well," he said, "I can't answer that for you, but the commandant just said go to your quarters and remain there." So I went there. I guess I stayed there for an hour and a half or so. Then this same sergeant major came to my door and he said, "Mr. Poole, have you had lunch?" It was past lunch by that time, and I said, "No, I have not." He said, "Well, you're to go to the cadet lunch hall and have your lunch." I said "What do I do then?" He said, "You're to rejoin your class." And I said, "Oh, just like that?" He said, "That's all I know." [Laughs] So I went and had something to eat and then I joined my class.

Not all of those in the class were friendly or anything. I didn't have anything to do with a whole bunch of them. I had a few friends there. Word had spread that I had been pulled out of the water, and I told them what it was. So that was it. During the entire time that we were there, to and including the day we got our commissions, we never went into the water. We never did the aquatics—never, ever.

My two comrades finished and left me. I was the only black person there, but I got along all right. I did very well in the athletics, except for the fact I was skinny and physically at some disadvantage, but I could run. I could outrun most everybody in the class, so I got along fine. As a matter of fact, when I finished I think I was the fourth on the physical list, and I was third or fourth on the academic list.

About a month after I had this thing with the commandant, I went into the cadet recreation hall, where you could play ping pong. They had sofas, and sometimes a soldier would have his girl friend or some friend there, so I would go there with them. And that same tactical officer came over to me and said, "By the way, Mr. Poole," he said, "I want you to know if you want to go to the base on the other side of the runway," he said, "all you have to do is call the motor pool. They have been given instructions. They'll send a jeep with a driver and take you over there. Stay as long as you want to stay." And I thanked him very much.


So I was telling a couple of my close friends about this and kind of laughing, and one of them said, "Hey, hey, we've got us a car!" [Laughter] So on several occasions, I called a car from the motor pool and we would get in the car and we would drive around. We would get on the roadway and meet some young officers. They didn't even look at us; they just saluted. [Laughter]

I got along pretty well. When the time came for our commissions, for some reason the commissions were held up. They were supposed to have the service for awarding them on Saturday morning, and on Saturday morning they said there had been some delay. We didn't get our commissions until Monday. On Monday we got them, and there were a lot of plans for getting out of there. We all got a ten-day furlough. So getting out of there, the plans had been disrupted. I said to my friend, "Hey, look, tell you what, I'm going to call for this jeep for the last time, and I'm going to have him take me to Birmingham." We were in Montgomery, and that was, I guess, what, ten miles or so away from Maxwell. "You guys, if you want to come, I'll get you a ride." Only one of them was coming at the time. But the guy from the motor pool came up, and he said, "Oh, you're the one, huh?" I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "I heard about you. You got your own car here." [Laughter] He said, "Where you going?" I said, "We're going to Birmingham." He said, "Birmingham? Yeah, I'll take you." So we loaded up and went to Birmingham. That's how I left Maxwell Field.


Where did you go after that?


After my leave, I was assigned back to Alabama, to Tuskegee, Alabama, which was the headquarters of the 332nd Fighter Group. This was the original group of black pilots who had been trained in combat and overtrained and overtrained, and they finally sent them off to Africa when Rommel was threatening. They had gone through Africa and they had gone also to the Italian landing. Then they decided to bring them back because they were going to let others take over that, and they were preparing for the war against Japan. So they brought them back and some of them shifted from single-engine fighter planes to light bombers. I was assigned to that base as an assistant trial judge advocate to this outfit. We did a lot of flying around.


Holding courts martial?


No, no. They would go on these trips, and I would go on the trips with them too.


R & R [rest and recreation]?


Yes, but actually they were supposed to get a certain amount of cross-country flight time.


Right, training.


Every time we thought we were going to move, something would happen. So eventually they put us on alert. We were headed out for the Pacific. That's when they dropped the atomic bombs on Japan. When that happened, and ten days later the Japanese surrendered, there was still some talk that we would be going out to help police the area. But nobody really wanted to go there after it was over.

Eventually, they began releasing people from the service, and the executive officer asked me if I wanted to be released. I thought I wasn't hearing him correctly. [Laughter] So I got released, and I called Charlotte, my wife. She had been working in Washington, D.C., and she left and went home. She had an appendectomy.

About this text
Courtesy of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720-6000;
Title: Civil rights, law, and the federal courts : oral history transcript : the life of Cecil Poole, 1914-1917 / Cecil F. Poole
By:  Poole, Cecil F., 1914-1997, Interviewee, Coblentz, William K, Author, Hicke, Carole. ivr, Interviewer
Date: 1997
Contributing Institution: The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720-6000;
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