His hair may have grayed and his “ol’ knees have tightened up a little,” but 97-year-old James Shipley of Tipton clearly recalls many of the details of his service with an all-black fighter squadron in World War II, an experience that bestowed he and his military colleagues with coveted titles of “Tuskegee Airmen” and “Redtails.” The role he played during World War II have made him a sought after speaker, affording him opportunites to describe the lecacy of his service with the famed flight group that fought overseas for some of the very freedoms they were denied back home.
“Other than the time I was in the service, I have lived in Tipton my entire life,” said the veteran. “When I was a kid, I attended Harrison School, which was for the black students in the area since the school system was segregated back then.” He continued, “We never had any race problems growing up … that I can remember. We’d go over to the homes of the white kids to play marbles and they’d come over to our homes to play. Once in awhile, one of the kids might call us a name and you’d throw rocks at them, but the next day you were playing together like nothing happened.”
Throughout the last several years, as the impressive wartime record of the Tuskegee Airman rose to prominence through books and films, Shipley has traveled far and wide to regale audiences with his country-born wisdom, revealing the contributions that he and his fellow African American airmen made during the war with generations of individuals who never lived through the days of segregation.
“While I was growing up, some of my older relatives took the time to show me how to work on engines,” he said. Pointing to a tree near his house, he added, “They’d hang motors from that ol’ tree right over there and that’s where I first learned how to become a mechanic and tear those engines apart.”
During World War II, he enlisted with an “all black air force” after meeting a military recruiter at the post office in Tipton. He later served in Italy as a crew chief and mechanic with the Tuskegee Airmen, maintaining historic aircraft such as the P-51 Mustangs that later became celebrated for their successful escorts of American bombers on bombing missions. After receiving his discharge in 1946, the veteran mirthfully recalls meeting a lovely young woman from Boonville named Mildred, when accompanying his father to a track meet in the late 1940s. He and Mildred were married in 1949 and raised two sons and a daughter.
Grinning, he explained, “I can remember when Millie and I got married because it was the year after I bought a 1948 Chevy.”
Like many young men returning from war, Shipley set his sights on endeavors that would afford him opportunities to supplement the meager income he earned as a mechanic. One such memorable account involves a rather elderly horse and seven dollars.
“Shortly after the war, I decided I was going to buy a horse to plow up some ground to plant roasting ears (of corn) to sell,” he explained. “I found this old horse in Syracuse (Missouri) and paid seven dollars for it.”
The horse, he recalled, was so old that it had lost all of its teeth. After making the purchase, he then rode the horse the five miles back to Tipton.
“It turns out that I was severely allergic to the horse,” his face lit up in recollection. “Not long after I got back, I swelled up really bad and had to go to the doctor to be treated.”
At the time, the local physician was “a really old Army doctor” who reached into his bag, removed a syringe and administered an injection to the suffering Shipley. Applying what Shipley called “Civil War medicine,” the doctor then charged the young, aspiring farmer seven dollars for the treatment he was given.
“Well, I didn’t really know what I was doing and fed the horse whole corn,” he said. “Since he had no teeth, he couldn’t chew it up and he ended up dying. Then,” he concluded, “I sold the horse to a local fertilizer plant for seven dollars … and that’s my story of the seven-dollar horse.”
Following his marriage, he and Mildred purchased a two-bedroom house in Tipton for $200 that is located next to the Harrison School he attended as a youth. In the years that followed, their family grew and they built additions onto their home, where they continue to reside to this day. Eventually, he was hired as a mechanic with Co-Mo Electric in Tipton, retiring after 29 years of employment with the company. His background and legacy have led to his becoming a celebrity in the Tipton area and, early this year, he graduated with the Tipton High School class of 2020 since he was unable to finish school decades ago because of his WWII service.
Recalling some advice he gave one of his nieces several years ago, a young lady who went on to excel academically and has since become an attorney, Shipley’s frank and sage words continue to resonate as powerfully for all citizens just as they applied to his own postwar endeavors.
“If you work hard, you can make it in life,” I told my niece. “Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do it.”
Jeremy P. Amick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.
Jeremy P. Amick is a military historian and author dedicated to preserving our nation's military legacies.