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Young was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama to Coleman Young, a dry cleaner, and Ida Reese Jones. His family moved to Detroit in 1923, where he graduated from Eastern High School. He worked for Ford Motor Company, which soon blacklisted him for involvement in labor and civil rights activism. He later worked for the United States Postal Service, where with his brother George started the Postal Workers union. George later went on to become Postmaster for this same facility, which handles over ten million pieces of mail each year. During the second World War, Young served in the 477th Medium-Bomber Group (Tuskegee Airmen) of the United States Army Air Forces as a bombardier and navigator. As a lieutenant in the 477th, he played a role in the Freeman Field Mutiny in which 162 African-American officers were arrested for resisting segregation at a base near Seymour, Indiana in 1945.
Young's involvement in progressive and dissident organizations including the Progressive Party, the AFL-CIO, and the National Negro Labor Council made him powerful enemies, including the FBI and HUAC, where he refused to testify. He protested segregation in the Army and racial discrimination in the UAW. In 1948 Young supported Progressive Party presidential candidate Henry A. Wallace, which he later viewed as a major mistake.
In 1960, he was elected as a delegate to help draft a new state constitution for Michigan. In 1964 he won election to the Michigan State Senate, where his most significant legislation was a law requiring arbitration in disputes between public-sector unions and municipalities.
The 477th was activated on 15 January 1944 at Selfridge Army Air Field, Michigan, about 40 miles from Detroit. Because the Army Air Force did not establish schools to train Blacks in the arts of navigation and bombardment until well into the war, the unit was starved for these crew specialties throughout its history. Pilots for the 477th were in greater supply, either from Tuskegee Army Air Field, or from the Mediterranean Theater. A small but significant number of the aviators in the 477th were veterans of the 99th and the 332d who had completed their combat tours and were voluntarily returning to the United States to become proficient in the B-25 and to return to combat.
The 477th, moreover, was born under a cloud, Army Air Forces Commanding General Henry H. (Hap) Arnold tried to abort the unit before it was born. It also had the misfortune to be assigned to a numbered Air Force (1st Air Force) that was commanded by an ardent racial segregationist, Major General Frank O. Hunter. He saw his role throughout the entire history of the 477th not as one of prepar4ing a unit for combat in a war with great stakes. Rather, he perceived his function as barring the Tuskegee Airmen from any respect from its leaders. Worse, and more importantly, he agreed to the illegal humiliation of the Tuskegee Airmen.
The 477th never entered combat because its commander, Colonel Robert E. Selway, was so bigoted that he drove more than 100 of the Black officers in his unit to mutiny. It was not that the Tuskegee Airmen were not capable of performing the medium bomber mission, it was that Selway who ran the 477th as a promotion mill for White aviators, would not associate socially with the Blacks in his unit (and by setting this negative example discouraged any other White from doing the same), denied the 477th the ideal conditions for training by moving the unit to an undesirable location, and segregated the men illegally. This last act provoked mutinous reaction from the Black aviators.
Selway reserved command of all four squadrons in the 477th for Whites, despite the fact that many of the Black veterans of the combat in Europe had more flying time and combat experience than some of the White commanders. It was until February that Selway had as many as 200 men in his Group, and this number included the first contingent of Black enlisted technicians. By 5 May 1944, 175 officers were assigned to the 477th out of an authorized strength of 290. The most acute shortages were in the navigator and navigator - bombardier specialties
On that same day Selway, without any advance notice to his men, ordered that people of the 477th to board trains to move to an unknown location, Selway concerned about race tensions in Detroit that had never affected his unit and despite the pressures of preparing a unit that he would lead into combat, moved the unit to Godman Army Air Field near Fort Knox, Kentucky. This base was completely inadequate for the 477th. Selfridge had four times more hanger space than Godman, seven times the acreage, five times the aviation gasoline capacity, more runways, and better flying weather. More to the point, Godman could not house the entire group at one time because it had inadequate apron and hanger space. It was a bad move and it was done for racial reasons. It seriously delayed the 477th training program and damaged morale.
Although the 477th was authorized 128 navigators and navigator-bombardiers, by 14 October 1944, more than nine months into the program, only 23 had arrived and only half of the authorized 176 pilots had been assigned. The air crews constantly repeated routine proficiency missions, but could undertake no combat crew training. This fact lowered morale. The 477th meanwhile had an exceptional safety record. Their first aircraft accident, a landing mishap during a squall, came after the 14,000 flying hour mark. General Hunter twice commended the unit for its "exceptionally low accident rate." Between mid October and mid-January 1945, 84 new bombardiers and 60 new pilots arrived, but the unit was not fully manned and the bombardiers ere only partly trained. By mid-January, despite the fact that the 477th was not fully manned, combat crew training began. But then the winter weather closed in and flyable hours were reduced by 60 percent. Despite the poor flying weather, the unit in its first year accumulated 17, 875 flying hours with two minor accidents, neither attributable to crew error.