George Watts graduated from Fosdick-Masten Park High School in 1941 and quickly discovered that job opportunities for a young black man were limited and paid very poorly.
His entry into the workforce began at a women's dress shop in downtown Buffalo as a stock boy, porter and whatever else the boss required of him. And though the work could be demeaning, Watts says he enjoyed at least one aspect of it -- serving as an occasional "window dresser," helping make displays to attract customers walking along Main Street. "That was like a promotion," he recalled.
But there was the issue of wages.
“I was earning $16 a week. That was on the low end,” said Watts, a 93-year-old World War II veteran who takes pride in describing himself as coming from an “Afro-American” heritage.
When a friend told him about openings at the Curtiss Wright airplane factory on Genesee Street in Cheektowaga, he said the pay caught his attention.
"With some overtime, you could earn $60 a week," he said.
In no time, he was clocking in as a riveter.
“I worked on P-40 Warhawk fighter planes and the panels for the larger C-46 transport planes,” Watts recalled. “I felt like I was moving up the ladder financially.”
But after a year, he says he slipped down a couple rungs.
“I was drafted and the Army paid about $50 a month and take-home pay was $46,” Watts said.
Even more upsetting, he said, was the way the Army treated blacks as second-class citizens.
"I was assigned to a segregated, all-black combat engineers unit with all white officers in charge. So you know how I felt. I was not at all happy.”
George Watts, 93
Hometown and residence: Buffalo
Rank: technical sergeant
War zone: World War II, Pacific Theater
Years of service: drafted, 1943 – 1946
Most prominent honors: [Watts says Army failed to award him his WWII medals.]
Specialty: battalion supply sergeant
After a 32-day journey across the Pacific, the unit arrived in the Philippines' capital of Manila, where his smarts saved him from the hard work of building bridges and other heavy construction projects.
"I had a high IQ and I was placed in headquarters company. I worked in water purification. We went from place to place with portable units used to purify the water. I also performed general supply duties."
With the war winding down, he said he was spared fighting on the front lines -- and for that he was grateful.
“I would never have enlisted in the Army. I didn’t want to kill anybody,” he said.
Watts, however, says he encountered a different kind of ugliness that still troubles him -- racism.
“Way back before we went overseas, I was at Fort Niagara and the German prisoners, they slept in steam heated barracks while we slept in tar papered shacks down on the riverfront heated by two coal stoves,” Watts said of the accommodations for black soldiers. “That I remember very well.”
In Manila, he said he was unable to determine if black soldiers were treated better than Japanese prisoners of war.
"I really wasn't around the Japanese prisoners that much," he said.
When the war ended, he discovered that his high IQ had once again “saved my rear end.”
He explained that before he was drafted, he had taken a Civil Service exam for the U.S. Postal Service.
“I’d scored a 94 on the exam and I got another 10 points for being a veteran, so my score was over 100. Two weeks after I applied to work, I got called,” said Watts, who started in the transportation division. “I worked on mail trains. I worked on the Buffalo to Rochester run and when I got more seniority, I worked on the run from Buffalo to Chicago. I did that run for 16 years. ”
Married to the former Elizabeth Diggs, Watts said he and his wife raised a daughter, Ivy Diggs Washington. In 1983, the grandfather of three retired.
He says he sometimes reflects on his military service, "but not kindly.” Watts says it's because of the "racism and prejudice" he experienced.
And besides the unequal treatment, he added that he has another frustration:
“The Army never gave me my war medals. I never got a single one.”