Alfred Murphy, June 27th, 2016
WW: Hello, today is June 27, 2016, my name is William Winkle. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project. We are in Detroit, Michigan. I am sitting down with Mr. Alfred Murphy. Thank you for sitting down with me today.
AM: Hi, you’re welcome.
WW: Can you tell me where and when you were born?
AM: I was born in Dublin, Ireland, May 21, 1922.
WW: When did you come to the city?
AM: I came to Detroit in the United States in 1925.
WW: Can you tell me about how your family came from Ireland?
AM: First of all, there was great immigration from Ireland to America. My father’s brothers and sisters all had immigrated to America, and he was the only member of his family left in Ireland with a wife and five children–I was the youngest of the five. His others brothers and sisters weren’t married or had children, he was the only one that had children in Ireland. So they all came over, and they wanted him to join. So they would send him money, told him to buy a ticket, come to American, and then he could always repay them. But he wouldn’t do it, that type of a man he was, he wouldn’t take the money. So what my mother did, she wrote to his brothers here in America and said “Don’t send him money, send him a ticket. Now if you send him a ticket, he can’t get it refunded in Ireland because he bought it in America. He will have to use it.” So that he did. He came to America with the ticket, and within a year–he was a brush maker by trade–within a year, working two jobs, one as a brush maker, another one as a bouncer at a nightclub speak-easy, some shady place serving liquor in Detroit. Within a year, he had rented a flat, and had saved enough money for passage for his five children and my mother, and he brought us all to the United States after he’d been here three years in 1925.
WW: That was an amazing story. What was it like growing up in the city of Detroit in the 20s?
AM: Like the Bronstein Brothers (??), which I loved dearly, you’re not going to get me to say anything else about it, bad.
AM: But anyhow, I went to school in public schools all the way. And in the majority of the schools, basically we lived in a colored neighborhood. My daughter’s a retired school teacher. There were 40 children in the class, 30 were colored and maybe 10 of us were white. That was the environment I grew up in. They were there. That was it, that was life with them. I graduated from high school in 1939. I went to Chadsey High School where two of my sisters graduated from, and my eldest sister graduated from Northwestern High at Grand River and West Grand Boulevard. Some of us went to college and some of us didn’t. As I say, I was raised and grew up mainly in colored neighborhoods. We rented, we didn’t buy houses, because my father had–not exactly an aversion to buying stuff–they rented, they’re still renting the house I was born in over in Ireland. That was a long time ago. That’s what they did: they rented properties, rented flats, rented this, rented that. They didn’t buy them, that wasn’t done. By the time you come over here, they all wanted to buy something, so they did. So after a time, we got settled down, we graduated from school, and then we all started having our own families.
In the meantime, World War II came up. It was well known, that 1938, 39, and 40 it was starting to generate in Europe, that’s what it was doing. And of course when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, I was working in the tankards (??) on Mound Road and 10 or 12 Mile Road at the Chrysler Corporation. I was working there on that Sunday, getting double time, and that’s the day they bombed Pearl Harbor. Of course everybody’s, “Where the hell is bomb harbor?” We soon found out where it was. I was working at the tankards up there, and it wasn’t quite completed as regards construction, and they had a locomotive inside the building because they had railroad tracks in it because when we finished building the tanks, they were placed on railroad flatcars and ended up in Russia. We were feeding Russia because they were fighting the Germans, at the time. So they used the locomotive to provide heat for the rest of the building.
And from the tankards hill, I went to DeSotos. Do you remember the DeSoto Car, you personally?
AM: Yeah, okay. Now, the DeSoto Plant was on McGraw and Wyoming. It was an assembly plant–all the parts were shipped in, the motors, the frames, the hoods, and they put it all together and DeSotos come out the other end. They assembled all this stuff, and so I was transferred over to DeSoto’s and low and behold they start shipping some of the jobs–I was the cutter [unintelligible]–served an apprenticeship, one that sharpens the tools for all the different machines. They started sending jobs from the tankards over to DeSoto’s, the action started producing things. They thought I was a young genius because I knew what to do. Well I’ve watched them for a year or so in the tankards, I saw you do your job and her do her job. And I just by aping them, so to speak, I could do their jobs too.
So I worked in DeSoto’s, and then my brother he had registered for the draft, and they knew that they were going to get him pretty soon. Now, when I was going through high school, I took electrical courses, that type of stuff–machine, shop, also electrical, and my brother went for the commercial, for shorthand typing–he was fantastic: it was 120 words a minutes shorthand, and 70 typing, he was a wiz, he was great for office boards. So what he did, he started shopping around, because he knew they were going to get him in the draft, and the best deal they offered him was the Marines. And they offered him–believe this or not–make him sergeant in the Marine Corps. He would be stationed in the Federal Building in Detroit, and he would be living at home, and they would pay him per diem for living at home. He could also eat at home, they would pay per diem for eating at home, and make him a sergeant. Well, you’d have to know my brother, the type of person he was, he was just like his father, very resolute in certain ways of living, and he wouldn’t accept that, not to say that it was charity, but to say, “I am a sergeant in the Marines,” and he’s working at a desk typing shorthand.
Meanwhile, I was out at the tankards, at DeSoto’s, and a couple of guys and I said we’re getting bored with working, and we said we’d take off about a week or so and went down to Florida for the hell of it. And I had a brand new 1941 Plymouth I paid 724 dollars for, brand spankin’ new. Me and the other guys–we had two other guys–we took the Plymouth, we started from Florida, and we stopped in Pensacola, and you got Naval Air School down there for pilots, in all their nice, white uniforms looked great. So I get back, my brothers talking to me about going into the Marines, and finding some kind of a place to go before they draft him. And I said, “Those aviation cadets look really great down in Pensacola.” He said, “Well let’s join the Naval Air Corps. That’s what we’ll do.” So we went to the Federal Building, and we found out what the criteria and qualifications for joining were two years of college, or be able to pass a test equivalent to it, and these tests were probably a little over three hours. They said, “You have to pass that test if you haven’t been to college, you’ve gotta pass that test.” So we signed up. The Navy Office was closed that day, so we went over to Army Air Corps Office and it was open that day, and they were having the test that day. So we signed up to take the test, and who was the first guy done? My brother. And I finally got done he says, “Did you answer all the questions?” I said, “No.” “What didn’t you know?” I said, “A few of them. I put down what I usually do in school: if I don’t know the answer, I write down ‘God knows, I don’t’.” He says, “You should’ve taken longer.” Anyway, he passed the test and so did I, so we went into the Aviation Cadets. Everybody wants to be a pilot, and we started going on 12 brief flight–this is before Colorado Springs ever came into being, it was stationed in the Army Airfield in Montgomery Alabama. We go there 12 weeks pre-flight. [Unintelligible.] Made it as much like West Point as you could except you were an Aviation Cadet–I don’t know if you ever saw them, but they used to wear a propeller with wings on a hat, that’s what the sign of the Aviation Cadet was. Neither one of us made a spot. I got a terrible tendency to land about 30 feet above the runway, and they take very unkindly to that–bouncing the thing, it’s hard on the undercarriage. I don’t know what was wrong with my brother, but he didn’t make it either.
So to make a long story short, we went to radio school in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, six-month course there, radio operator and mechanic. We both went there at the same time. We were all together but, in the three years that we were in the Army, I would say 70 or 80 percent of the time, he was sleeping in the bed next to me. We were that close together. So we got to radio operator and mechanic school, and then we were assigned to Aerial Gunners School in Yuma, Arizona (??). So we went to there together, at Yuma, Arizona. Then we were qualified as – you’re familiar with them, the MOS, but the code for radio operator and mechanic were 756, and the MOS for radio operator and mechanic was 757, so we were both 757s. And we knew they were setting up 10-man crews into B-17s and 24s. So they were setting that up and we could’ve probably could’ve got on the same aircraft, because they’ve got a regular radio man, and an assistant radio man of the 10-man crew that you could fill in if something happened to the regular crew, just like you got two pilots, stuff like that. The main radio man got to be a tech sargent that was three-up and two-down, and the assistant only got to be a staff, three-up and one-down, so that’s why we both didn’t want to get on the same ship. We went on separately on our crews.
So we briefly went over to the overseas training unit, and we went over to England on a convoy, like a chain, a convoy goes as fast as the slowest boat in the convoys. He ended up at the 303 bomb route, and I was about 30 miles down the road from him, the 91st bomb route, same place the Memphis Bell was, if you’ve heard about the Memphis Bell. I was in the same outfit, they were just pulling out as we were pulling in. See, their claim to fame was–not a claim, they did it–they were the first crew to complete 25 missions without anybody getting killed. That was really great stuff. If you ever saw the movie, and I’m sure you did, all the things that happened to them, which happened, no doubt about it, but they all didn’t happen in one mission.
AM: It’s spread out over 25 missions. Anyhow, they were pulling out as we started bombing. He was 30 miles down the road, and we’d get passes to go to London. We’d go to London, we’d go to Cambridge, and we had a couple of small towns close by. On his ninth mission – oh, by the way, we had 25 missions to go like the Memphis Bell had–until Old Henderson, General Henderson, got in charge of the 80th Air Force of which we were a part of, and he made it 30. And our old buddy Doolittle, after he got done with bombing Tokyo – if you remember, [unintelligible] – and he got all of the 8th Air Force and he made it 35, and I said, “These people are going to kill me!” Memphis Bell had a hell of a job with 25, why not make it 35.
So anyway, my brother being 30 miles down the road, on about his ninth mission the navigator got killed–if it was by flack or fighters I don’t know which, but he got killed. And a couple of missions later, they were going to run [unintelligible] him again, I don’t know if it was fighters or flack, but they got hit. The pilot got hit in the right arm so it was torn off. He looked over at the co-pilot, the co-pilot was slumped over the yolk (??) bleeding from the head, and the pilot figured he was dead. So he reached out and pushed the red button, first time he pushed the red button to get ready to go pop your chest chutes (??) on your chute harness and get ready to jump because when he pushes it the second time, you go. So the result is that he pushed it the second time and he looked over at the co-pilot and the co-pilot’s coming up out of it, and evidently was flack because whatever hit the co-pilot in the head damn near tore the pilot’s right arm off because the co-pilot’s sitting to the pilot’s right. To make a long story short, the co-pilot takes over, he puts it down on the deck, and heads for England and they make it back. This is my favorite war story, by the way. And somebody in heaven, and the Eighth Air Forces, this crew has gone through enough, send them back to the States for reassignment. So they shipped ‘em back to America. So they made it back to the base, and they were ordered to Liverpool. From Liverpool, they went on the Queen Elizabeth–three liners that could travel unescorted and not on a convoy. They were so fast, the size of ‘em, going 35 miles an hour across the ocean. Get there in four days. I would say Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, and the Maritania, and he was going back on the Elizabeth. I later on came back on the Maritania. He left on the Queen Elizabeth and got to America, landed in New York and crossed from New York to Oakland, California where he was now assigned to the Air Transport Command as a radio man of DC-4s, four-engine transport planes. And we were starting to take the islands back from the Japanese, and their missions were to fly supplies out to the islands that we had retaken, and bring the wounded back from the fight thereof strapped to the insides of the DC-4 and bring them back for hospitalization, recuperation in Oakland, California.
They were tooling along doing this, by the by, I finally, I make it, I make 35 missions. The Battle of the Bulge, the worst day I ever spent in my whole life up to and including now. It was on November 2, 1944, the 322nd bomb squad of which we were on the 91st bomb squad en route. Put up 12 airplanes on a mission to Mersberg, Germany. Mersberg was to Germany what Detroit was to the United States: arsenal of democracy. They had the airports, they had synthetic oil plants, they had railroads, they had everything, just like Detroit. They were the number one priority target in all of Germany. We went there six times out of our 35. We went there on November 2, 1944, we put up 12 B-17s and six of us got shot down. Only six of us came back. As I say the worst day, I ever spent in my whole, whole life. But I finally made it through 20, 35 missions up to the Battle of the Bulge, and we were fighting in the Battle of the Bulge through my last mission as a radio on the 17th, during December of ’44. We fought our last mission on January 2, 1945.
We went back to the base, and we went through London, we went to Liverpool, and we went from Liverpool to the United States. We crossed the United States, and I was assigned to Santa Ana, California outside of LA to get recuperation and reassigned, and they gave me a lot of tests for this. Air or gunnery school, I could sign up for a tour on the B-29s, I could go back to England and fly another tour – I said, ‘You guys are crazy, I’m not going back’ to get back or something like that.
My brother come down from Oakland, because for every two or three days he was gone from the base flying the islands – coming back took two, three weeks – he got a day off. So he came down and saw me because I was staying in Santa Ana getting all these recuperation dates. Here’s the deal: he’s flying these islands, flying out from Oakland, taking supplies out, bringing the wounded back in, and they’re flying to get a call – you know, directions, orders – to take the DC-4 and to take it to Okinawa. We didn’t know it at the time, but we had dropped the atomic bomb and the surrender process unconditional [unintelligible] in Texas and Missouri were setting up, and they told them to fly to 54 for Okinawa. And they got to Okinawa and landed at the main airport, and they said “You’re going to take on board a load of paratroopers.” And they said, “We are not set up for paratroopers, we’re set up to carry wounded and stretchers.” Cuz you see the hookup, you know–
AM: –and they go out the door. They say, “You’re not going to drop them, you’re going to fly them into the main airport at Tokyo, Japan, and they’re going to take over the airport.” And that’s what they did. They flew from Okinawa to the main airport in Tokyo, Japan. The paratroopers got off and took over the airport. Here’s the deal: My brother starts and he’s in Germany, bombing Germany, based in England. He flies back across Germany, across France, across Holland, across [unintelligible], across English Channel, through England, crosses England all the way through the English Channel, to the Atlantic Ocean and he takes the Queen Elizabeth all the way across the Atlantic Ocean to the shores of New York. He gets off the boat, gets on another train, travels all the way across the United States to Oakland, California. Oakland, California he gets on board a DC-4 and flied out into the South Pacific now, ending up in Tokyo, Japan. He damn near transnavigated the globe! That’s my favorite story about the war, my brother. Meanwhile I went through all this and became a Morse Code instructor. That got me a little notice. That was my war experience.
WW: What was it like coming back to the city afterwards?
AM: Well, that was the thing. We came back and we had our mustering out pay, which I think was $300. My mother says, “You’ve had a hard time, son. Take your time and rest easy.” Two weeks: “When are you going to get a job? Get back to work!” I said to my brother – and I told you the story about him going shopping – he decided he was going to join the police force. My sister’s husband had already served a term in the Navy during when we were in high school; they were about two years ahead of me. The big depression, the Great Depression, was going on 1938, 39, 40. A lot of them joined the Navy, one less mouth at the table to feed. He served a term in the Navy. He shopped around and he got a good rate the Coast Guard. Anyhow, he said he was going to join the police force. Mike, my sister’s husband, joined the fire department. “Alfie,” he says – they called me Alfie – “Join the fire department. They’re looking for guys. It’ll be quite a wait; it’ll be a couple of months before they ever call you.”You got you made it. Your mother will get off your back for getting the job done waiting for the fire department to call you.” Meanwhile my brother is starting the police academy. I’m waiting. I was discharged on September 4. In November 5, I’m in the training school for the fire department. They called me. My brother, as I told you, is a smart cookie. He also took the exams for the fire department. He passed them but I beat him. He had the scores but he was cognitive and I was practical. He knew all about the typing and the big words and all that sort of stuff. I’ve come from a stipend and I’ve going upstairs to do my ablutions. You know, stuff like that. He joined the police department and he had it made because of the secretarial skills work in the precinct. So that was the deal. I joined the fire department and I went in as a fireman. I graduated from the training school and spent five years as a firefighter. I’m leading up to the riots. I spent five years as a firefighter and I was 23 – 1945. So I was 23 years old when I went in, spent five years as a firefighter, fully qualified. By 1952 the fire department – I’ll show you in my book here – were completely radio equipped. I shifted from firefighting to the communications department of the fire department and helped install radios and remote receivers and a lot of other stuff because I knew what I was doing. So that was 1945, 46, 47. I spent five years as a firefighter and then when the riots came – I had five years as a firefighter and 17 years as a fire dispatcher in the communications division. Now here’s the thing: when I was in charge, I was senior dispatcher, and I was in charge of the day shift. So on July 23 or was that the 27 – 1967 when the riots hit – and I was in charge of the day shift. I was going to be in charge. I walked in -- 7:30-3:30 was the shift. I asked the guy in charge of midnights what was new. You got briefed, you know. He says, “Murph, I got these calls. There’s something going on on Twelfth Street. I don’t know what it is, police dispatch won’t tell me anything. But I hear there’s a great police presence gathering at Herman Keifer Hospital. But no one will tell what’s going on.” Normally police dispatch and fire dispatch are cheek and jowl.” They work together and cooperate. So I tried and the same thing. “I can’t five any information about anything going on.” I went home two days later. That’s when it started. I’d like to ask you a question, if I may.
AM: Did you get a tape or receive a tape to American House about a tape recording. We started there and that tape would be so much help to you. Two hundred of the chief executive of the firemen – that’s what we called it Car Two Hundred. [Unintelligible] He’s out there in the field, right in the heart of everything telling me what he wants and what he is going to do. I’m giving him all the information he wants and any help that he wants. I’m doing this end and he’s doing that end and together… I’ve got an article that I wrote for the Firefighter Magazine. This is an article I wrote. I was approximately a little over a year after the riots. If you want to go ahead and give it a shot, go ahead.
WW: I won’t read any right now.
AM: It stated slowly as they say because police dispatch wouldn’t tell me anything. Two hundred came down to Central Office. You see, there was police headquarters, Receiving Hospital and a teeny little brick building behind Receiving Hospital. That was us, Central Office, Communications Division of the Detroit Fire Department. The conditions were war-like and had to be fought as such. The chief dispatcher was a guy who used to be in the Marines and I had spent three years in the Air Corps already. We knew about wars. So we broke up the fire department and set up three command posts. These guys were coming and going and the crews were exhausted. I said we need help, we need help. So what we did is we assigned people to call all surrounding communities for help. Now, Detroit had contracts with all of these surrounding – not all of these but quite a few – neighborhoods to give assistance to them for X hundred dollars if they wanted it. We would send one engine, two engines, whatever they needed to help. But we didn’t have any contracts to get help. We were Detroit. We had 55 agents, 29 trucks, 12 chiefs, 7 squads, 6 phone lines, 4 high pressure rigs, I won’t go on. But we didn’t need anybody, we were Detroit! So we sent out the call. The answer from as close as Windsor and as far away as Flint and we got 56 pieces of fire equipment. Imagine that, that’s the response that we got. Now can you imagine the logistics of these 56 pieces coming into Detroit? Where do you want us to go? Who do you think they called? Us. We set up the command post. How are you going to get fed? Where are you going to sleep -- all of these problems. I explained in there most of these things, a lot of them, we had procedures for. I helped set up the Second Central Office in Palmer Park. We had control of the transmitter, control of the telephones – Bell would switch the lines over to us if we so desired, you follow? So we could actually run from Palmer Park. We went to the command post and had 56 more pieces of equipment. Then we got extra phones installed in each one of the command posts. So they were strictly for dispatching, nothing else. The telephones were left free for me to tell these guys what to do. So from there on they went to the dial system. Then we went to (?) to help set up the EMS. The riots were the big thing, several disturbances now. Do you want to ask anything?
WW: You said it was like a war. Can you describe your experiences in the first few days of the riot? You spoke about what you did but what about your experiences.
AM: The first few days I walked in on Sunday morning and went home 48 hours later, my daughter will testify to that. That’s when I got home I put in 48 straight hours. I could take a nap but in the office. Most of these things had never happened before. As I said, we didn’t need help from anybody, we were Detroit. All of the sudden we’re asking for help. Once we got it, we said what the hell do we do with it now? Where are they going to be based, what engine houses, how are we going to feed them, how do we get places for them to sleep. It all worked. In fact, a lot of the procedures are still in effect today in the Detroit Fire – if the situation arises or is needed. We made it up during the first two or three days and after --- well, you saw pictures of it, you studied that whole thing. Tremendous. They were pooping in their own nests, let’s face it. What they were doing was burning all the wrong places down. You had a little to do up at 7 Mile and Livernois. They had avenues of fashion up there. Our job was to keep everything fluid and keep it moving. That’s what I was doing during the riots.
WW: Did you see or expect violence that summer? Or like going throughout the 60s, did you sense any tension?
AM: Turn it around. My brother was a policeman, as I said. He was pinned down in a precinct at Conyers and East Jefferson. Now at Hart and Jefferson, which is only a couple of blocks away, we had Engine 32, Chief 6 never pinned down by snipers. The precinct couldn’t work because they were pinned down by snipers. I couldn’t get the engine out of their Chief 6 because they were pinned down by snipers. When we did get a few hours off they told us we could go home and see our families. My daughter will testify. I’m driving the expressway at 70 miles an hour with my lights off because there were snipers up in those overpasses. It was all virgin territory, so to speak. Never happened before! You had to play it as you could. As it transpired you dreamt up something and covered it. Even our own guys – hell, I was there for two days, a lot guys spent the whole two days there and we dispatchers needed relief too -- Same thing, virgin territory. But as I say this is very informative because this is just two years before the riot. Look at that equipment! Installed in 1870! It went in over a hundred years before. I’m not knocking anybody but when we finally got to be radio equipped we didn’t even have dials. The phones – we were just working up to that – EMS, something in the future which came up a couple years after the riots and I was involved in that which was very interesting too. If you have a copy of that tape that I’m talking about – it’s me talking, that’s me on that tape, 2200, the executive chief of that department. This is the tape that I’m talking about. I’m almost positive it is. If you have any knowledge at all, I think it is the one we’re talking about. I think that’s what it is. Any more questions you want to ask about things?
WW: How do you think the fire department handled ’67? Do you think that since you were creating so many different things on the fly that you worked really well or were there shortcomings? How did you see the department in the new light?
AM: Considering the circumstances, I think everybody in the fire department – the firefighters fighting it, the fire prevention and inspectors helped out, the crews at central office helped out, all the executive chiefs helped out, everybody put out. As I said, it was an entirely new scenario. A lot of the things were covered, as I said we had a rule book about yay thick of rules and regulations in those days like the Army or the Air Corps. But a lot of things were strictly new. We had to improvise, figure out something and the police, again, cooperated greatly too. I’d talk to 200 and he’d say, “how many fires have you still got going in the area and where are they?” and he’d say, “ The National Guardsmen are going to drop off 50 soldiers at every corner coming down 12th Street.” One example, one little thing, Captain George Marsh, Captain of Squad One, coming out of downtown fire headquarters, he’s coming to the 12th Street fires, they shoot out his right front tire – sniper blew it out – but he got to the fire and so in the rescue rigs, rescue squads, they’re built like trucks, they’re built on a truck chassis, singles in the front and duals in the back, so George has the guys jack it up and take one of the duals off the back, put it on the front and he was back in business. One other thing – that’s what was going on improvise, do this, do that. My boss told me, “We’re going to have to go to command posts.” I was in the Air Corps, he was in the Marines. He was used to ground wars, if you know what I mean. I’m flying around in airplanes. But he told me what to do. We kept it fluid. If we had too many at one command post, I would shift it. It was my job to keep the thing going. Gradually – as it says in the article there, “like ripples in a pond” – going out like this, it finally started slowing, slowing down. You notice nobody’s name is in that article; my name isn’t in, 200’s name isn’t it, nobody’s name is, just executive chief or central office. I’m not trying to give anybody credit, I’m not trying to give anybody blame, just telling how it was. Most of it was new. We’d never experienced it before. I had seventeen years as a fire dispatcher. [Unintelligible]
WW: Where were you living in 1967?
AW: In 1967, we were living at 8 Mile and Greenfield. I watched Northland get built.
WW: On the Detroit side of 8 Mile?
AW: Yeah. You had to live in Detroit to work for the police and fire. That was mandatory.
WW: Did you look at the city differently after ’67 after seeing all the devastation?
AW: Yeah, well I could have retired when I was 48. Instead I just got this promotion to seniordispatcher and your pension goes in the last five years in grade. I stayed on till I was 53 then I took off for Florida. At that time, if you remember back then, I don’t know how old you were then or how old you are now, but that’s when the interest rates were 15%, 16%, 17% on the CDs and stuff. You go down to Florida and real estate was going like this. It would have taken a talent to lose money. You would have to work at it to lose money. So people would sell their houses up here for good price and move down to Florida and for half of the price they got for their house up here – of course, there were no basements because the water aquifer was up so high, you stick a stick in the ground and it starts to grow, two car garage, swimming pool – for half the price that they sold if for here. Everything was going like -- Carrie came down, that’s when they were getting 15, 17% on CDs. That’s where I moved down to -- I spent almost ten years down there.
WW: What brought you back?
AW: What brought me back?
WW: Didn’t mean to stump you.
AW: No, no I’m just trying to relive it. Everybody came down to Florida except my brother. Two of my sisters – no, all three of them were down there. Edna was down there, Carrie was down there and Claire was down there, all three at the same time. My father had died and my mother was living with my sister in Florida just a couple miles down the road from me. One sister died and then Mike, the one that was a fireman, he moved out to California. My sister Caroline came down and bought a house and all crammed in. She bought a condo where my sister and mother were living. I’m trying to think of why I went back. Oh I know, a very good reason. What I wanted to do -- I was making money, as I said it would take a talent to lose it – I wanted to have a place up north and a place in Florida. My wife, my second wife, her daughter was living in a co-op. Do you know much at all about co-ops? They are very reasonable places to buy into as a stock holder in a corporation. All you are paying is your utilities. It’s great. She was living in this one built in 1967, the year of the riots, on a 40 year mortgage at 3%, which means that it was due at 2008. The mortgage would be paid off. So she was there from the inception of the thing – ‘67. She lived there, raised her two kids there, and I said “Hey, this is for me, it’s only a few thousand dollars to get in, to buy.” There was limited equity. That was set in the bylaws and everything else by HUD. HUD was every other word in the rules and bylaws and regulations. When I hailed in there it was the 2000s. It was about 2004 and I get up there at the residence meetings, board of directors and everything, and I says, “Hey, in four years this is going to be paid off. If your son was going to go to college, you start thinking about it when you’re in high school. You start making preparations. I said this place is going to be paid off and it’s never happened before, something like the riots.” These all were 40 year mortgages, what kind of equity, what about the bylaws. I rewrote all the bylaws for a million dollar a year corporation. Had them vote on it, had them do what you’re doing right now. Because they didn’t want anybody living there saying “You didn’t tell us about this, you didn’t tell us about that.” Play it. Here’s where I cover that. That’s what brought me back. I wanted six of one and six of the other and it would have worked out well. I knew there was a good reason for me coming back. I had a co-op up here and I sold the last house, I always bought houses on lakes in Florida because they are a cinch to sell. Everybody wants to live on a lake. But that’s what brought me back.
WW: Last couple of questions: do you feel that the riots significantly changed the city of Detroit?
AW: I think it had a definite influence, yes. Just for the futility of it, if nothing else. All it was was destruction. There was no construction, nothing positive that I could see. As I say, they were pooping in their own nests is what they were doing – no regard to where they were burning it, what they burning. I had to a whole lot of things. But the fire department is strictly seniority. Police department -- there is tests plus seniority, written tests and fire department no, seniority 100%. I’ve been on the job a day ahead of you, I get the promotion. You got to wait for me. That’s how it turned out. I was also going to school when the first coloreds came on as firefighters in the Detroit Fire Department. I don’t remember what year it was. So they were thinking of going to exams, all of the colored firemen says “No, no we’re getting all the seniority. We’re going to have all the jobs in just a few more years. Don’t start making tests now, for God’s sake. We’ve got the seniority. All we have to do is wait.” If anything, that helped to change the structure. Did it have a positive effect? Well, I left as I say in ’75. That was eight years after the riots. I retired then. I’ve been retired for forty years now.
WW: Are there any other stories you’d like to share from ’67 about your experiences?
AW: In 1967? As I say, the newness of it, the flying by a blind wire, a blind hand, whatever you want to call it -- these things came up, you never faced it before. Nobody there had ever experienced it before; you had to innovate, you had to do something. It had to be done, something had to be done. We did it. As I say, a lot of the changes we made – fundamental, like command posts -- we carry out to this day in the fire department. As regards to the firefighting end of it, I was only a firefighter for five years but knew enough to learn all the nuances of being a firefighter. I was a fire dispenser for a lot longer than that. As far as the fire department communications division with the EMS, you know, with that sort of stuff - helped set that up. That politics and stuff, you know Ike McKinnon, so do I and so does my son, we had a meeting with the fire commission – how long ago was that, Virg? – last year. Given an award by the fire department for 30 years of service. Had all the division chiefs and all that and Ike McKinnon were there and the mayor and all that. My son gets up, he says – all these chiefs are there, all these uniforms – he says, “I know why the city went bankrupt. My Dad got all those pension checks coming in for forty years. That’s what bankrupt the city.” He brought the house down. “That’s what broke the city. Him getting those pension checks for forty years this guy’s been retired, getting those pension checks every month.” That’s one thing that happened. The engine houses when I was like – the trial men was like, there was six month probationary period. The crappy jobs, let’s put it that way, they gave to the trial men. Make it a little hard on them, you know what I mean? Break them in, do this, do that, give them the hard jobs to do and stuff. Overall and generally speaking, the volume of the calls and the services of the fire department I think are great, I really do. Everybody got more training, everybody got more experience, it’s what you need. It’s much like the police department. The police department – any policeman in Detroit can get a job as a policeman in almost any large city in the United States because when you’ve been a policeman in Detroit, you’ve been a policeman. Same thing with the fire department -- you know what you’re doing. Overall, probably – I won’t say it was for the best because there was destruction. You don’t want to ever have it happen again.
WW: Thank you very much for sitting down with me. I greatly appreciate it.
WW: Thank you for sitting down with me today.