As Anthony Murdic reflected on his father’s accomplishments, the teacher and assistant football coach at McMinn County School said he found himself feeling thankful for his father, as well as the example he set and the lessons he taught that could be of value to youths today.
Standing with his family during the April 19th presentation of the Congressional Gold Medal on behalf of the Tuskegee Airmen to the family of Flight Officer Robert James Murdic of the 332nd Fighter Group, Murdic observed the diverse audience that filled the Blue Room of the McMinn County Courthouse, including city and state officials — all in attendance to honor his father.
The man who molded his youth, leaving an indelible impression on his character, had also left an indelible mark on society — and was now being recognized for his unique military record which inspired revolutionary reform in the U.S. armed forces.
“Me being in the school system, I think the kids of today could probably benefit the most as far as the disciplines he put in place,” Murdic said. “He was a huge advocate of education. He taught us to be sincere in our approach, to be genuine. I’ve tried to teach my children the same thing. Some of the fundamentals he taught me like looking people in the eye when talking, kind of bled through to me and I’m just passing it on. I have two grandsons and they’re learning.
“Saying ‘Yes sir’ and ‘No Sir’ was a must. He taught us to look people in the eye when you talk to them, give a five second handshake and take your hat off in a building. His biggest thing was, having a hat on your head when it’s cold outside. There was something about that that just ticked him off. And you could not wear tennis shoes in the cold — couldn’t do it! It just wasn’t happening.”
Due to the rigid system of racial segregation that prevailed in the U.S. during World War II, the Tuskegee Airmen was an experiment set up to prove that blacks were incapable of operating complex combat aircraft. That being the case, failure was never an option for Murdic’s father as a flight officer. Neither was it an option in his personal life. Just as he excelled as a Tuskegee Airman, he would excel as a man who set the right example for his children and provided for his family.
Murdic recalls, “A bunch of kids would say, ‘He spoils you. You all have everything!’ We didn’t get everything we wanted, but he made sure we didn’t do without.”
Looking back on his life with his father, Murdic said, “I remember we went to the airport quite a bit. Anytime he had a spare moment we’d go to the airport, sit out on the patio and watch airplanes take off and land. Being a kid, I enjoyed that.”
Regarding his civilian demeanor, Murdic, the youngest of six children, admits, “My father was a stern, impatient individual. I never understood why he was like that. But I’m thinking with six kids, maybe he felt like he had to be that way. He was blunt and straightforward. He was not a mean person, but he didn’t mind speaking his mind.
“When he came home from service, his father had a dry cleaning/tailor business in Franklin. He went to work there for a while. Then he worked for a security firm on the railroad as an armed guard. He would travel from Nashville to Marietta, Ga., hauling money on the train. Soon after that he got a job at the U.S. Postal Service in Nashville, working third shift. He drove from Franklin to Nashville.
“At that time I had not even started kindergarten. But he would come home, sleep a while, get up and take my brothers and sister to school. I would ride with them. Then he made several stops. He’d go and check on his mother, visit the local barbershop and pick up his mail at the post office.”
It was their visits to the post office that left a lasting impression on young Murdic as he watched his father go to pick up his letters and packages, which was never in his box on time.
“They would see him coming and they would scatter!” he recalled. “They didn’t want to hear it. And he’d be shouting, ‘I know the mail should be in this mailbox because I’m the one putting it out! Why is this mail not in the mailbox!! Who’s in charge?! He had them jumping and running around. He was just that type of individual.”
Watching his father stand up for his rights regardless of the opposition made an impact on Murdic as a child and an adult.
“My dad was a whip!” Murdic said. “He pledged Omega Psi Phi ‘Q-Dogs’ — the first predominantly African-American fraternity. I ran across that information later. One of their personas was being aggressive, like he was.”
When it came to education, Murdic said his father was always striving for academic excellence in the community, adding, “Some of the kids in the neighborhood would ride home with us in the evening from school. My father knew when the grade cards were coming out. And he’d look at everyone’s grades. He’d look at mine first. But if you had a C, he’d say, ‘You should have had an A!’ He drove it home that there was always room for improvement.”
While Murdic did not describe his father as sentimental, he did say his dad expressed outward affection for his family and demonstrated his faith.
“He would let us know he loved us,” Murdic said. “I don’t recall him reading the Bible but he didn’t miss church. On Sundays he was in church — every Sunday.”
In 1973, Murdic said he, his older brother, William, and his father went to a convention in Washington, D.C., where his dad reunited with fellow Tuskegee Airmen of the 332nd Fighter Group.
“I never saw that side of him until he started reacquainting himself with some of the guys he flew with,” Murdic admitted. “I saw a side of him I had never seen. They were laughing — sitting around reminiscing. Of course, me being a kid — about 9 years old — I’m at the swimming pool. But still, I’m seeing a side of him I never knew. I vividly remember that. We had quite a time!”
On March 8, 1974, the 57-year old war veteran, born Nov. 16, 1916, died at home in his sleep — the victim of a heart attack. Murdic was only 10, and devastated.
“I think with his hypertension and working that abbreviated third shift at the post office took a toll on his body,” he said. “He didn’t talk about the war much. He kept a bunch of that concealed. How I heard about him was being a youngster in Franklin — people would come up to me and say, ‘You know your dad use to fly a plane!’ I was only 10 so it didn’t register.”
As he got older, however, Murdic said it all started to make sense. The more he researched his father’s historic role in the military, the more intrigued he became. His father was a man who helped prove the vast majority wrong and pave the way for equal rights for blacks in the U.S. military. Murdic said he was in college when the whole picture became crystal clear.
“I started learning about these guys — this black fighter group. They were named Tuskegee Airmen much later, in 1972! A lot of people don’t know that.”
The 332nd Fighter Group received the Presidential Unit Citation for its longest bomber escort mission to Berlin, Germany, March 24, 1945. They destroyed three German ME-262 jet fighters, the first jet planes of the war, and damaged five additional jet fighters without losing any of the bombers or any of their own fighter planes to enemy aircraft.
The 332nd Fighter Group also distinguished themselves in June 1944 when two of its pilots flying P-47 Thunderbolt aircraft discovered a German destroyer in the harbor at Trieste, Italy. Between May 1943 and June 1945, 450 Tuskegee Airmen were awarded more than 850 medals. Flight Officer James Murdic was one of the 450 who actually saw combat in Germany. He flew some 25 missions, providing escorts for B-17s that bombed multiple enemy targets.
Anthony Murdic said he can look back on his father’s illustrious career and be proud — knowing that his father served his country and his family to the best of his ability — something he has aspired to do as well.
“He made sure we had an opportunity to make something out of ourselves and I felt I owed it to him,” Murdic said. “I think he’d be proud. I told my wife, Armetta, I wish I had the opportunity to hand this (gold medal) to him.”
Murdic said if he had a chance to speak with his father today he would ask him what was the “method to his madness, as far as being as successful as he was.”
“I talk to my wife about that all the time,” he said. “I hear people say, ‘I’m going to talk to my mother or my father and see what they say.’ If I had the opportunity, that’s what I would do. When you come to a crossroad in your life — what would you do? How would you handle a certain situation? In the everyday challenges of life you don’t really know which direction to go. I would love to have my parents here as consultants.”
Instead, Murdic has his memories. The memories of a 10-year-old boy who learned from his father and became a man. The memories of a son who became a husband of 28 years, a father, grandfather, teacher, assistant coach and a respected citizen in his community. Murdic now 50, said when he was a child his father would tell them, “Straighten up and fly right!” — something he picked up as a pilot. But advice he said he is thankful for and worth repeating to many youths today.