From the earliest days of our republic until the 1950s, segregation was a reality within the U.S. military. A Bloomsburg State Normal School alumnus who achieved the rank of lieutenant general is credited as a force that helped to bring the practice to an end.
Idwal H. Edwards ’14 was born on April 5, 1895, in Freedom, N.Y. His father, Daniel, a native of Wales, was a Baptist minister who served churches in communities across Pennsylvania, including Taylor and Scranton. To prepare for a teaching career, Idwal Edwards entered Bloomsburg State Normal School in December 1911, graduating on June 24, 1914. He was honored at commencement for excelling in both scholarship and teaching ability.
Edwards quickly became principal of schools in Sterling, near Scranton, and entered Brown University in fall 1916. However, the course of his life changed forever in 1917 when, after enlisting in the U.S. Army at the start of World War I, he completed officer’s training and was commissioned a second lieutenant. The following year, he was transferred to the Army Air Corps, earning his pilot’s wings and serving as a flight instructor.
After the war ended, Edwards continued his military career with assignments in the Philippines, Hawaii, and bases in the continental United States. He also expanded his training, graduating from the Air Corps Technical School in 1931, Command and General Staff School in 1935, and Army War College in 1938. He was rated a command pilot, combat observer and aircraft observer, and promoted to lieutenant colonel.
In 1941 he assumed command of the basic flying school at Randolph Field, located outside of San Antonio, Texas, and nicknamed the “West Point of the Air.” The growing importance of air power was recognized in June 1942 when Edwards, a brigadier general, was named assistant chief of staff in charge of organization and training for the entire Army. He later served as an administrative officer in the European Theater, first as chief of staff of the U.S. Air Forces and then deputy commander for the Air Force in the Mediterranean. Following the war, in 1946 and 1947, he was named commanding general of the U.S. Air Forces in Europe.
His next role was most important to the future development of the U.S. Air Force, which was officially created in 1947. That year, Edwards became deputy chief of staff of personnel at the Air Force Headquarters in Washington, D.C. Recognizing the success of segregated units during the war, especially the Tuskegee Airmen, Edwards ordered the study of racial policy and practices in the Air Force. The conclusion was that, aside from moral issues, segregation was inefficient and did not utilize personnel to their best advantage.
On July 26, 1948, President Harry S. Truman issued an executive order that eventually ended racial discrimination in the armed forces. Based on the existing study, Edwards, one of the chief figures in the development of an integration plan, recommended that the Air Force unequivocally endorse the order, which ended segregation in the service. The last all-Black unit was disbanded in 1952.
Edwards finished his career as commandant of the Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, retiring in February 1953. He returned to active duty for one month the following year before his final retirement on March 9, 1954, at the rank of lieutenant general, the highest rank achieved by any BU alumnus.
The Bloomsburg State Teachers College Alumni Association honored Edwards three years before his retirement as one of the first recipients of the Distinguished Service Award, based on his service as “a loyal defender of our nation’s honor.” At the ceremony, Edwards said as the years passed, he appreciated more and more the contribution Bloomsburg made to his life.
Idwal Edwards spent retirement in Arlington, Va., with his wife, the former Katharine Bierman ’15. He died on Nov. 25, 1981, at the age of 86 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. •