Jumping into History

Published 10:55 am Wednesday, February 25, 2009

ROME TOWNSHIP — Born in the land of the Big Easy and bred in Los Angeles, John Cannan could have taken the safer way out. With his high academic high school record, when World War II broke out in the United States, he could have avoided the draft and done “military work” until war’s end.

Instead he signed up, lured by the so-called glamour of the Tuskeegee Airmen. But when he got to Alabama, he found he had to take a backseat to the older college guys who wanted to be part of the illustrious airmen outfit as well.

But when he got a chance to join the 555 or Triple Nickles, the first African-American paratrooper outfit, Cannan jumped at it, literally.

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Recounting those days and his experiences serving in the Korean War was the basis of a lecture Cannan gave to Fairland High School students Tuesday morning.

At the heart of his speech was how the military wanting the “best and the brightest” were able to end segregation in its ranks.

During the Korean War Cannan was sent to Japan to be flown in to Korea when his services as a medic were needed on the ground. Cannan was needed as a replacement in white units and sent in. Soon the Triple Nickles outfit became a part of the formerly all white 187th Airborne Division.

“I was needed in white outfits,” Cannan told the students. “And it worked. The generals and people in Congress saw that this works. That how the military became racially integrated. … You could be polka dot. … Integration made itself.”

Cannan, now 85, stayed in the military until 1966. Then he moved his family to Seattle where he dedicated the next part of his career to public service including devising a prototype food bank that is now used as a model across the country.

He got involved in the Model City Program whose mission is to refurbish the inner city; became the medical administrator of a children’s clinic at a Washington State hospital; and became director of the Ecumenical Metropolitan Ministry that did social outreach in Seattle.

But the essence of Cannan’s lecture was not to recount his history but to encourage the students in his audience.

“If you really want to be helpful, opportunities will come to you, if you know what you are doing is right,” he said.

And with the election of the first African American president, Cannan says, “the gates are open. …the world is your oyster.”

Thinking back on the injustice of a segregated America, Cannan said, “It is good to remember, but better to know it is over.”