Today a pilot slot in the United States military is open to all races, but it was not so long ago that was not the case. The United States military dismissed African Americans as inferior human beings and assumed they were ill-equipped to be pilots.
During World War II the Tuskegee Experiment, as it was known, disproved this assumption. Young men of color from all over the United States were taught to fly for Uncle Sam. The new George Lucas movie “Red Tails” tells the story of the Tuskegee Airmen.
The name Red Tails comes from the distinctive red paint that adorned the P-51 Mustangs flown by the Tuskegee Airmen.
I was privileged to be part of a early premiere of the movie held at Whidbey Naval Air Station some 90 miles north of Seattle.
The all-day event was organized by the Seattle chapter of the Tuskegee Airman Association, Sam Bruce Chapter, specifically by Tayarji Peterson, a former Marine and pilot. Peterson handled the organization and mobilization of the 100-plus guests with the skill of a beachmaster at Normandy.
Buses provided by Boeing transported the guests from the Museum of Flight in Seattle to Whidbey. Most of the participants were students from western Washington area schools. Several members of the media were invited and throughout the day cameras clicked away like locusts.
Among the honored guests were Tuskegee Airmen Tony Lamb, George Hickman Jr., and Lt. Colonel Ed Drummond. Lt. Col. Richard “Ken” Wheeler, who flew B-17s in the war, was there as well, wearing his uniform which, he noted with pride, still fits him after all these years.
The guests were treated to a tour of the base, which included stops on the ramp for a look at a P-3 Orion and a MH-60S Knighthawk rescue helicopter.
From the ramp we traveled to a closed runway for an up-close view of air operations at Whidbey. The Heritage Flight Museum, located in Bellingham, Wash., flew two of its prize airplanes, an AT-6 and a SNJ, down for the day. These were the airplanes flown by the Tuskegee Airmen in training.
We also were treated to a demonstration of water survival training. Among the tasks trainees must accomplish is getting out of an overturned aircraft that’s underwater and escaping from a parachute in the water.
Lunch was provided at the base galley by Grumman Aircraft Co.
The day ended with a screening of “Red Tails” in the base theater. Before the picture began, there was a Q & A session with the Tuskegee Airmen and the Hollywood contingency.
Producer Rick McCallum, whose credits include “Star Wars,” noted that George Lucas had wanted to make this movie for more than 15 years, but had difficulty obtaining financial backing for the project. McCallum garnered applause when he said that the Red Tail story is one that has needed to be told for a long time.
The movie opens with a quote from a 1925 government study stating that “negroes” do not have the intellect, reflexes or courage to serve in the military. This sets the stage for what the Tuskegee Airman faced when they climbed into the cockpits of what were very often war-weary aircraft.
The first scene shows a flight of B-17s being escorted by white fighter pilots. When the Germans appear, the white pilots break off in pursuit, leaving the bombers vulnerable, with predictable results.
When the Red Tails finally get their orders to protect the bombers, the mission is clear: The lives of the 10 men in the bomber are worth much more than a single kill that a fighter pilot could make.
Most of the movie was filmed in the Czech Republic. The actors noted that they went through military training to get into character, although they did not say if they had been able to do any flying.
The on-the-ground story of the “Red Tails” is as moving as the air combat. A scene in a bar highlights the segregation of the races that was prevalent at that time.
Each of the characters is shown as a whole person, with strengths and weaknesses. This makes for an involving story.
The big challenge for a movie like this is what do the pilots — especially those who were there — think of it?
Wheeler, who flew B-17s from Lucera Airfield from July 1944 until May 1945, reported tearing up at a few moments and reliving the tension of combat in a few scenes.
“‘Red Tails’ is a memorable and very moving depiction of the Tuskegee Airmen’s struggle to be recognized as equally competent pilots and officers. This movie is great!” he said, adding that it should be seen by any aviation enthusiast.
Wheeler noted there are a few historical mistakes, noting that the insignia of the 301st Bomb Group had a Y in a black square with a lower placed squadron number below in a black circle, and the depictions of the formations of bombers were not how they did it in real life.
Bottom line: This movie needs to be seen on the big screen — the bigger the better to get the full impact of the expanse of sky for the air combat scenes.
“Red Tails” makes its theater debut Jan. 20
For more information: Facebook.com/RedTails