ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — “Red Tails,” George Lucas’ high-flying movie about the famed Tuskegee Airmen, captures the chaos of aerial combat and the rock-solid camaraderie shared by the black Army Air Corps pilots who flew with distinction during World War II and became a catalyst for ending segregation in the military.
“It was pretty realistic, I thought, especially the (air) battles,” said John Allen of Rio Rancho, one of two Tuskegee Airmen feted at a reception and preview of the movie Thursday night at Century Rio 24 theaters.
Also attending the event was Dr. James Williams of Las Cruces, who was an engineering officer with the Tuskegee Airmen.
“Very realistic,” Williams said after seeing “Red Tails.”
“It reminded me of some of the men I served with,” said the retired 92-year-old surgeon.
“Red Tails” is based on the Tuskegee Airmen – a group of black Army Air Corps pilots who proved their mettle during World War II as the 332nd Fighter Group. The film also depicts the other “war” the black airmen fought – segregation and bigotry.
The Tuskegee test
Over the War Department’s objections, Congress in 1941 ordered the Army Air Corps to form an all-black aerial combat unit.
Support crews trained at Chanute Air Base in Illinois until facilities were completed in 1942 at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Tuskegee, Ala. – home of the renowned Tuskegee Institute founded by black scientist Booker T. Washington.
From 1942 through 1946, 994 pilots received their wings at Tuskegee, training in P-40 Warhawks, P-47 Thunderbolts and P-51 Mustangs.
The Tuskegee Airmen include pilots, navigators, bombardiers, maintenance and support staff, instructors, and all the personnel who kept the planes in the air.
About 450 Tuskegee pilots served overseas in either the 99th Pursuit Squadron or the 332nd Fighter Group, flying more than 15,000 sorties on 1,500 missions in Italy, Sicily and North Africa.
The film’s title is taken from the bright red paint scheme the black squadrons adopted for the tails of their sleek new Mustangs, known then as “the Cadillac of the skies.”
Their main mission was escorting Allied bombers. By the end of the war, Tuskegee Airmen had shot down 109 Luftwaffe aircraft and destroyed numerous Nazi targets. About 150 Tuskegee Airmen were killed in combat.
Aside from their combat successes, the group was instrumental in destroying the myth that blacks were incapable of becoming competent airmen and in paving the way for desegregating all branches of the U.S. military.
Allen, 83, said he had hoped “Red Tails” would delve further into the issue of military segregation.
“I do wish they had done a little more on our training in Alabama, and the hardships we faced there,” Allen said. He recalled that anytime the black airmen left the base, they traveled in groups for safety.
Allen said he related well to actor Andre Royo’s character, Chief “Coffee” Coleman, the cranky mechanic responsible for keeping the Red Tails’ P-40 Warhawks and P-51 Mustangs flying.
“Those guys worked really hard keeping the planes in the air,” Allen said.
Allen was training on the P-51 with the 301st Fighter Squadron when the World War II ended.
Like Allen, Williams was drafted into the Army in 1942.
Because Williams had completed four years of pre-med studies, the Army wanted him in the medical corps. But he was interested in aviation and was accepted into the Tuskegee program.
Williams, whose mother was the first black woman to graduate from what is now New Mexico State University, played a role in military desegregation.
While training at Freeman Air Field in Indiana in 1942, Williams was among a number of black officers who attempted to enter a whites-only officers club over a two-day period – an incident that became known as the Freeman Field Mutiny.
After refusing to sign an affidavit affirming they had broken a base regulation, Williams and 102 other officers were arrested. Only one of the officers was tried – for shoving a white officer – but all were eventually exonerated and their military records cleared.
The incident proved to be a turning point in military segregation, which officially ended in 1945.
In March 2007, the Tuskegee Airmen were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal – the highest civilian award bestowed by Congress.
“You know, it just so happens that it happened 50 years too late, but we finally have received national recognition for all things that transpired during that era,” Allen told the Journal in 2007 when the award was announced.
“Red Tails,” which opened to mixed reviews, stars Cuba Gooding Jr. as Maj. Emanuelle Stance, Terrence Howard as Col. A.J. Bullard, David Oyelowo as Joe “Lightning” Little, Nate Parker as Martin “Easy” Julian and Bryan Cranston as Col. William Mortamus.
The film opened nationwide on Friday.