Yesterday, Jan. 20, was the special screening of the new George Lucas-produced film “Red Tails” at Rave Cinemas Franklin Park, Toledo, Ohio.
The all-black unit Tuskegee Airmen of the Army Air Corps in the segregated military of World War II didn’t often get recognition, let alone applause, as its members flew successful missions over Europe.
The Airmen believe the new film, directed by Anthony Hemmingway, will bring long overdue attention to their service.
“What we did was to pretty much change the course of history in terms of civil rights and everything that came after it,” said Harold H. Brown of Port Clinton, 87, who was a pilot flying escort missions as part of the Airmen’s 332nd Fighter Group — the Red Tails that are the subject of the film and so named for the bright red painted on the tails of the P-51 Mustangs they flew.
“There was an awful lot of history in terms of breaking down barriers,” said Mr. Brown, of the Airmen’s Ohio Chapter, in a conversation before a dinner to honor the Airmen.
“This movie is important because it tells a story that needs to be told without the usual Hollywood embellishments,” said John M. Stewart, of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc. Detroit chapter. He served stateside in the Air Force from 1949 — the year after the armed forces were integrated — to 1954. Unlike Mr. Brown, he is not an “original,” as the Airmen call those in the contingent trained at Tuskegee, Ala., for the war effort. But he joined the organization to honor those who were.
“If it wasn’t for the Tuskegee Airmen and the black Marines, we’d all be marching with a swastika flag in front of us,” Mr. Stewart said.
A poster for the movie — which features vanquished Nazi planes aflame and headed earthward — was on prominent display at the dinner, held at the Elephant Bar & Restaurant. Under the movie title was the legend, “Courage has no color.” The Airmen autographed the poster and stood in ones and twos in front of it as comrades or family members took pictures.
In a program at the theater, Mayor Mike Bell, who was made an honorary Tuskegee Airman last summer, said: “The idea of what these Tuskegee Airmen still stand for is a great thing.”
He said that he realized when took a ride aboard an F-16 fighter jet courtesy of the 180th Fighter Wing not only what that unit of the Ohio Air National Guard has done for America, “but also about what these gentlemen have done for America, and at how smart and how quick you have to be able think and how much you have to know to be able to fly.
“It made me think as we were riding home how safe America is because of people like the Tuskegee Airmen and the 180th that protect our country every day.”
The audience in the packed theater included the mayor, Mr. Brown, and U.S. Rep. Bob Latta (R., Bowling Green), whose newly constituted Fifth District will include Toledo Express Airport. About 450 were members of the 180th Fighter Wing of the Ohio Air National Guard, which is based at the airport.
Lt. Col. Mike Digby of the 180th Fighter Wing said the screening was held “to recognize the heritage and history and to see how far we’ve come.” They turned out to be one of the best flying squadrons in World War II.
By chance, when the 180th deployed to Iraq, it was assigned to the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing, a successor to the Red Tails’ fighter group. Airspace over Balad Air Base was divided into “Tuskegee North” and “Tuskegee South,” and when Colonel Digby was a supervisor there, he was designated Red Tail 1 or Red Tail 2.
“It all ties together,” Colonel Digby said.
The Tuskegee connection to northwest Ohio goes back to World War II. Art Jibilian, who grew up in Toledo, was one of three who parachuted behind enemy lines in Nazi-occupied Serbia to orchestrate the air rescue of more than 500 downed U.S. airmen. The Tuskegee Airmen — the Red Tails — provided air cover for what was called “Operation Halyard,” which took several months.
Brian McMahon, a Perrysburg real estate developer, helped arrange honors for Mr. Jibilian and for the surviving Tuskegee Airmen in 2009 at the largest private air show in the world. He and Colonel Digby helped arrange the dinner and screening.
The story of Mr. Jibilian and the Airmen will have to wait for another movie. But Mr. McMahon hopes that awareness created by Red Tails leads to a Medal of Honor, the highest U.S. military honor. Mr. Jibilian died in March, 2010, in his Fremont home. A resolution for the medal was co-signed by Mr. Latta and U.S. Rep Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo).
After the movie showing, some airmen commented on how realistic it was.
“They had to jazz up a few things, but if you don’t do that, you don’t have a good movie,” Mr. Brown said.
His favorite part was the raid on Berlin, but he noted that all of the accounts in the movie occurred in real life.
Before the screening, four Tuskegee Airmen in attendance, including Mr. Brown and Alexander Jefferson, both of whom were shot down and became Nazi prisoners of war, were honored with coins — a military tradition, Brig. Gen. Mark Bartman said — and congratulations.
Mr. Bell also was made an “honorary Buckeye colonel” and thereby an official member of the militia in the state.
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