Discovering the identity of a Tuskegee airman
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    Tuskegee Airmen: ‘Heroes can be black, too’

    The image appeared only for a fleeting moment. I was concentrating so hard on the photos that flashed on the screen in the Tuskegee Airmen documentary that I had almost missed it.

    But there he was – Lt. James Wiley – in a black and white photo. I only recall that he was looking into the camera because the documentary didn’t linger on the photo. It was chock full of images of African American pilots who trained during World War II to fight in Europe for a country that doubted their ability to even fly airplanes.

    Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. (left), one of the first Tuskegee Airmen and later their most famous leader, and an unidentified pilot. Photo from the Library of Congress' Toni Frissell Collection.

    I had learned of Wiley while trying to identify African American soldiers in two photos I had bought at auction. The photos were stamped “U.S. Army Air Corps,” so I assumed they were Tuskegee Airmen. A friend of Wiley’s family identified him as one of the soldiers.

    The documentary is called “Double Victory,” in reference to their fighting for victory against racism at home and fascism in Europe. It is a prelude to the George Lucas film “Red Tails” scheduled to be released on Jan. 20, 2012. This riveting documentary is currently being shown in five cities to whip up support for the movie, which tells of the exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen of the 99th Fighter Squadron, the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group. The documentary will also be aired on Jan. 20 on the History channel.

    I attended one of those screenings last night. Two airmen wearing light blue jackets and blue “Tuskegee Airmen” caps talked about their experiences as part of a panel accompanying the documentary, while others sat in a special row of chairs among a packed audience. The panelists apparently didn’t see any combat; the war ended in 1945 before they could ship out.

    Lucas financed the project with his own money – $58 million to make the movie and $35 million to distribute it, according to the Wall Street Journal. The movie includes combat scenes that will remind viewers of Star Wars, the visual effects supervisor told the newspaper. I saw the trailer online, and those scenes were “wow.”

    This is not the first film about the airmen. In 1995, HBO produced a TV movie titled “The Tuskegee Airmen” starring Laurence Fishburne.

    A poster for the George Lucas movie "Red Tails."

    The Lucas movie stars Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding (he was also in the HBO movie), along with Method Man. The documentary starts with a few of the actors extolling the bravery of the airmen, who pressed on when many white officers and pilots refused to fly or associate with them. The men and their all-black units were thwarted at every turn, but they wouldn’t give up because as one said, this was his country, too, and his ancestors helped build it.

    “We wanted to fly,” another announced succinctly in the documentary, a testament to our basic desire to aspire and succeed.

    Lt. James Wiley was one of those brave souls. He was among the first 24 pilots of the 99th Fighter Squadron who landed in North Africa in 1943. They started their action with daily missions in Italy, flying some of the military’s worst planes in attacks on enemy gun sites in the Pantelleria Island campaign.

    Some of the research I came across had indicated that the airmen primarily escorted bombers to their targets, but the documentary made it clear that they also participated in independent air raids. After hearing of their successful missions, some white bomber pilots even requested the Tuskegee airmen. The squadron became part of the 332nd under the leadership of Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., and painted the tails of their P-51C aircraft red to identify themselves. They became known as the “Red Tails.”

    The documentary contained its share of the “trials and tribulations” of black men trying to become pilots in the 1940s, but I’m hoping that the movie goes beyond that. I hope that it shows the camaraderie of men helping each other – as they mentioned in the documentary – and the good times they carved out for themselves in the midst of the crazy quilt of racism.

    I can’t wait to see the film, primarily for what panel moderator Ed Gordon said the documentary demonstrated: That “heroes can be black, too.” And indeed these men were.

    A poster for the documentary about the Tuskegee Airmen.

     

     

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