By Tom Leonard - Last updated at 12:34 PM on 3rd February 2012
Fighter pilot Alexander Jefferson was on another combat mission in the clear blue skies over the South of France, this time tasked with strafing German radar stations.
Gunning the powerful Rolls-Royce engine of his P-51 Mustang fighter — named Margo — as he flew low over the trees, the American watched impassively as enemy anti-aircraft fire rose up from the ground and tore into his cockpit.
‘It blew the heck out of the airplane,’ he recalls today, seven decades later. ‘The damn shell came up through the floor and went out the top of the canopy. Fire came up out of the floor, I pulled back on the stick to get some altitude and prepared to bail out. When the canopy popped and I came out, I was only at 800ft.’
The black American pilots in the new movie 'Red Tails'. It is hoped the film will inspire today's young male black population in the U.S. to make the best of their lives
It was August 12, 1944 — three days before the Allied invasion of Southern France — and the U.S. fighter pilot’s parachute just had time to open before he landed heavily in some trees and was immediately taken prisoner.
‘A German soldier saw my shoulder bars and he saluted me,’ Mr Jefferson told me this week. After his capture, he spent the rest of the war in Stalag Luft III, one of just three black men among 5,000 PoWs in the camp made famous by The Great Escape.
Sadly, when he made it back to New York, his homecoming was not nearly so joyous as it should have been.
Today a sprightly 90-year-old, the veteran remembers vividly that though he was treated ‘as an officer and a gentleman’ by his German captors, he was subjected to racism when he returned to America.
‘As we disembarked from the troop ship, a white soldier at the bottom of the gangplank shouted: “Whites to the right, n*****s to the left.” I replied: “Goddammit, nothing has changed!”
‘I felt it was straight back to racism and segregation. I was furious, but you couldn’t do a damned thing but suck it up and survive.’
It was just another insult for a remarkable group of men whose controversial story has just been made into a feature film by Star Wars creator George Lucas.
And, undoubtedly, Jefferson and his comrades in 332nd Fighter Group — nicknamed the Red Tails after the colour of their plane markings — have an extraordinary story to tell.
The first black military pilots in the U.S., not only risked their lives battling the German fighters as they escorted Allied bombers, but, on the ground, they were contending with the shocking racism of their fellow Americans.
The first black military pilots in the U.S., theirs was a war spent fighting on two fronts. Not only were they risking their lives battling the German fighters as they escorted Allied bombers, but, on the ground, they were contending with the shocking racism of their fellow Americans.
While it was the Nazis who talked of racial superiority and the Allies who espoused freedom and equality, the story of the pioneering Tuskegee Airmen — the popular name of the 332nd and a sister bomber group that never saw action — reveals that the distinction was not quite so simple.
Ironically, while the Germans treated Lieutenant Colonel Jefferson like all captured enemy officers, many of his colleagues — their attitudes still dominated by America’s deep-seated traditions of racial segregation — considered blacks to be mentally and physically incapable of flying a combat plane.
Those attitudes were actually enshrined in a 1925 official U.S. Army report that might have come straight from the office of German propaganda minister Dr Goebbels. It concluded that the ‘American negro has not progressed as far as the other sub-species of the human family’.
His ‘mental inferiority and the inherent weaknesses of his character’ made him unfit for combat. It claimed blacks were uncoordinated and unqualified for leadership, and particularly ill-equipped for anything so complicated as flying a plane.
The Tuskegee Airmen were approved by the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1941 only following intense pressure from the black community. This was seen purely as an ‘experiment’ that many military chiefs confidently expected to fail.
Tucked away at a segregated airbase in Tuskegee, Alabama, right in the heart of the racist Deep South, the entry standards and training were, predictably, far more exacting than for white pilots.
America’s civil rights movement may have made huge strides since then, but the story of how this film came to be made also reveals how hard it has been to eliminate racism from American society.
President Barack Obama helped the film's (scene pictured) chances by hosting a private viewing for veterans at the White House. Lucas remains appalled by Hollywood's indifference to what he calls the 'real heroes' of the Red Tails.
Although the story has been told on film before — a TV movie called The Tuskegee Airmen starring Laurence Fishburne was made in 1995 — George Lucas struggled to get his project off the ground. First captivated by the story more than 20 years ago, he was disgusted that every studio refused to touch the idea, and had to put up the entire $93 million production and marketing costs himself.
Even after it was completed, some movie executives didn’t even bother to watch it first. ‘It’s because it’s an all-black movie,’ Lucas said.
On the other hand, President Barack Obama helped the film’s chances by hosting a private viewing for veterans at the White House. But Lucas remains appalled by Hollywood’s indifference to what he calls the ‘real heroes’ of the Red Tails.
At the moment, it looks like Lucas may have the last laugh: his film bucked industry expectations and the critics by taking an impressive $19 million on its first box office weekend. This will increase the chances of Lucas finding a UK distributor for the film, parts of which were filmed in Britain.
Starring Cuba Gooding Jr and British actor David Oyelowo, from BBC’s Spooks, it’s a gung-ho, Boy’s-Own adventure, with pilots shouting things like ‘How d’ya like that Mr Hitler!’ as a villainous German ace mutters back: ‘Die foolish African.’
There are some jarring moments: the constant cockpit banter seen in the film, veterans tell me, would never have been tolerated. As for how a black American managed to escape a PoW camp and get home through white Nazi Germany — as a Red Tail does in the film — remains a mystery perhaps only Lucas can answer.
Still, both Lucas and the ex-Red Tails to whom I spoke believe that the film will inspire today’s young male black population in the U.S. to make the best of their lives.
It’s also true that Americans generally don’t like to be the bad guys in their action films, and Red Tails, it has to be said, skates lightly over the appalling racism the pilots experienced from their own countrymen.
After a few minor run-ins with prejudiced white officers in a bar or across a conference table, the Red Tails prove their worth — as they did historically — and all ends happily.
But the real story in the 1940s was very different. For Herbert Campbell, now 94 and still able to reel off details of his 77 missions as if he was reading them from his log book, the racial humiliations of those years remain etched into his memory.
Lt Col Campbell was one of five Red Tails who spent weeks recounting his experiences to the film-makers.
'We went over to Europe to defeat the Nazis and to say “Here’s a group who faces almost as much bias and racism as you’re showing the Jews, and they’re whipping your butts all over the skies,”’ he told me. ‘That was our point.’
Born and bred in Mississippi (‘the most prejudiced state in America’ as he calls it), he had wanted to become a flying vet in Texas, but applied to become an army pilot to escape the infantry draft.
‘Like many of the airmen with me, I didn’t want to serve as our fathers had, as cannon fodder in the trenches in World War I,’ he said. ‘Our country was telling us that because of the pigmentation of our skin, we didn’t have the capability to operate something as complicated as an aircraft. We said: “Teach us. Give us an opportunity and we’ll show you.” And that was our challenge.’
Eventually, the fighter group was given far better new planes, the fast, manoeuvrable Mustangs
Stationed in Italy when they arrived in Europe, the black pilots were again segregated — this time at an all-black airfield at Ramitelli on the Adriatic coast. They were barred from drinking in the white officers’ messes; indeed, the only time black and white pilots really shared the same areas was if they were in a PoW camp together.
As the film shows, the 332nd were given the oldest planes, and missions that offered little chance of shooting anything more challenging than an army lorry. Sneering superiors branded the unit ‘incompetent and cowardly’ for not shooting down enough Germans and there were calls to disband the fighter group.
‘We just had to take it and grit our teeth,’ said Alexander Jefferson. Their answer was to gradually prove their worth until their superiors started taking them seriously.
Eventually, the fighter group was given far better new planes — the fast, manoeuvrable Mustangs — and were assigned to protect bombers operating as far north as Berlin after the Red Tails’ commanding officer, Colonel Benjamin Davis, assured bomber chiefs that he could reduce the huge number of aircraft they were losing to enemy fighters.Outside the Red Tails, hot-headed and glory-hungry fighter pilots on these often boring six-hour missions were prone to breaking formation and leaving the bombers to chase targets. So Colonel Davis enforced an iron rule on the Red Tails: protect the bombers at all costs.
It worked, and his pilots quickly won an enviable reputation for bringing bombers home safely to their Italian bases, losing only 25 over hundreds of missions.
But the Red Tails’ achievements — downing 261 enemy planes and even sinking a destroyer, as well as winning 95 Distinguished Flying Crosses — and their sacrifice in losing 66 pilots killed in action out of 445 who served overseas, counted for nothing back in the U.S.
‘I did not come back under any false hopes, and there were none,’ said Lt Col Campbell bleakly.
While other military units were given parades in their hometowns, Tuskegee welcomed the boys back with a return to the vicious indignities of segregation.
‘The minute you stepped out of the base, your uniform didn’t make one hell of a difference — you were simply a negro,’ Campbell recalled. ‘You’d often get: “Boy, what are you doing with those wings on?”’ There were tales of police arresting black pilots, assuming their officer’s uniform must have been stolen.
You had to sit on the back of the bus; on the train you had to sit in separate cars; in restaurants you had to sit behind a partition; and you couldn’t lodge at the average motel,’ said Campbell.
A trip to the shops, he said, was particularly humiliating for the pilots’ wives — his own wife, Mildred, died last October after 68 years of marriage. ‘They had all sorts of rules to embarrass the black women. You’d go into the department stores and you couldn’t try the clothes on. If you bought it, you had to keep it.’
The final humiliation? Even German PoWs who were in prison camps nearby were treated better — they could shop all day at the U.S. Army’s version of the NAAFI while black servicemen could use it only at certain times. In town, laundries washed for the Germans but refused to handle the pilots’ clothes.
Such unabashed racism extended far beyond the old Ku Klux Klan stamping grounds of Alabama. Lt Col Harry Stewart was a member of the Red Tails team that won the U.S. Air Force’s inaugural gunnery championships in 1949 — and had once shot down three Messerschmitts in a single engagement over Austria.
His credentials could hardly have been in doubt when, newly demobbed, he tried to become a commercial pilot in his native New York.
‘I applied to two major airlines. One rejected me outright. The second one’s personnel officer told me: “We’re not accepting coloured people for pilots. Our pilots have to inspire confidence in the passengers, and if they see you walking down the aisle, this does not inspire confidence.”
‘He probably thought he was being magnanimous telling me.’
Now 87 and as fiercely lucid as all the other surviving Red Tails, Lt Col Stewart still flies, taking youngsters up near his home in Detroit to introduce them to flying.
The notion in his youth that blacks couldn’t be pilots had only increased his determination to become one, he recalled. ‘I remember, as a nine-year-old growing up in New York, wondering why there were no black men in the American baseball team.
‘My white neighbour told me: “Harry, the problem is that African men can’t throw a ball overarm.”’
Lt Col Stewart knew it wasn’t true. Just as he knew that a black man could fly a plane.
Now, at, last the wider world is learning about the humble heroes who blazed a trail across the skies of Europe all those years ago.
Poster for the new film which has been entitled 'Red Tails' and states 'Courage has no color' - an acknowledgement that would have been appreciated by the original pilots when they returned home after their tour of duties in World War II.
Barak Obama greets two Tuskegee 'veterans'.
A specially struck medal honouring the Tuskegee Airmen
Page updated : 3rd August 2016