Simplifications and flashy effects aside, the incredible story of the Tuskegee Airmen gets its due, and some of the squad's veterans are pleased with the film.
I understand why George Lucas became so passionate about telling the story of the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II that he spent 20 years and some $58 million of his own money bringing Red Tails, which opens today, to the big screen. Both the story, and the Tuskegee pilots themselves, are extraordinary.
At the beginning of World War II, blacks were not allowed to serve as pilots in the military. A 1925 U.S. Army War College report had gone so far as deeming them not just inferior, but also incapable of operating complex machinery. But the country desperately needed more pilots. So a small training program for black pilots was initiated at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. It was called the "Tuskegee Experiment" because the Air Corps brass fully expected the men in the program—many of whom were college-educated and quite accomplished—to fail. Some of the early white instructors in the program, in fact, tried to make sure that outcome came to pass.
"All of the instructors were volunteers," Lt. Col. Floyd J. Carter, one of the Tuskegee Airmen, told me. "Now, some of them volunteered because they believed in the program. But others volunteered to try to keep us from succeeding. They'd call us stupid niggers and try all kinds of things to provoke us into getting angry, or coming back at them. Because the minute you did that, you washed out."
There are some technical inaccuracies in 'Red Tails,' but one Tuskegee pilot told me the movie had actually brought back some memories that hurt.
In the early classes, only four or five men out of an initial group of 40 candidates made it through the training. The program was also in constant threat of being closed down. But it had just enough champions (including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt), and there was just enough discipline and determination on the part of people like Benjamin O. Davis, who became the commanding officer of the Tuskegee fighter pilots in Europe, that the "experiment" stayed alive. The first squadron of pilots was deployed to North Africa. But at the beginning of 1944, when enough pilots had graduated from the Tuskegee program to form an entire fighter group (four fighter squadrons), they were deployed to Italy, where the 332nd fighter group served as a segregated unit within the 15th Air Force.
This is point where George Lucas picks up their story. Red Tails is an action-adventure movie set on the Italian air field the 332nd used as its base from 1944 to 1945. Lucas also decided to focus on the action-adventure aspects of the story more than deep character development. As Lt. Col. Harry Stewart, another Tuskegee veteran, put it, "The movie did a good of of portraying the story. Lucas did it in his fashion, of course, with kind of a Star Wars glitter, but it did parallel the story of the real Tuskegee Airmen."
The pilots flew several different types of fighter aircraft, and flew both ground attack and air cover missions. They gained the respect of the Army Air Corps brass in Washington for their air-cover performance at Anzio and several other Allied beach landing operations in Italy—just as the movie portrays. But what they became famous for—indeed, almost legendary for—was their record escorting bombers on missions deep into German-occupied territory, including a massive raid on Berlin itself that Lucas makes the climax of the film.
To understand the significance of those bomber escort missions, one first has to understand just how dangerous it was to be a bomber pilot in World War II. In some of the early raids, fewer than half of the Allied bombers returned home from any given mission. There were some 8,000 U.S. heavy bombers lost in the European theater (each carrying 10 crew members)—more than twice the number of fighter airplanes lost there. And as the war progressed, Germany focused more of the Luftwaffe's efforts on shooting down Allied bombers. (One Tuskegee pilot told me that German pilots were awarded four kills for each four-engine bomber they shot down, as extra incentive.)
Against those efforts and odds, the only protection the bomber crews had was their fighter escorts—especially the P-51s, which were the only fighters with enough range to stay with the bombers all the way to their targets and back. Of course, fighter pilots being what they are, they sometimes got drawn off the bomber formations to chase down enemy aircraft. What made the Tuskegee Airmen so legendary was their reputation for doggedly and effectively sticking with the bombers, fighting off or discouraging enemy attacks, rather than going off to seek their own glory.
For many years, legend had it that the "Red Tails," (named after the bright red tail markings every plane in the 332nd carried) didn't lose a single bomber to enemy fire. The reality isn't quite that movie-perfect: Between June 1944 and May 1945, as many as 27 bombers might have been lost. However, that number (and some argue the number of bombers lost was less than that) still represents half the average number of bombers lost by other fighter groups. The reason for that achievement, according to every source and Tuskegee Airman I've consulted, was Col. Davis—who understood just how much was riding on how well his men followed their orders to protect the bombers. If they didn't turn in significant results on that front, it would give the group's critics a reason to shut them down—a threat the other fighter groups in Europe did not face.