Alaska's link to the
Tuskegee Airmen noted at
screening of Lucas Film
Col. Bryan Radliff, 477th Fighter Group commander, gives a tour of the 477th FG
headquarters Tuskegee Airmen memorabilia to actor Marcus Paulk. Paulk plays Deke
Watkins in the new George Lucas film, "Red Tails," about the Tuskegee Airman.
A recent Daily News article quoted Dr. Ronald Myers, an organizer in the drive to make Juneteenth a national
holiday, saying: "I tell people making speeches about Juneteenth, 'When you mention the Tuskegee Airmen and
the Buffalo Soldiers, make sure you mention the African-American Army Engineers and the Alcan
Highway" ("Juneteenth event celebrates Alcan Highway work," published Oct. 26, 2011).
The article was about the African American Army engineers who helped build the highway to Alaska during World War
II, creating what Myers and others identify as the first move toward an integrated military. A newsroom colleague
commented that the story would make a good movie: "Glory' meets 'Bridge Over the River Kwai,"
is how he put it.
Myers told me he was amazed that "everyone knows about the Tuskegee Airmen, but no one knew about the Alcan
workers." In an age when a startling number of Americans can't correctly identify Hitler or Stalin as America's foe
or ally in that war, I'm not sure that everyone really does know about the illustrious all-black team of fighter pilots,
though the right movie would certainly help more people know about them.
In a wonderfully serendipitous turn, we learned 10 days ago that Alaska has a connection with the Tuskegee pilots too and
that someone is turning their story into an upcoming movie. And that someone is George Lucas.
"Red Tails" won't be the first film about the Tuskegee Airmen when it's released next year. Previous
movies have included a 1996 HBO movie starring Laurence Fishburne, and Ronald Reagan narrated a wartime morale-boosting
documentary about them. But the level of talent coming to this effort is noteworthy. The screenplay is by John Ridley
("Three Kings") and the director is Anthony Hemingway. It's Hemingway's first shot at directing a major film.
He has previously been an assistant or second unit director, but he's mostly known for directing television projects for
shows like "Oz," "Community," "The Closer" and "Heroes."
Here's the background: In the segregated armed forces of World War II, black pilots trained at Tuskegee Institute in
Alabama to shuttle aircraft to the battle front. They worked with a variety of planes. But then they got their hands on the
P-51 Mustang fighters and were given the chance to engage the enemy, they showed remarkable skill and courage. The squad's
bright red tails gave them their nickname. Bomber crews called them "Red-Tail Angels."
There is some dispute among historians over whether they never lost a single Allied bomber under their protection, but their
record was good enough that every general in the Army Air Corps began demanding fighters from 332nd Fighter
Squadron to provide cover for their planes.
Now here's where Alaska comes in. On Dec. 15 at the Regal Tikhatnu theater, a rough cut of Lucas' flick was screened for
about 200 Alaskans associated with the U.S. Air Force Reserve's 477th Fighter Squadron. That's the outfit that flies
the F-22 Raptors based at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
So what's the connection? Well, the way the military looks at things, the personnel with the Raptor unit are the grandkids
of the Tuskegee Airmen.
A press release explained:
"The Group's 302nd Fighter Squadron historically was part of the 332nd Fighter Group, also known as
'The Red Tails,' the
famous all-black unit that fought both American prejudice and Nazi militarism.
"Additionally, another Tuskegee Airmen unit, the 477th Bombardment Group was activated in 1944. The
477th and the 302nd were reactivated here in October 2007 when the group became the Air Force Reserve
Command's first F-22 Raptor unit and the only Air Force Reserve unit in Alaska."
Among those who attended the screening was one of the "Red Tails" actors, Marcus Paulk. He toured the
Tuskegee memorabilia that is now displayed in the 477th headquarters at the base and got a close-up look at a Raptor.
"That plane is sick," Paulk said -- meaning it as a compliment, not a comment on the reported oxygen supply problems
that have bedeviled the engineers and thus far kept the awesome aircraft out of combat.
Paulk also said, "It was an honor to do this film and pay respect to these great Americans."
Rightly said. It is worth noting that Lucas, who can make a movie about anything he wants, has chosen to spend his talent
and resources on this piece of the American legacy. It's uplifting to see someone in such a position use his power for good.
The African-American Alcan engineers story is still up for grabs, history buffs. And by the way, history buffs, the
United States fought with Stalin and against Hitler.