SOUTH PORTLAND – In the new film “Red Tails,” about the pioneering Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, a chief mechanic is often seen comically complaining about pilots getting bullet holes “in my beautiful airplanes.”
Watching the film Friday at Cinemagic Grand was James Sheppard of South Portland, who was a mechanics’ crew chief with the Tuskegee Airmen, stationed in Italy. And while Sheppard thought some of the film’s romantic fiction was a little unnecessary — “They had to throw in that girlfriend business I guess,” he said — he thought its main points were accurate.
And he said there was a lot of truth in the chief mechanic’s crusty demeanor when it came to taking care of planes.
“Oh, I said some things like that to the pilots. I used to tell my pilots not to shoot their guns because then we’d have to clean them,” said Sheppard, who’s 87.
The film follows the story of the nation’s first all-black unit of fighter pilots, named for the city in Alabama where they were trained.
The unit was formed at a time when its members still faced severe racial prejudice and segregation in much of their own country. And they faced it when they came home from the war, even as part of a highly decorated group.
In 2007, Sheppard was at a Congressional Gold Medal ceremony for surviving Tuskegee Airmen in Washington, D.C., when President Bush remarked, “Even the Nazis asked why African-American men would fight for a country that treated them so unfairly.”
While watching the film, Sheppard picked out actual events that happened to members of his group.
For instance, in one scene, a pilot is seen attacking a German destroyer, and sinking it in a flurry of spectacular explosions. A pilot from the 332nd Fighter Group, of which Sheppard was a part, did sink a German destroyer off Italy. But the ship didn’t sink until three days after the attack, when its crew decided it was too badly damaged and scuttled it.
“So it didn’t happen exactly that way, but it did happen,” said Sheppard. “All the events (in the film) were real, but that personal stuff about the pilots, they made up.”
Some of the “personal stuff” included a pilot falling in love with an Italian woman and proposing marriage to her. But even some of the fiction was based in reality, Sheppard said.
One pilot in the film, for instance, drinks heavily to deal with the pressure of combat and the stress of seeing friends die.
“We did have some boozers, but you always will,” said Sheppard. “It’s human nature.”
“Red Tails” finally made it to the big screen after a 23-year effort by its executive producer, “Star Wars” creator George Lucas.
Lucas has said he was unable to get studio backing for so long in part because the film basically has an “all-black cast,” with no white stars. The biggest-name actors to have major roles are Terrence Howard, who was nominated for a best actor Oscar in 2006 for “Hustle & Flow,” and Cuba Gooding Jr., a supporting actor Oscar winner for “Jerry Maguire.”
Sheppard, who grew up in New York City and studied aviation at a magnet school there, remembers an early encounter with segregation while riding a train to his military training in Alabama. He was forced to sit in the less desirable front section, which often filled with smoke.
Once he joined the Army Air Corps, Sheppard became a crew chief in charge of mechanics in the 301st Fighter Squadron, part of the 332nd Fighter Group. Sheppard was stationed in Italy for about 18 months, working on fighters that battled German planes and escorted American bombers.
After the war, Sheppard began a long career in aviation, eventually working for the Federal Aviation Administration in New York. In the 1970s, he was transferred to Portland, where his duties included inspections and accident investigations.
He retired in 1987 and now spends much of his time talking to schoolchildren and people working in aviation about topics including the role of minorities in aviation history, and opportunities for careers in engineering and aviation.
In “Red Tails,” much is made of the fact that some white fighter pilots, earlier in the war, abandoned the bombers they were supposed to escort, to fly off and attack individual German fighters. The Tuskegee Airmen are portrayed as staying with their bombers more consistently, so bomber commanders started asking for them as aerial escorts.
Members of the 332nd were known as Red Tail fighters because the tails of their planes were painted red.
During the war, as many as 100 American bombers a day were shot down by Germans, with 10 crew members on each plane.
“That was true, some of the other fighter pilots were trained to go after the Germans, and bomber commanders started asking for us,” said Sheppard. “Our pilots stayed with the bombers because they knew the eyes of the world were on them.”
The film also depicts military commanders looking at the Tuskegee Airmen as an “experiment,” often searching for any excuse to shut the program down. Sheppard said the film’s assertion that his group was given beat-up planes because of that was not true, at least not in his experience.
“We got used planes, but not beat-up ones,” he said.
The film also shows white American soldiers berating the Tuskegee Airmen.
Sheppard said he didn’t experience that sort of treatment from white soldiers.
“At my level, I didn’t get that,” he said.
Sheppard said he could tell that vintage planes were used for close-up shots on the ground. But in the dogfight scenes, he didn’t think they were.
Overall, he thought the film was accurate and made him feel a sense of pride, helping him to see from a different perspective what a historic moment he was a part of.
“Yeah,” he said, “it did bring me back.”
Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at: