January 21, 2012

'Red Tails': One who lived it sees truth in film

A local member of the history-making Tuskegee Airmen gives the movie a qualified thumbs-up.

By Ray Routhier rrouthier@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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."

click image to enlarge

James Sheppard of South Portland, one of the Tuskegee Airmen, went to see “Red Tails,” a fictionalized account of his all-black fighter group’s heroics and the racism they faced, as the film opened on Friday at the Cinemagic Grand at Clarks Pond in South Portland.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

AIRMAN LAID TO REST ON DAY MOVIE OPENS

ARLINGTON, Va. — On the same day that retired Air Force Lt. Col. Luke Weathers Jr. took his resting place among other war and military heroes, his real-life story as a World War II aviator played out on movie screens across the country.

Weathers died of pneumonia at age 90 on Oct. 15 in Tucson, Ariz., and was buried Friday at Arlington National Cemetery. His burial coincided with the official opening in theaters of “Red Tails,” a George Lucas-produced movie retelling the story of the Tuskegee Airmen who debunked widely held beliefs that black pilots were incapable of flying in combat.

“He would talk about his hard trials and tribulations to others, to children, because he never wanted us to feel like this (racism) is a reason we couldn’t make it,” said Weathers’ daughter, Trina Weathers Boyce, in an interview Thursday. “He would tell us nothing good comes easy. He’d say there are going to be barriers … and you can overcome them.”

– The Associated Press

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.

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