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

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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


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

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:



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