Reporting Mary Robb Jackson
PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — They painted the rudders of their planes red so that people would know who they were.
“Red Tails” opens at area theaters this weekend.
It has taken director George Lucas more than 20 years and millions of dollars of his own money to bring the story of the Tuskegee Airmen to the big screen.
Hollywood producers and distributors initially wouldn’t touch it.
“We can’t sell it. It’s an all-black movie and all black movies – thrillers don’t sell,” Wendell Freeland said.
Freeland, 86, is one of the Tuskegee Airmen. An attorney from Shadyside, he has already seen the movie, and says it’s a thriller and tells part of the story.
Before the young black pilots could fight for their country in a segregated society, they had to battle the Army Air Corps for permission to engage in combat during WWII. A 1920′s war college study challenged their readiness.
“It was presumed that Negroes could never do something like flying,” Freeland said.
The real Tuskegee Airmen given a chance piloting P-51 Mustangs defending B-17 bombers became some of the best and the brightest aces.
“Defending the white Flying Fortress to the gratitude of the whites who were in the Flying Fortresses on the way to Berlin,” Freeland said.
Wendell Freeland became a bombardier on B-25′s. During his two years of service, he was arrested twice – once for refusing to sign a base document that would have limited his civil rights and another for walking into a white’s-only officers club with purpose.
“And the colonel said, ‘Consider yourself under arrest.’”
Only last year was there groundbreaking for a memorial to these men in Sewickley Cemetery. A handful of local survivors, now in their 80′s, turned over the precious earth they pledged their lives to protect.
“It’s important,” says Mr. Freeland, “that this generation and younger generations understand what it was like, understand the discrimination and the segregation and the people who fought it.”