Jewell Cardwell

Validated.

That’s what members of the North Coast chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen say they felt the movie Red Tails did for their contributions to World War II.

Red Tails — created by George Lucas, who brought us Star Wars — was nearly 20 years in the making. The movie, which opened in theaters Friday, is the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first all African-American unit of pilots, bombardiers and navigators in this nation’s history.

It was a grand experiment — predicted to fail by those in the military hierarchy who had earlier declared African-Americans were unfit for combat and certainly not capable of flying a plane — that shattered stereotypes.

The all African-American pursuit squadron was formed in 1941 and based in Tuskegee, Ala.

These servicemen, including Lawrence Roberts (whose daughter is Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts), flew more than 15,000 sorties over North Africa and Europe during WWII, destroying more than 250 enemy aircraft in the air, another 150 on the ground, 1,000 rail cars and a German destroyer. Only 25 bombers were lost in hundreds of missions.

While their hard-fought mission was to serve as escorts for the Allied bombers, they engaged in combat, too.

I had the good fortune to attend the early-morning screening Saturday of Red Tails at the Regal Cinema in Cleveland Heights with three of the original Tuskegee Airmen and members of the North Coast chapter: 95-year-old Thomas Austin of Cleveland, 82-year-old Roy Richardson of Oakwood Village and 88-year-old Ed Lunda of Akron. Another original, Clarence Jamison of Cleveland, who is on dialysis, was unable to attend.

The members of the 332nd Fighter Group were at first given hand-me-down airplanes for training and ordered to do every dirty job given to them.

They were discouraged, of course. But they didn’t give up.

They persevered because they had so much to prove.

The expectations placed on them were extraordinarily high and they soared. So much so that they caught the attention of those in high command and were assigned to those urgent escort missions.

Ultimately, they received new planes, painting the tails bright red to stand out. And stand out they did: black pilots in planes with red tails.

They received 96 Distinguished Flying Cross medals for their bravery.

Years of service

Lunda and several others (including Coleman Young, who later became mayor of Detroit) felt they had been battle tested and their bravery well documented. Lunda recalled being arrested after defying Col. Robert R. Selway’s “Jim Crow” edict by trying to enter the white officers’ club.

Those letters of reprimand were later removed from the files.

Lunda continued his Air Force career for 20 years, rising to the rank of major.

The Tuskegee Airmen were presented in 2007 with the Congressional Gold Medal in a ceremony in the rotunda of the nation’s Capitol.

Like so many WWII veterans, the original Tuskegee Airmen’s numbers are dwindling fast.

That’s why Lucas’ movie — starring Cuba Gooding Jr, Terrence Howard, Ne-Yo and David Oyelowo and produced with $58 million of Lucas’ own money — was so important for them to see.

Howard played Col. A.J. Bullard, based on Brig. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis, who had to move hell to get the Pentagon to involve the Tuskegee Airmen in a real way during the war.

Thomas Cargill, newly elected president of the North Coast chapter, had a reason close to his heart for feeling chest-out proud about Red Tails.

Cargill is the son of Gilbert Cargill, an original Tuskegee Airmen pilot who died in 2004.

Elnora Levert knew Gilbert Cargill only as her high school math teacher.

“I never knew he was a Tuskegee Airman. He never mentioned it. But I always knew there was something special about him,” said Levert, who is a nurse and an Army veteran.

She was inspired to join the North Coast chapter after attending a military event where there were original members of the Tuskegee Airmen.

“I thought they were all dead. Lo and behold, they were there in the flesh!”

Thomas Cargill agrees with Levert’s “special” assessment about his father.

“He did have that forward lean,” he volunteered with a smile.

Richardson, who was an ordnance worker, used to have that forward lean back in the day as well.

These days, he and Austin, a Tuskegee Airmen mechanic, and Lunda, a bombardier, are just grateful to be vertical, they joked, and able to see Lucas’ depiction of their contributions to the WWII effort and America.

The three were accorded red-carpet treatment after the movie, and rightly so. They signed autographs and received a warm hand of praise from people of all races, ages and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Inspiring history

Cedric Tyus, the organization’s treasurer, like Levert and Thomas Cargill, is among the younger generation helping to keep the Tuskegee Airmen’s history alive.

A retired Air Force master sergeant with 20 years of service, Tyus said Red Tails “took on a whole new meaning for me” in terms of what the men did to change this country’s attitude about blacks and the military.

Jim Cox, a white man from Cleveland who has been assisting with public relations for the North Coast chapter for the last 20 years, called the movie “a wonderful depiction of the cost of war and the terrible price to be paid for freedom.”

Cox, who also is a military veteran, said his one regret was “that I wish it had showed more of the racist attitudes at that time.”

Joe Sims of Maple Heights waited patiently in the lobby after the movie, getting autographs from Lunda, Richardson and Austin.

“This is history!” an excited Sims said. “It’s important for us to learn our history. This movie showed the world we are capable of any task. And for that I’m very proud.”

Chapter Vice President George Barrett is hoping large groups of folks pack the theaters to see that message for themselves and be inspired in their personal lives.

Testimony to the broad appeal of Red Tails and its inspirational message was clear in what Nick Saban, head coach of the national champion University of Alabama football team, said about it.

Saban — who took his team to a special screening on Jan. 8 before battling top-ranked Louisiana State University for the title — credits the movie with the team’s against-all-odds 21-0 victory.

And there’s this.

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley just days ago signed a proclamation honoring the Tuskegee Airmen for their heroism during WWII.

 

Jewell Cardwell can be reached at 330-996-3567 or emailed at jcardwell@thebeaconjournal.com.