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Tuskegee Airman from South Portland talks truth vs. fiction ahead of 'Red Tails' release

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Tuskegee Airman from South Portland talks truth vs. fiction ahead of 'Red Tails' release

SOUTH PORTLAND — The Tuskegee Airmen get together in a different city every year. The World War II veterans, who were the first black pilots in the U.S. military, meet to catch up with each other and swap stories. 

But a few years ago, in Philadelphia, they weren't alone.

They were joined by filmmaker George Lucas, who wanted to make a movie about the aviators. He had come to get their blessing, to ask them what they'd like to see in a film about their exploits in Europe.

"We told them to knock out all the crap," said Jim Sheppard, 87, a Tuskegee Airman who is originally from Harlem and has lived in South Portland for more than 30 years. "We were good enough on our own. We don't need people boosting us."

Sheppard will learn if his advice was heeded when "Red Tails" hits theaters Jan. 20. The movie stars Cuba Gooding Jr. and is named for the red tails painted on the P-51 Mustangs flown by the airmen, who trained at a base in Tuskegee, Ala.

Sheppard was an aviation mechanic for the Army Air Corps' 332nd Fighter Group, as the airmen were then known. At that time, top military officials didn't believe black pilots could be trusted in war. 

The unit was seen as an experiment, but its pilots' track record as successful bomber escorts made them some of the very best airmen by the end of the war. Its success was integral to breaking down racial barriers in the military.

"We had to be better than everyone else because the eyes of the War Department were on us," Sheppard said in an interview at his Sandy Hill Road home.

It was at the War Department that the Tuskegee Airmen had the greatest immediate impact. In 1948, President Harry Truman ended military segregation, a testament to the success of the 332nd.

But despite his pride in the accomplishments of the airmen, Sheppard was worried urban legends that developed around his flight group would infiltrate Lucas' movie.

In the 1950s, writers and filmmakers began detailing the exploits of the heroic black pilots in Europe. In trying to tell a good story – and in trying to convince a racially divided America to accept black men as war heroes – they resorted to exaggeration, Sheppard said.

"'The Tuskegee Airmen never lost a bomber,'" he said they wrote. Or top military brass purposefully put black pilots on the front lines to protect white aviators. Sheppard said neither of those things were true.

The story that bothered Sheppard the most, though, was the one that black pilots had to make do with hand-me-down planes.

Sheppard beams when he talks about the planes he worked on in the military. He loved them, and was always impressed by the aircraft his unit had, from the P-40 Warhawks they trained in to the P-51 Mustangs they eventually used overseas.

But Sheppard and his comrades almost ended up never leaving the states. The Pentagon was hesitant to send the black pilots to Europe, and the Tuskegee Airmen were stalled repeatedly before being sent overseas, he said. During that time, the pilots and mechanics kept training.

"Every time they stalled us, we got sharper and sharper," he said. "These guys ate, slept and breathed airplanes. ... That's why we got so good."

When the order came to ship out, Sheppard said he and the crew were excited – not because they were hawkish, but because they wanted to prove themselves.

"No one wants to go to war," he said. "But we wanted to fly, like everyone else."

Sheppard shipped off in early 1944. His squadron moved through Sicily and Italy as far north as Rome, where pilots escorted bombers to Berlin. Sheppard was made crew chief, in charge of the airworthiness of two P-51 Mustangs.

The 332nd shipped back to the U.S. in October 1945. Sheppard was a staff sergeant. 

Since then, the story of the Tuskegee Airmen has been told and retold in documentaries, dramas, books and radio specials. Sheppard said he's not surprised the story persists.

"We may draw more attention because we were the first all-black unit," he said. "But war stories always play well in Hollywood. ... I think it's mostly because it's a war story."

He said he hopes the movie won't take too many liberties with his story. He didn't see the need for a romantic subplot, or overwrought moments of racial tension on the ground. That's not how it was, he said. 

Even the name, "Red Tails," amuses Sheppard.

The airmen have come to be associated with the brightly colored tails of their airplanes, but the origin is mundane: a commander somewhere said he wanted each group to be color-coded so he knew who he was looking at.

Though there isn't much drama in that story, Sheppard said he's still happy the 332nd got red, and not yellow, or some striped pattern.

"I remember seeing the order for 'glossy, red enamel,'" he said. "I think we got the best color. I love the way that red looked against the metallic."

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or mmoretto@theforecaster.net. Follow Mario on Twitter: @riocarmine.