Wednesday, March 4, 2015
YOLO COUNTY NEWS
99 CENTS

A tale of old-fashioned heroes

The Tuskegee Airmen, an African-American squadron that flew during World War II, were known as "Red Tails." Courtesy photo

Singer Lena Horne, in cockpit, poses with cadets at the Tuskegee Airbase in Tuskegee, Ala. in 1945. The WWII Tuskegee Airmen were also known as red tails because they painted their plane tails red. (Gannett/Tuskegee Airmen Exhibit Museum of Science/File)

By
From page A8 | February 28, 2012 |

The Veterans of Foreign Wars devoted its January 2003 issue of the magazine to the question “Heroism: Are war heroes out of style?”

The commander-in-chief, Raymond S. Sisk, in his editorial, commented that “If ever a word was abused, it is hero. The news media’s inappropriate application of the term has left Americans dulled. Many citizens are now incapable of defining … courage.”

Sisk cites a definition of heroism by George Bryjak, a University of San Diego sociology professor, who maintains that “Heroism is altruistic behavior performed from a strong sense of love, duty and commitment, and often entails placing oneself in life-threatening situations.”

And Sisk asks, “Who better exemplifies a classic hero than one who actively risks loss of limb or life in pursuit of a worthy cause on the battlefield?” Presidential candidate Ron Paul has called into question what he calls unwinnable and undeclared wars. In this context, when the national interest is not clearly defined in the minds of the population, popular military heroes might be difficult to find.

Not so in World War II, and not so for the Tuskegee Airmen, once again being recognized and celebrated for their old-fashioned heroism in the George Lucas-produced film, “Red Tails.” In 2005, when Lucas announced his intention to produce a film about the Tuskegee Airmen, he said, “They were the only escort fighters during the war that never lost a bomber so they were, like, the best.”

The Tuskegee Airmen comprised an all-black squadron formed in 1942 when the United States still had a legally enforced system of racial apartheid. They were bivouacked and trained at separate bases and eventually flew in separate units. Nonetheless, their achievements put them among an elite corps of fighter pilots.

About 100 pilots flew 15,000 missions during World War II. They reportedly shot down 150 enemy planes, destroyed 250 more and, as Lucas points out, successfully prosecuted their responsibility for protecting bombers by not losing a single bomber.

The Tuskegee Airmen’s heroic saga is all the more impressive when we recognize, as is depicted in the film, that they were engaged in two wars on two fronts: They were fighting to save democracy from being overrun by fascism in Europe, while at the same time fighting to establish democracy in the United States, the nation whose uniform they wore, and on whose behalf they risked the lives. Theirs was a war of epic proportions. But then, the history of African-Americans, writ large, can be seen as one epic battle.

“Red Tails” is not the first film about the Tennessee Airmen. A 1945 film “Wings for This Man” was produced by the First Motion Picture Unit of the Army and narrated by Ronald Reagan. In 1996, HBO produced “The Tuskegee Airmen,” starring Laurence Fishburne. But theirs is a story worth telling over and over, like a Greek saga that became part of oral history.

And fortunately, many of these heroes are still alive. In fact, one of them, George Porter, visited UC Davis earlier this month. And the late Robert Matthews, a professor in UCD’s geology department, was a Tuskegee Airman. Porter is one of the remaining members of the 24,000 who were in flight support, keeping the pilots flying by provisioning them and keeping the planes repaired and maintained.

African-Americans have played prominent, sometimes decisive roles, in the United States’ various wars. “Glory,” (1989) starring Denzel Washington, told the story of the Union Army’s 54th Regiment, composed of African-American volunteers. The 54th played a prominent role in the Civil War.

A PBS documentary, “For Love of Liberty,” (2010) portrayed the dedication and service of African-American men and women in the U.S. military. There has not been one war that has engaged the United States that did not include the service of African-Americans.

More  than 125,000 African-Americans served overseas in World War II and, apart from the Tuskegee Airmen, included other famous units such as the 761st Tank Battalion. Doris Miller, a Navy mess attendant, despite having no training in weaponry, voluntarily took over an anti-aircraft gun and fired at Japanese aircraft during the attack on Pearl Harbor. He became the first African-American to receive the Navy Cross.

In 1944, The Golden Thirteen became the Navy’s first commissioned officers. Samuel L. Gravely Jr., who became a commissioned officer that year, later would become the first African-American to command a U.S. warship and the first to be named admiral.

Benjamin O. Davis Jr. served as commander of the Tuskegee Airmen. He later became the first African-American general in the U.S. Air Force. In many African-American families, military service was a family tradition: Benjamin O. Davis Sr. had been promoted, too, and became the first African-American brigadier general in the U.S. Army in 1940. Apartheid in the military was abolished by President Truman in 1948.

In earlier generations, military service was not as isolated from mainstream American culture. Time magazine’s cover story for its Nov. 21 edition, “An Army Apart,” calls attention to the increasing alienation of our military from Americans — “45,000 troops are coming home to a country that doesn’t know them.”

In a sense, that’s how it was for African-American servicemen and women at the end of World War II. Through films such as “Red Tails,” it may be that, finally, Americans may get to know these genuine, old-fashioned heroes. Moreover, as we would expect from the producer of “Star Wars,” the scenes of aerial combat are dazzling.

— Desmond Jolly, a longtime Davis resident, is an agricultural economist emeritus at UC Davis.

Comments

comments

.

News

Davisite competing for breast cancer ‘Survivor of the Year’

By Anne Ternus-Bellamy | From Page: A1 | Gallery

 
Cool musicians, hot jazz at Coconut Grove fundraiser

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A1 | Gallery

 
Guilty verdict in child abduction case

By Anne Ternus-Bellamy | From Page: A1

 
UC will freeze resident admissions

By The Associated Press | From Page: A2

Bob Dunning: Aggies still have all to play for

By Bob Dunning | From Page: A2

 
State’s snow levels reach historic lows

By San Francisco Chronicle | From Page: A2 | Gallery

Museum brick sales to end this month

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

 
Prostate cancer group looks at massage

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A3

Moore featured at two climate talks this week

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

 
Talk breast cancer with oncologic surgeon

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

DPNS offers open house Saturday

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

 
Public input sought Monday on Northstar Pond

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3 | Gallery

Documentary on immigration issues will be screened

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A3

 
Veggie gardening, composting are workshop topics

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

Visiting prof will discuss Armenian genocide

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

 
Holmes plans open house Thursday

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

Nominees sought for Bill Streng Business Award

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

 
Closing education gap will lift economy, a study finds

By New York Times News Service | From Page: A4 | Gallery

Applications due for Rotary’s leadership camp

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

 
Project Linus meets March 11

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

Breakfast with the Bunny tickets on sale now

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A5 | Gallery

 
.

Forum

Snowbird sings the song he always sings

By Creators Syndicate | From Page: B5

 
Athletes just want time to do their homework

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A6

Let’s not delete Giovanni Barovetto from Davis history

By Rich Rifkin | From Page: A6 | Gallery

 
Low-flow toilets in our parks?

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A6

It was music to our ears

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A6

 
Thanks for pet drive support

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A6

Story was an ad for NRA

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A6

 
.

Sports

Blue Devils girls stay undefeated ahead of league opener

By Evan Ream | From Page: B1 | Gallery

 
After a shaky start, DHS stands up to No. 4 St. Mary’s, but loses

By Bruce Gallaudet | From Page: B1 | Gallery

DHS girls lacrosse coach likes her 2015 squad

By Dylan Lee | From Page: B1 | Gallery

 
Hawkins enters the home stretch of brilliant UCD career

By Bruce Gallaudet | From Page: B1 | Gallery

San Jose crushes Canucks behind Nieto

By The Associated Press | From Page: B3

 
Sports briefs: Blue Devils drop softball opener

By Enterprise staff | From Page: B3

Cousins returns to lift Kings in New York

By The Associated Press | From Page: B3 | Gallery

 
.

Features

Ringing in the Year of the Sheep with dim sum

By Ann Evans | From Page: A8 | Gallery

 
.

Arts

California Honeydrops drop in for ‘Down Home’ tour

By Landon Christensen | From Page: A7 | Gallery

 
French-Algerian guitarist weaves acoustic spells at The Palms on Friday March 6

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A7 | Gallery

 
.

Business

.

Obituaries

Merna Petersen

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A4

 
.

Comics

Comics: Wednesday, March 4, 2015

By Creator | From Page: B6