Friday, February 17, 2012

The real "Red Tails" Story

Last weekend I went to the Fantasy of Flight attraction to interview the Tuskegee Airmen and here's my story! (from The Florida Courier)

Three Tuskegee Airmen tell of their successes, challenges in military during World War II


A former navigator, bombardier and pilot in the 332nd Fighter Group of the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II, Daniel Keel said he was no different from others who wanted to protect their country. Keel, who lives in Leesburg, was one of the three Tuskegee Airmen who spoke to a crowd of children, students, veterans and parents on Feb. 11 in Polk City about their lives and time in the military.
From left to right are Tuskegee Airmen Daniel Keel, George Hardy and Leo Gray. The program was moderated by Deric Feacher, right. (NAOMI PRIOLEAU/SPECIAL TO THE COURIER)
Retired Lt. Colonels George Hardy of Sarasota and Leo Gray of Fort Lauderdale along with Keel spent three days at Fantasy of Flight, an aviation-themed exhibit in Central Florida – sharing their stories, answering questions and meeting fans. Gray, 91, Keel, 89, and 88-year-old Hardy overcame extreme odds with courage, dignity and honor.
The Tuskegee Airmen, who have received praise for their service during World War II, consisted of four fighter squadrons, the 99th, the 100th, the 301st and the 302nd. The first all-Black group to serve as military aviators, they surpassed expectations for them to fail and in the end brought home record numbers in the air and on the ground.

Integration brought new struggles
They destroyed more than 100 German aircraft in the air and 150 on the ground as well as 950 railcars, trucks and other vehicles. With more than 850 medals, they’ve made a place in history and have a permanent multimedia exhibit at the Fantasy of Flight that includes facts and a vintage aircraft collection for the public to enjoy.
Hardy, Gray and Keel traveled extensively throughout their career abroad and domestic to receive proper training before heading into combat. Hardy was sent to Guam just before integration took place in the United States. When he returned home, he was welcomed to a new set of difficulties: integration.
"I was in the service when integration took place in July 1949," said Hardy. "After I came back to the States, there was a period of racial integration and those were tough times."

Still had to ride in back of bus
Keel told stories of discrimination at the hands of a White lieutenant colonel whom he described as "having it out for him." Upon his arrival to a Texas Army base for additional bombardier training, Keel said the lieutenant colonel let them know what they were allowed and weren’t allowed to do.
"One, we could not eat in the officers’ mess, two we could not go in the officers’ club, three, if we go to the base theater we couldn’t sit in the officers’ section and four, if we go to town, we had to ride in the back of the bus," said Keel. "I knew I was in trouble as soon as he said that."
Keel said the lieutenant colonel tried to have him court-martialed but didn’t succeed. He then tried to hold him back from graduating. Of 27 students, Keel and two others were the only ones who graduated. However, Keel looks at experiences like those in a positive light. He said if it hadn’t been for racial segregation, he wouldn’t have the triple ranking he has today – it pushed him to achieve more.

‘The best of the best’
Despite their unfair treatment, Gray, Keel and Hardy made history and showed that any negative situation can be turned into a positive one. Hardy said he and others considered themselves to be the best of the best and used the discrimination they experienced as ammunition to do better.
"They took the cream of the crop and skinned the cream of the cream," said Hardy. "So we thought we were the best of the best – that we were as good as any pilot that the Air Force had, and we were going to demonstrate what we could do."

Airmen: Education missing from film
An essay contest being sponsored by Fantasy of Flight asks students in grades 4-12 to use the principles of LEAD (Leadership, Excellence, Advocacy and Determination) and explore how the Tuskegee Airmen achieved success and how they can apply their values to their life and personal goals.
The Tuskegee Airmen stressed the importance of education to the audience at Fantasy of Flight, making it clear that education and hard work can open numerous doors, which is something they felt was left out of the film "Red Tails."
The movie, which opened last month and has grossed $45 million as of Feb. 12, brings the plight of the Tuskegee Airmen to the silver screen to educate viewers on the contributions these men made to World War II and American history.
Executive produced and majorly funded by George Lucas, the film was considered anti-Hollywood in a sense, as it had an all-Black cast, which some critics believed wouldn’t fare well at the box office.
Gray said the film’s portrayal of them and others was the producer’s perception of stories that were told to him by former pilots. Hardy said he enjoyed the film but mentioned that it only covered a small portion of the war and themselves. Keel thought the movie should have included the events leading up to them being sent to Italy, including the exams they had to take to become pilots and the classes at the Tuskegee Institute.

‘More than a pilot’
Through it all – the films, the discrimination and awards – Hardy said growing up he was no different from anyone else and was taught that, regardless of race, this too was his country.
"When the time came that the country was in danger, we had the right to protect it like anyone else," said Hardy.
As they received applause and thanks for their recognition, Dr. Hiram Mann, also a Tuskegee Airman, asked the three speakers what makes an Airman. Keel noted that not all of them became pilots because there was a quota but stressed that the men and women who served all offered different skills beneficial to the group.
"A Tuskegee Airman is more than a pilot," said Keel. "A Tuskegee Airman is a bombardier, doctor, lawyers, nurses, mechanics. All these people were a part of the Tuskegee experiment. A Tuskegee Airman was everyone, including women."

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