Pittsburgh Area's Tuskegee Airmen Praise Film's Attention

Article excerpt

Dr. Harry Lanauze's office in McKeesport office resembles a shrine to aviation.

A picture of a bomber hangs from the wall behind his desk, just a few feet from a slightly tattered copy of the private pilot's license, received in 1985.

The nose of a tiny model Cessna peers out from a bookcase across the room.

But it's the image in the waiting room, a P-51 fighter, that sparks the most memories.

Long before his life focused on stethoscopes and examining patients, Lanauze was at home in the cockpit of one of these powerful one-seater planes. He escorted bombers through hostile, smoke-filled skies over Germany during World War II.

"It was dangerous work, sure. But that was our job," says Lanauze, 85, a family-practice physician. "That was the way we felt about it."

Lanauze and other former Tuskegee Airmen have high hopes for George Lucas' big-screen epic "Red Tails," which hits theaters nationwide today. They want the slick, much-anticipated film to bring new, overdue attention to a moment in aviation history that many have forgotten.

"You have to remember: These were 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds going off to war," says Regis Bobonis, chairman of the Greater Pittsburgh Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen and the principal researcher on two projects to find former pilots in the area. "They did something that was courageous, while people were doubting them."

The all-black 332nd Fighter Group boasted one of the most successful bomber escort records in the military. Their reputation grew as they became the go-to group for guiding bombers to and from their destinations safely. There were 996 Tuskegee pilots in all, including roughly 70 from Pittsburgh and other parts of Western Pennsylvania.

For decades, the military was segregated and blacks were barred from flying for the U.S. military. That began to change in 1941 under pressure from civil rights groups and the black press, resulting in the formation of the all-black pursuit squadron. A dusty spit of land near the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama would serve as their training ground.

"I knew there was the possibility of going to Tuskegee," says Lanauze, who grew up in Washington, D.C., and was drafted into the Army in December 1943. "To me, that was much better than being a private in the army."

From Tuskegee, he was sent to Ramitelli Air Force Base in Italy, where the 332nd was stationed, and trained to be a navigator for a B- 25 bomber. As casualties mounted, more fighter pilots were needed, and Lanauze ultimately was taught to fly the P-51.

"When they told me about (the opportunity), I said 'heck yeah, I'll do it,'" Lanauze says. "That's what I wanted to do all along."

Mitch Higginbotham, 90, was one of eight pilots from Sewickley. He grew up just blocks from the local YMCA, where he was barred from swimming in the pool because he was black. And, despite his tall, athletic frame, discrimination kept him from playing on his high school basketball team.

Before showing up to Tuskegee, Higginbotham got his first taste of the air at a small flying school near Latrobe. Three of its instructors -- including George Allen, the chief instructor -- were black. Abram Jackson, one of the black instructors, took Higginbotham up on his first flight, in a lightweight Piper Cub.

The ride lasted just 30 minutes.

"It was a thrill to look down on everything," says Higginbotham, who lives near Dana Point, Calif. …