Lucas film, 'Red Tails' screened in Alaska with Tuskegee connection

A recent Daily News article quoted Dr. Ronald Myers, an organizer in the drive to make Juneteenth a national holiday, saying: "I tell people making speeches about Juneteenth, 'When you mention the Tuskegee Airmen and the Buffalo Soldiers, make sure you mention the African-American Army Engineers and the Alcan Highway" ("Juneteenth event celebrates Alcan Highway work," published Oct. 26, 2011).

The article was about the African American Army engineers who helped build the highway to Alaska during World War II, creating what Myers and others identify as the first move toward an integrated military. A newsroom colleague commented that the story would make a good movie: "Glory' meets 'Bridge Over the River Kwai," is how he put it.

Myers told me he was amazed that "everyone knows about the Tuskegee Airmen, but no one knew about the Alcan workers." In an age when a startling number of Americans can't correctly identify Hitler or Stalin as America's foe or ally in that war, I'm not sure that everyone really does know about the illustrious all-black team of fighter pilots, though the right movie would certainly help more people know about them.

In a wonderfully serendipitous turn, we learned 10 days ago that Alaska has a connection with the Tuskegee pilots too and that someone is turning their story into an upcoming movie. And that someone is George Lucas.

"Red Tails" won't be the first film about the Tuskegee Airmen when it's released next year. Previous movies have included a 1996 HBO movie starring Laurence Fishburne, and Ronald Reagan narrated a wartime morale-boosting documentary about them. But the level of talent coming to this effort is noteworthy. The screenplay is by John Ridley ("Three Kings") and the director is Anthony Hemingway. It's Hemingway's first shot at directing a major film. He has previously been an assistant or second unit director, but he's mostly known for directing television projects for shows like "Oz," "Community," "The Closer" and "Heroes."

Here's the background: In the segregated armed forces of World War II, black pilots trained at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to shuttle aircraft to the battle front. They worked with a variety of planes. But then they got their hands on the P-51 Mustang fighters and were given the chance to engage the enemy, they showed remarkable skill and courage. The squad's bright red tails gave them their nickname. Bomber crews called them "Red-Tail Angels."

There is some dispute among historians over whether they never lost a single Allied bomber under their protection, but their record was good enough that every general in the Army Air Corps began demanding fighters from 332nd Fighter Squadron to provide cover for their planes.Now here's where Alaska comes in. On Dec. 15 at the Regal Tikhatnu theater, a rough cut of Lucas' flick was screened for about 200 Alaskans associated with the U.S. Air Force Reserve's 477th Fighter Squadron. That's the outfit that flies the F-22 Raptors based at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

So what's the connection? Well, the way the military looks at things, the personnel with the Raptor unit are the grandkids of the Tuskegee Airmen.

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