Copyright 2012 John T. Reed

My wife, son and I went to see Red Tails. I was surprised that she wanted to go to a war movie. She said she has been contributing to the Tuskegee Airman charities for years. I was not aware of that.

I don’t think the guys that made the movie like the real Tuskegee Airmen so much. What gave me that impression? The Tuskegee Airmen were a great unit that overcame the most extreme color-of-law prejudice. They were the Jackie Robinsons of the U.S. Army (there was no air force then).

Red Tails sort of presents them as the Muhammad Ali’s lite of the Army. The story of the Tuskegee Airmen is a fantastic story. You should watch the 1995 HBO TV movie The Tuskegee Airmen to see that story.

The actual events depicted in the movie took place in the early 1940s in World War II. I was born in 1946 and have never been black. However, I had the distinct impression throughout Red Tails that the real Tuskegee Airmen did not behave in ways the producer and director considered black enough so they had the actors portraying these 1940s negroes act like 2012 blacks.

Part of it is the sort of NFL celebration trash talking. Part of it is a Tuskegee pilot going back into a white officers club and punching a white pilot who called him the n-word in the face.

Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.

I also really disliked the absence of Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. in the movie. He is a graduate of West Point, my undergrad alma mater. He was treated abominably at West Point. Almost no one would talk to him or room with him or eat with him in the mess hall. Although his classmates ultimately paid tribute to him in the year book published during their senior year.

Just look at the photo of him on the Internet and see if you think he looks like the kind of guy who would tolerate all the free lance bullshit some of the pilots in Red Tails repeatedly engage in.

White officers club

With regard to the black pilot going into the white officers club in Red Tails and punching out the white officer, I am not sure but I am pretty sure that:

A. No black would go into a white officers club to begin with back then. The guy seemed surprised at not being welcome there. Only if he came in a time machine from 2012 would he be surprised.

B. No Tuskegee Airman would dare behave in any but the most gentlemanly way because they were extremely highly publicized and under a microscope and representing all blacks and had been admonished a zillion times by their parents, friends, peers, and most of all, Davis, not to do anything that would give those opposed to the existence of the Tuskegee Airmen any ammunition. I believe Davis told the Tuskegee Airmen in no uncertain terms that any of them who embarrassed the unit would be headed back to the states in a nanosecond and that they helped each other stay out of trouble. The Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey admonished Jackie Robinson in the strongest terms that he could not respond in any way to the racial taunting he was sure to attract. And he did not. And that was in 1947. The Tuskegee Airmen were in Italy in the early 1940s. People today think Robinson should not have had to operate under such rules of engagement. You had to be there, folks. Had Robinson, or the Tuskegee guys, reacted the way people today think they should have, the cause of integration would have been set back for decades. The producer/director/writer of Red Tails pander to 2012 sensibilities and thereby misrepresent and even deny the actual accomplishments of the real Tuskegee Airmen.

C. The black pilot who got into the fight was shown in jail, unmarked by a fight against a couple of dozen white pilots. Then he went back to his unit. Had such happened, I’ll bet Davis would have had little say in the matter. It would have been front page news in the states. The black pilot who got into the fight would have been sent home and the whole Tuskegee Airmen unit might have been sent home with him because of him.

Were racially segregated officers clubs in the 1940s and before an outrage? Of course. But the blacks of the time were dealing with such things in sequence. First, get a chance to prove we are as good as whites at being soldiers and pilots. Second, do a great job if we get that chance. Third, seek more chances for blacks in other combat Army and Navy specialties. If you had asked them about integrating the officers club back then they would have laughed and said that was way down the list. They did not integrate the U.S. military until 1948.

Also, as a practical matter, blacks back then were mostly in all-black units that were stationed at locations separate from white units. The clubs are typically in the midst of the units sleeping and working quarters. You would have had to bus the white pilots in, and vice versa.

If I may quote “Colonel Jessup” (Jack Nicholson) in A Few Good Men, the people who made this movie felt, regarding the Red Tails movie audience, “You can’t handle the truth” about the real Tuskegee Airmen.

Lack of discipline

The basic claim to fame of the Tuskegee Airmen was that their commander Davis was an extreme disciplinarian who absolutely forbade any of his pilots chasing German fighters to get kills. Believe it or not, fighter planes then, and now, had gun cameras that started rolling whenever the pilot pushed the firing button of his guns. I am guessing they claimed that’s so they can watch the film like a football coach and get better. It’s also to count kills to qualify for ace (five kills) and to let the glamor boy pilots do the flying equivalent of gazing at their reflection in a pool.

Davis made his men stick to their mission which was protecting the bombers. Speaking as a fellow West Pointer, I would not credit Davis so much for that as I would call for the court martials of all the air corps commanders who allowed the kill chasing.

Did the Red Tails movie tell about the men being told not to chase enemy fighters away from the bombers? Grudgingly. Briefly. In the actual Tuskegee Airmen, it was their defining characteristic. And some of the Red Tails guys were frolicking off on their own time and again in the movie. They should have been sent home for that.

Early in the film, a group of four attacks a German train. The commander of the group says to attack from the rear. One says to attack from the front to stop the locomotive, which was about to enter a tunnel were they could stop and be safe from aircraft attack. I agree with the attack from the front guy. But the commander did not, so you follow orders and attack from the rear. One reason is when the commander orders everyone to attack from the rear he assumes they are all doing that. If one attacks from the front when the rest attack from the rear, precautions must be taken to avoid planes colliding.

The Tom Cruise “Top Gun” of the Red Tails just went ahead and ignored the commander and attacked from the front, destroying the train before it could get into the tunnel. in the real world, he gets court martialed if needed to dissuade the other Red Tails from similar actions. At the very least, he goes home.

Orange fire balls

Then there were the orange fire balls. Everything the Red Tails shot at, including the coal-fired steam locomotive, exploded in orange fire balls.

What are they firing? .50 cal machines guns. Every fifth bullet is a tracer which means the back end of the bullet has flare chemicals which are set on fire by the firing and glow as they fly so you can see where they are going and adjust aim like a fireman aiming at a fire.

Do .50 cal bullets penetrate a steam locomotive? I am not sure. They penetrate a lot of stuff. They are very powerful. But steam locomotives are made of extremely heavy metal to achieve friction with the rails and to make the boiler strong enough to withstand the steam pressure within. If you fired enough .50 cal bullets at a steam locomotive, I expect you would cause damage that caused it to slowly come to a stop. I doubt you could derail it with bullets. And you surely could not make it blow up without a bomb.

What is causing the orange fire ball? Exploding coal? The engineer’s pocket flask? Steam?

The coal-fired steam locomotive exploding in Red Tails is the dumbest action movie scene since a San Francisco cable car ran away down a hill and exploded into a ball of flame when it hit a building at the bottom. Cable cars don’t even have steam, just a pliers like metal grip that grabs hold of a moving cable under the street.

Another dopey insubordination/fire ball incident in the film has a pilot going off on his own, with another to be a witness, and attack a lone German Destroyer in the Mediterranean in daylight. I am neither a sailer nor a pilot, but I know that you do not attack a navy fighting ship from the side unless you are flying a torpedo bomber plane or in a submarine. Navy ships are trained to “cross the T,” a tactic going back to sailing ships of war, meaning get their ship perpendicular to the line from the ship to the enemy so they can bring the maximum number of guns to bear on the enemy. The Red Tails stupidly crossed the T so as to help the Germans shoot them down. All the enemy guns can be brought to bear on you both on the front and back of the ship. The only ones that can’t shoot at you are the smaller guns on the far side. The best direction to attack from would be the rear because there are fewer guns there than on the front. Then there is also attacking out of the sun so they cannot see you until it’s too late. This guy did none of any of that.

Once again, he is firing .50 cal bullets at a ship. They bounce off the hull. He was hitting mainly the above-hull structures, which, in typical Hollywood and Red Tails movie fashion, exploded in orange fireballs. Why? What did he hit? There is nothing flammable up there. It is all communications and navigation. The guns have a little ammo, but the fuel and ammo are mostly stored below the deck. Ammo for the biggest guns comes up one round at a time by elevator to minimize danger in the turret. In reality, they would seek to kill people and maybe damage commo antennas or wiring, but basically fighters were not designed to attack ships. Bombers are needed for that.

Another free lance insubordination operation involved following a German fighter back to his base. In the real world, there probably would have been more German fighters summoned from that base to come up and shoot down the two American fighters. In the event, the Tuskegee guys shot six planes in the air and 13 on the ground, like Pearl Harbor. There were a zillion fire balls in that attack. Were they realistic my family asked? Perhaps.

Again, all these guys had were .50 cal bullets every fifth one of which is a tracer. But at an airport, there is a lot of aviation fuel. They had a zillion explosions in the movie. In the real world, I think you would have fire but bullets do not cause explosions unless they start fires and the fires reach some situation where there is a sudden explosive spread. Also, petroleum like gasoline as sort of explosive by definition. Others fuels like kerosene are more like coal. Only coal dust explodes, not coal. Planes on the ground, unlike locomotives and destroyers, can be badly damaged by just strafing.

I wrote an article a while back about how Hollywood distorts weapons sounds and the effects of military explosives—deliberately—to the point where people have died as a result of Hollywood misinformaing them about the atual sounds and effects of those weapons.

Star wars dogfight scenes

The dogfight scenes looked ridiculous to me. You can see the real thing on the Military Channel most days. This was computer graphics like Star Wars where many many planes are moving extremely fast and somehow twisting and turning so as to avoid bombers and other fighters all astonishingly close packed while in the air.

Success rate

Probably the most ridiculous thing in the movie was the comic book success rate of the Tuskegee pilots. They were denied combat experience for the early part of their participation. Okay. Sorry about that and we understand that it will take you a while to use combat experience to get better at it.

Not these guys. They are blowing extremely experienced German pilots out of the air with ease right and left, including German flying the world’s first jets to be used in combat. There seemed to be an implication that they were far better than the white American pilots and much better than the German pilots, too. Neither is likely during their first days or months in air combat. A rookie is a rookie, regardless of skin color.

The top U.S. ace in World War II in Europe was Gabby Gabreski, a white guy who was also an ace in the Korean war. He shot down 28 Germans in WW II. He also “shot” himself down by doing a strafing run so low that his propeller touched the ground and he crash landed at a German airbase. He spent the rest of the war in a German POW camp.

So he was pretty good huh, for a white guy?

Not compared to the Germans. American pilots were sent home after a certain number of missions. Not the Germans. They could not afford to do that. Plus, home was under attack. I saw a German ace interviewed on TV once. I believe he had shot down 262 allied planes. Germany’s top ace, Erich Hartmann, shot down 352 Allied planes. If you saw Red Tails, you will be astonished to learn that Hartmann is also white.

The notion that rookies-in-aerial-combat Red Tail pilots who were disciplined to stay with the bombers and not chase after kills were just shooting down Germans all over the place easily with almost no U.S. casualties on their first dogfight mission is absurd.

The notion that they were shooting down the first jets ever in combat the first time they saw them was worse. I read somewhere that it took the allies a while to figure out how to deal with the ME 262 German jet. One revelation was they eventually—quickly—ran low and fuel and had to return home. Allies tried to shoot them down as they were landing and taking off and when they were on the ground. Makes sense. They probably figured out some other tactics like outnumbering the Germans and using the speed of the jets against them. I am not suggesting that the Red Tails were not as good as the white pilots or the Germans as they acquired comparable combat experience and aircraft, but the film seems to suggest the Tuskegee airmen were instantly superior to both the white American and German pilots on their first encounter with air combat.

A reader sent me a link to a report titled the “Nine Myths about the Tuskegee Airmen”. It is at I recommend it because it addresses a number of my complaints about the movie as well as smoe issues not in the movie or my review.

Some points in the study.:

• Tuskegee lost fewer bombers than other escort units but scored fewer kills (and had no aces) than any other P-51 unit.

• 60 German jets were shot down by white pilots befor eth Tuskegee guys shot down three on one mission.

• Tuskegee guys thought they sank a German destroyer on 6/25/44. In fact, they damaged but did not sink a former Italian destroyer that the Germans had turned into a torpedo boat. The damage was sufficient that the ship was taken out of action permanently.

• There is no evidence in reports from the time that any bomber group requested Tuskegee escorts or that Tuskegee did a better job at bomber escort than any other fighter group.

• Tuskegee guys had a terrible ratio of enemy planes shot down to U.S. planes shot down—.66. Comparable white fighter groups’ ratios were 2.08 to 2.49.

• Tuskegee pilot units were not all black. Early on, they tyypically had white commanders because there were no black pilots wit eth requisite experience and rank. Toward the end of the war, the units became almost all black. Many Tuskegee flight instructiors were white, again, because who else would train the first black pilots?

• Two white colonels tried to enforce segregated officers clubs at bases with both black and white pilots. Although some blacks were arrested for ignoring the policy, trying to keep them clubs segregated apparently failed for lack of support among the white pilots.

• Tuskegee airmen flew both bombers and fighters of various kinds during World War II in Europe, not just P-51s

• The paper concludes by saying teh black pilots did not prove they were better than the whites as implied by Red Tails, but they did show that they were the equal of the white pilots which is an accomplishment considering they had been handicapped by segregation until only a year or two before they succeeded in combat in Europe.

According to a 2009 story in Air Force Times,

Only 1.9 percent of Air Force pilots are black, according to AFPC. Of 14,130 Air Force pilots, 270 identified themselves as black; another 620 declined to report their race.

This is after 65 years of an integrated Air Force and various affirmative action efforts by an embarrased Air Force top brass. Bracks are overrepresented in the top ranks of some sports; underrepresented in others. It would appear that flying military aircraft is an underrepresented activity. I don’t know why blacks would be underrepresented in, say, swimming or flying planes, but it appears to be the case. Red Tails seemed to be pushing a “blacks are better fighter pilots” message. That is not supported by the evidence.

The Tuskegee airmen are a great, true story about ending legal segreation. Good for them, but Red Tails hurts their legacy by seeming to conclude they were not black enough and embellishing their actual, admirable accomplishments.

Love affair

I was asked if the black pilot falling in love with and becoming engaged to the Italian beautiful girl was realistic. Apparently. Franco Harris was the son of such a couple. He was the Pittsburgh Steeler running back who caught the most famous touchdown pass in NFL history: the Immaculate Reception. He had a fan group called “Franco's Italian Army.”


John T. Reed

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