A fighter pilot, his escort, and one hell of a coincidence.
- By John Fleischman
- Air & Space magazine, September 2001
Herb Heilbrun keeps everything. He has every canceled check he ever wrote. He has the manufacturer’s manual for the B-17G he picked up at the Boeing factory in Seattle on October 12, 1944, and the flight log that records the 7,075 miles and 41 hours of his flight from Lincoln, Nebraska, to Foggia, Italy, via Newfoundland, the Azores, and North Africa. He has one of the 89 chunks of shrapnel that ventilated his bomber on Christmas Day 1944, while his squadron was attacking refineries at Brux, Czechoslovakia. He has the government-issue rubber oxygen mask and canvas flier’s helmet that he wore 30,000 feet over Brux. And he has the diary he kept to detail his 262 hours in combat, piloting a B-17G from Italy up the Adriatic, over the Alps, and into the industrial heart of Nazi Germany. He knows to the minute how long he was in combat and on what dates he flew against which targets.
In 1995, Herb read in the Cincinnati paper that the city was honoring the local chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen. Red tails, Herb remembered. The Tuskegees were the all-black 332nd Fighter Group. They flew red-tail P-51s on missions escorting bomber squadrons from Italy into Germany. Herb could still remember hearing, amid the radio chatter over the target, the distinctive voices of the Tuskegee Airmen. He felt that his thanks were overdue.
“They mayor was making a presentation on Fountain Square,” Herb recalls. “I went down to the hotel where they were having some sort of reception and I told somebody that I flew B-17s in Italy and that the Tuskegee Airmen escorted me. I said that if there’s a flier around here that was over there, I’d like to give him a hug for saving my behind. Then someone said, ‘There’s a fellow over there. I think he did that.’”
The man was named John Leahr. When the two were introduced, Herb hugged John and said: “I’ve been waiting 50 years to meet one of you guys. You saved my tail on many a day.”
The black ex-fighter pilot and the white ex-bomber pilot became friends. They went out for lunch. They visited each other’s homes for dinner. They began matching up dates and other details of combat missions they’d flown. John had indeed flown cover on at least two of Herb’s 35 missions: Brux on December 16th and Blechemmer on December 17th. Brux on the 16th was bad but not as bad as Brux on the 25th, Herb recalled. On that mission—Christmas Day—his fuel tanks were hit, his high-altitude oxygen system was hit, and his armor gunner ended up getting wounded in the foot.
As the two got to know each other, they discovered other things in common. The men had been born within a mile of each other, and only seven months apart. Both had come up through Cincinnati public schools, and both had managed to scrape together two years of college during the Depression. Both had enlisted in the Air Corps within weeks of Pearl Harbor. Both had to wait months to be called for flying school, so both took jobs at the same airplane engine factory: Wright Aeronautical in Lockland, Ohio. Herb tested engines, firing up GR-2600-655 Cyclones on test stands. John worked in the plant foundry. The work was filthy, hot, and done exclusively by blacks, he recalls.
Herb got assigned to Italy as part of the 32nd Squadron of the 301st Bomb Group. He arrived well schooled in the elaborate squadron takeoff ritual that quickly launched and stacked dozens of bombers into box formations. Rising from field all around Foggia, the bomber echelons assembled themselves until hundreds of aircraft were swarming up the Adriatic. The first time Herb saw one of the enormous boxes, it took his breath away.
A few thousand feet above the B-17s and off to the side, John Leahr flew escort In a P-51. “I’d always wanted to fly,” he recalls. “It fascinated me, but I’d never been up in an airplane in my life.” Word that the corps had been forced to train blacks as pilots electrified the black community, John recalls, and he rushed to join the War Department’s pre-war Civilian Pilot Training program. The CPT assigned black pilots to get their primary training at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Traveling to the deep south in that era “scared me to death,” John recalls. “There were so many stories. At that time, there was no federal anti-lynch law, and black people were beaten up and killed and nothing was being done about it.”
The Air Corps wanted only enough black pilots to fill a handful of token squadrons, so the washout rate at Tuskegee was ferocious. John’s flying career almost crashed on takeoff. “It was when I was ready to solo,” he recalls. “I was lined up to take off and I thought I’d cleared myself good. So I started down the field and then I heard a strange noise and I looked up. Here’s an airplane coming right down straight on top of me…My prop hit the tail wheel of the other airplane and made a nice clanking noise.
“My instructor was way down on the other end of the field. I didn’t think he knew what’d happened. I thought that if I didn’t get his airplane off the ground now, I would probably never fly. If you hit another airplane, why that’s a washout. So I took the plane off without checking the prop. And that plane tried to slow roll on me all the way around the field. I got up in the air, holding full rudder and stick to keep that plane straight.”
After a brief flight, John managed to land. “The instructor came running up shouting, ‘Did you hit that other airplane?’ I played dumb and said, ‘I don’t think so’…He told me the commanding officer wanted to see me. I knew what that meant. I was going to be washed out.
“I reported in the finest military manner, and he was sitting there ignoring me for a while and then suddenly he’s roaring at me, ‘You darn near killed an instructor and another student!’ and so on and so forth. He gave me a good chewing out. Then he said, ‘Go on and get out of here and be more careful.’ Man, was I happy.” In July 1943, John earned his wings.
The following February, his squadron landed in Italy. The black airmen lived apart from the white Air Corps. “The whole crew, everyone—mechanics, cooks, squadron commander, everybody—we were completely segregated,” says John. The pilots flew hand-me-down aircraft. When John’s squadron first went into combat with the 12th Tactical Air Force in February 1944, they were the only Americans in Europe flying the cranky and obsolete P-39 Airacobra. That July, the squadron was given weary P-51Bs and –Cs left them by white squadrons trading up to the more advanced P-51Ds.
On a mission, the bombers would be about two hours out when the fighter escorts caught up with them. On the intercom of his B-17, Herb could hear his gunners sight them, high above the box, cutting S turns to eat up the difference in ground speed between bombers and fighters. The escorts were supposed to handle enemy interceptors, but nothing seemed to lessen the flak. The Germans moved mobile flak units around to surprise the Allies while they were crossing the Po Valley or near the mountain passes that they followed into Austria and Germany. And once the bombers reached their target, all the anti-aircraft guns on earth seemed to be waiting for them, altitude fuses set. It was the engineer’s job to dress the pilot for the bomb run—helmet and a heavy flak jacket shaped like an umpire’s chest protector. Herb would tuck the tail between his legs, then continue on with his squadron toward the target.
“You’d see those poor bomber boys line up and go straight into that flak,” John says. “It could be a beautiful clear day and you’d look up into a blue sky, it would be beautiful. But when those bombers would line up, I t would look like one hell of a thunderstorm where that flak would come up bursting. And those bombers would fly right through it.
“We watched those guys go through hell. We’re sitting out on the side waiting for them to come out and we could see them getting hit. If they got hit in the bomb bay, the plane just exploded into a great big ball of fire. The whole plane blew up and then it was nothing.
“When they came off target, that’s when the enemy fighters used to really get them. These guys would come off the target all shot up. Maybe they’d have a couple of engines knocked out. Maybe on fire. That’s when we would try to pick them up. They’d call us ‘Little Friend’—‘Little Friend, I’m going down.’ Or ‘Little Friend, I’m losing altitude. Can you see us? The pilot’s dead. Or the copilot’s injured. Stay with us. Little Friend, stay with us.’ That’s when those enemy fighters would come to shoot those poor guys down like sitting ducks.
“Sometimes they could get the plane together and get away from the target. Some might crash-land it if they could find a good place or some would bail out all together safely. In some instances, we were able to escort them far enough from the target so that they could make it on back. We would be running out of gas. We knew to the minute how long we had before we wouldn’t make it back ourselves. The stragglers would be very slow, traveling on two engines, but we stayed with them long enough to get them out of range of enemy fighters.” The Tuskegee squadrons, John says, never lost a bomber they were escorting home.
John was eventually returned to the States so he could get advanced training to become a flight instructor at Tuskegee. He found that the racial climate back home had not changed. He recalls an incident in Memphis, where he had been sent by the military for a goiter operation. While convalescing, he and three other black officers had gone into town, and at a bus stop were accosted by a drunk. “He was a big redneck, a thug if there ever was one,” John says. “He stopped the four of us while we were waiting to transfer, right down there in the heart of town. We were in uniform. I was in full dress, with my decorations on, when this guy comes up and says: ‘I’ll be damned. Look at these niggers. And nigger officers.’ And then he says: ‘Two of them got wings on. Damn, I’ve killed a lot of niggers, but I never killed any nigger officers. I’m gonna kill you niggers.’” Luckily, the intervention of a passing white sailor and the arrival of a bus allowed the officers to escape.
Once he was out of the military, John discovered that he was a pretty good salesman. He sold securities and managed a brokerage office before retiring as an office administrator from Cincinnati Gas & Electric. Herb became a salesman too, selling radio ads and then commercial real estate. (He’s still doing a deal or two.) Today, John is a widower with children and grandchildren. Herb is remarried and busy with his own children and grandchildren, as well as his step-children and step-grandchildren, plus the kids who attend his wife Carol’s in-home daycare center. When their paths crossed at the Tuskegee Airmen’s reception, the men were living 10 minutes apart.
One night, Herb recalls, “Johnny and I were having dinner, and he said, ‘You know, I grew up in Avondale.’ And that’s when I said, ‘So did I.’ And I remember what he said: ‘There were only five black families in Avondale, and I went to a school on Clinton Springs Avenue. It was an old mansion.’ And I said, ‘I went to that school. I lived on Warwick right where it came into Clinton Springs, and I would just walk up Warwick and right into school.’ Well then he said, ‘I don’t remember you.’ And I said, ‘I don’t remember you.’”
That wasn’t surprising. When it came to racial matters, Cincinnati had Southern ways. During World War II, Cincinnati’s railroad station had the distinction of being the southbound point where passenger segregation began. Most of Cincinnati’s hotels, restaurants, and even hamburger stands were for whites only.
Still, after Herb learned that he and John had gone to the same school, he wondered if they had ever intersected. When he got home he went through his photo albums; of course he still had his second grade picture.
The photograph shows 40 kids in the class; 38 are white and two—a boy and a girl—are black. John recalls what happened next: “Herb sent [the picture] to me with a little note that said, ‘John, this thing is getting crazier and crazier by the minute. If that little black guy in this picture is you, well, that kid behind him who is almost touching him is me.’” It was true.
Today, John and Herb take out the picture to show a visitor. “So that’s me right there, and that’s Herb right there,” John says tapping the white boy with the home-barbered bangs standing right behind him. Their teacher is in the back row. The two agree that Miss Pitchel was a tough cookie.
“And see that black girl there?” says Herb. “I remember her name was Mary Louise Hillman, because my mother’s name was Mary Louise Heilbrun.”
“Herb, do you know she’s still living right down the street from the school on Clinton Springs?” says John. “She’s not in the same house she was living in but she’s in the same neighborhood.”
“Now isn’t that something?” says Herb, admiring the photo again. “This was 1928. That’s a few weeks ago.”
For the last 25 years, John has been campaigning to tell people about the role of the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II and in the country’ racial history. Time is the enemy now for the Tuskegees. These are their last years to speak for themselves, putting on record not just their valor at war but the ugliness they confronted at home.
After the two reunited, John enlisted Herb in his campaign. Together, they speak at schools, clubs, and to any other group that will listen. The Kroger Company in Cincinnati had them address a corporate banquet.
Today, they are scheduled to speak at the suburban Cincinnati campus of Raymond Walters College. Herb is waiting in the driveway when John drives up. John climbs out to contemplate Herb’s nearly vertical backyard that drops into a ravine. “I mowed that once a week for 30 years,” says Herb. “Then I hired this kid to do it for me. I got smart.”
“You got old,” says John.
The two load the car with their Tuskegee Airmen displays and take off. John drives like a pilot, checking instruments, scanning the horizon, and carefully watching his tail.
Their college audience today turns out to be senior citizens enrolled in an “Institute for Learning in Retirement” course on World War II. At first it seems John and Herb will be preaching to the choir, until they observe that many taking their seats in the lecture hall seem to only be in their early 70s—too young to have gone to their war. Which is fine with John and Herb. Fresh ears are always in short supply.
Joining John and Herb today is Leslie Edwards, a Tuskegee ground crew chief who witnessed the nearly forgotten 1945 “Freeman Field Mutiny.” On a small training field near Seymour, Indiana, 162 black officers were court-martialed after refusing the base commander’s order to sign a pledge that they would stay away from the whites-only officers’ club. (The NAACP sent Thurgood Marshall to their defense, and though a handful of officers were convicted, General George Marshall eventually overturned the convictions.)
John begins by showing a video—a segment from a TV documentary on the Tuskegees. He talks about his training, about shipping out, and about getting jumped over Linz, Austria, by 40 German Bf 109s. Two of his wingmates were shot down at once, his flight leader was driven off, and, surrounded by enemy aircraft, he discovered that his machine guns had frozen at the high altitude and were unable to fire. He tells the audience that he owed his escape to a mixture of aerial acrobatics and applied religion.
When it’s Herb’s turn, he tells the audience about the bomber war. He tells them about the wooden boards in the briefing room where each crew member’s last name was posted on a metal strip; one morning Herb watched the operations officer take down a stack of strips and toss them in the trash. They were shot down, the officer explained. They’re not coming back. Herb reaches into his pocket and with a grin hold up a battered metal strip with “Heilbrun” written in white. The audience claps.
He talks about his homecoming in 1945, about meeting John all those years later, and about piecing together their past. Herb puts up a projection slide of the photograph from Miss Pitchel’s class. The picture never misses.
Getting to know John and hearing about the Tuskegees’ war opened his eyes, he says. “He gave me a real education. I’m an honorary member of the Tuskegee Airmen, and I consider it a great honor.
“In all those missions, I was never under attack,” he says. “If it weren’t for men like John Leahr, I wouldn’t be here. So that’s one reason I like John Leahr. Actually that’s the main reason I like John Leahr.” They hug. The audience laughs.
One arm around John, Herb says that the two have one request. “Don’t forget us,” he says.