Herb Heilbrun is a pack rat. He has every canceled check he ever wrote. He has the manufacturer’s manual from the Boeing B-17G that he signed for at a U.S. Army airfield in Lincoln, Nebraska, on October 9, 1944. He has the flight log that charts his 7,075-mile, 41-hour flight from Lincoln to Foggia, Italy, via Newfoundland, the Azores, and North Africa. He has the government-issue rubber oxygen mask and canvas flier’s helmet that he wore as a bomber pilot in the Army Air Forces. And he has the diary he kept to detail his 262 hours in combat.
In 1997, Heilbrun read in a Cincinnati newspaper that the city was honoring the local chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen. The Red Tails, he remembered. The Tuskegees were the all-black 332nd Fighter Group. Flying red-tailed P-51s, they’d escorted Heilbrun’s bombing group deep into Nazi territory, and he could still remember hearing, through the radio chatter over the target, their distinctive voices. He felt that his thanks were overdue.
“The mayor was making a presentation on Fountain Square,” Heilbrun recalled. “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 fellow was John Leahr. When the two were introduced, Heilbrun hugged Leahr and said: “I’ve been waiting 50 years to meet one of you guys. You saved my tail on many a day.”
As Herb poured out his thanks, John’s first thought was that this white guy must be a life insurance salesman. Yet the black ex-fighter pilot and the white ex-bomber pilot slowly became friends. They went out for lunch. They visited each other’s homes for dinner. They discussed their various ailments. They began matching up dates and comparing logs and lists of combat missions they’d flown. John had indeed flown cover on at least two of Herb’s 35 missions: Brux on December 16, 1944, and Blechhammer on December 17.
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, in 1920. They were kept apart, though, by the era’s rigid “color line.” Both came up through Cincinnati public schools, and both managed to scrape through two years of college during the Depression. Both volunteered for the Army Air Corps within days after Pearl Harbor. But the Army was so rigidly segregated that it was as if Herb and John had volunteered for two different nations. Still, they both had to wait months to be called for flight training by the newly renamed Army Air Forces, so both took jobs at the same airplane engine factory: Wright Aeronautical in Lockland, Ohio. Herb tested engines, firing up GR-2600-B655 Cyclones on test stands. John worked in the plant foundry. The work was filthy, hot, and done exclusively by blacks, he recalled.
In 1944, Herb was 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 heavy bombers into box formations. Rising from fields 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 flew escort in a North American P-51 Mustang. “I’d always wanted to fly,” he recalled. “It fascinated me, but I’d never been up in an airplane in my life.” Word that the War Department had decreed that African-Americans could be admitted for training in the Army Air Corps electrified the black community, John remembered. When he was finally called up in November 1942, he was ordered to report to the Army Air Forces segregated training field at Tuskegee, Alabama. Traveling to the Deep South in that era “scared me to death,” John said. His parents were far more worried about him flying over Alabama than flying over Germany. “There were so many stories,” he recalled. “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.”
In truth, the Army Air Forces brass wanted only enough black pilots to fill out a few token squadrons, so the washout rate at Tuskegee was ferocious. But John survived, and in 1943, he earned his wings.
The following February, his squadron landed in Italy. The black airmen lived apart from the white airmen. “The whole crew, everyone—mechanics, cooks, squadron commander, everybody—we were completely segregated,” said John. The Tuskegees were soon transferred to the new 15th Air Force, based near Foggia, for long-distance bomber escort duty. Their commander, Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin O. Davis Jr., told them that their assignment was to stay with the bombers and not go off on wild goose chases after Luftwaffe decoys.