The Reunion

A fighter pilot, his escort, and one hell of a coincidence.

After they reunited, John Leahr (above, right) enlisted Herb Heilbrun in his ongoing campaign to make sure everyone, from schoolkids to the elderly, hears the story of the Tuskegee Airmen. (Robert A. Flischel)
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Fortunately Herb Heilbrun was a pack rat and kept everything. He has every canceled check he ever wrote. Herb has the manufacturer’s manual from the B-17G, fresh from the Boeing factory in Seattle, that he signed for at an Army airfield in Lincoln, Nebraska, on October 9, 1944. He has his flight log that charts his 7,075-mile and 41-hour flight from Lincoln, Nebraska, to Foggia, Italy, via Newfoundland, the Azores, and North Africa. Herb has one of the 89 chunks of shrapnel that ventilated his bomber on Christmas Day 1944, while his squadron was attacking refineries at what was then 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 the Nazi empire.

In 1997, Herb read in the Cincinnati paper that the city was honoring the local chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen. The Red Tails, Herb remembered. The Tuskegees were the all-black 332nd Fighter Group. Flying red-tailed P-51s, they’d escorted Herb’s bombing group deep into Nazi territory and Herb could still remember hearing, through the radio chatter over the target, the distinctive voices of the Tuskegee Airmen. He felt that his thanks were overdue.

“The mayor was making a presentation on Fountain Square,” Herb 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, 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.”

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 real friends. They went out for lunch. They visited each other’s homes for dinner. They discussed their various ailments. They began matching up dates, 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 and Blechhemmer on December 17, 1944. 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 cut off, and a waist gunner caught a piece of shrapnel 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 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 U.S. Army was so rigidly segregated that it was 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 (AAF), 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 recalled.

Herb was assigned in 1944 to Italy as part of the 32nd Squadron of the 301st Bomb Group. Herb 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 Leahr flew escort in a P-51. “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 AAF would be forced to train blacks as pilots electrified the black community, John recalls. When he was finally called up in November 1942, John was ordered to report to the AAF 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. 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 AAF brass wanted only enough black pilots to fill out a few 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 recalled. “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 this 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 AAF. “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. The Tuskegee squadrons muddled along until May when they were re-equipped with tired P-47s (the P-39s were crated up and shipped to Russia). The Tuskegees were being transferred to the new 15th Air Force near the dusty southern Italian city of Foggia for long-distance bomber escort duty. In July, the four Tuskegee squadrons “transitioned” again, this time to weary P-51Bs and –Cs left them by white squadrons trading up to the more advanced P-51Ds. Their flinty 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. The Tuskegees became famous, at least among bomber crews, for staying with the heavies.

On a mission, the bombers would be about two hours out when the second wave of fighter escorts caught up with them. On the intercom of his B-17, Herb could hear his gunners spot their arrival, 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 AAF bomber streams as they crossed the Po Valley or climbed the Alps to reach into Austria and southern Germany. 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—a GI helmet with cut-out ear flaps for earphones, anti-flash goggles, 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 said. “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, it 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’.”

“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 was proud of saying, never lost a bomber they were escorting home to enemy fighters. It’s a claim that has been recently challenged by military historians who have found contemporary debriefing reports of damaged bombers lost to enemy interceptors despite Tuskegee escorts. Yet a statistical analysis of those losses by Daniel Haulman of the Air Force Historical Research Agency revealed that the Tuskegees lost just under half as many straggling bombers compared to white escort squadrons in the same period. And as Herb would testify, the bomber crews longed to see red-tailed P-51s cutting S-turns overhead as they turned toward target. The Red Tails stayed with the bombers.

After the December 16th raid on Brux and his 132nd combat sortie, John was finally rotated home to train at Tuskegee as one of the first black flight instructors, if only for black trainees. Off base, John found the hostile racial climate unchanged. In June 1945, he was sent to an Army hospital in Memphis for a goiter operation. While convalescing, he and three other black officers rode a bus into town and, while waiting to transfer to another line, were accosted by a white drunk. “He was a big redneck, a thug if there ever was one,” John said. “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, a passing white sailor intervened and pulled them out of the gathering mob. This enlisted man hustled the black officers onto the next bus to escape.

Herb’s shooting war was over by then. On April 15, 1945, Herb had landed safe and sound after his 35th mission, a milk run in support of Allied ground forces in northern Italy. On VE-Day, May 6, 1945, Herb was aboard a troop ship approaching Boston Harbor on his way home to retrain as a B-29 commander. Within a year, both men were discharged.

Fifty five years later, I was sitting in a Cincinnati sandwich shop, listening to Herb tell their story while John moved our empty plates to make way for the Picture. The Picture makes their story complete. Herb explained that after the war, they resumed their parallel lives in Cincinnati. Both were in sales for a time. Herb sold radio ads and then commercial real estate. John was the first African-American to pass the state’s financial and securities license exam and the first to become vice-president of an Ohio brokerage firm. He finished his career as a senior personnel administrator at the local utility, one of the few blacks as such a high level in the company. But long before retirement, John knew he’d hit another glass ceiling.

By the time they met at the Tuskegee Airmen reunion, John was a widower with two sons and a grandson. Herb’s boys from his first marriage were grown but with remarriage, he’d acquired stepchildren and step-grandchildren along with the kids who attended the in-home daycare center run by his new wife, Carol. When their paths crossed at the Red Tail’s reception, Herb and John were living 10 minutes apart.

Which brings them to the Picture. One night, Herb recalled, “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. Right through World War II, Cincinnati’s railroad station had the distinction of being the southbound point where passenger segregation began. In Cincinnati movie theaters, blacks sat apart. In downtown restaurants, blacks could not sit at all. The public schools were unofficially but effectively segregated. Yet at times, the school board was too cheap to enforce the color line. In North Avondale, John’s great-grandfather, a Union Army veteran, had bought a few acres of worn-out pasture in the 1890s. He sold off tiny house lots around the homestead to other black families, creating a little African-American enclave off Clinton Springs Road. Then in the 1920s, the city jumped out to surround them with new houses, filled with white faces. Drowning in a flood of new children, the new elementary school at the top of Clinton Springs Road simply turned a blind eye when a handful of black children came walking up to enroll. Herb had no memory of John but wondered if their schoolboy lives had ever intersected. Of course, Herb still had his third grade class picture.

The 1928 photograph shows 40 kids; 38 are white and two—a boy and a girl—are African American. John recalled 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.’ ”

John leaned across the table and tapped the first row of boys. “So that’s me right there, and that’s Herb right there.” John tapped the white boy with the home-barbered bangs standing right behind him. Their teacher, in the back row, was Miss Pitchell, said John. The men agreed that Miss Pitchell was one tough cookie.

“And see that black girl there?” said 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?” said John. “She’s not in the same house but she’s in the same neighborhood.”

“Now isn’t that something?” said Herb, admiring the photo again. “This was 1928. That’s a few weeks ago.”

And the weeks keep going by. Car mirrors these days often have a message engraved on the glass that says, “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.” Hanging out with John and Herb taught me to look in the mirror of time. First there was the manner in which I found them. I am a Baby Boomer and my best friend, Chot Van Ausdall, is also a boomer but Chot told me that his brother-in-law had flown B-17s in combat. I used to believe that WWII combat veterans all belonged to my parents’ generation. But Chot had a much older sister, Carol, who remarried a much older man, Herb. Things are closed than they appear. Thus I caught up with the John and Herb Show.

Since the late 1970s, John had been campaigning to tell young people about the Tuskegee Airmen, especially after he discovering that black school kids had no idea that African-Americans had fought as fighter pilots in WWII. After the discovery of Miss Pitchell’s class photo, John asked Herb if he’d like to come along to speak at schools together. Herb said he’d be honored.

The Picture never missed. They had it blown up into a giant transparency that could be projected onto a screen. One of their first appearances was at a racially mixed elementary school. Kids can be a tough audience, especially for two old men who comes to talk about an old war. John talked about the Tuskegees and the sometimes very short life of a fighter pilot. Herb talked about the B-17s and the path both men took to the sky over Brux. And then Herb put up the slide of Miss Pitchell’s class. The kids fell silent. “That’s me,” said Herb. “And right next to me, that’s John.” For the first time, the children saw John and Herb, saw them as kids, as young men, and as old friends. The kids were speechless.

That was the start of the Herb and John Show. After I published an article in Air & Space Smithsonian about them, the show really took off. Herb and John were in numerous newspaper stories, on the NBC Nightly News, in Reader’s Digest, and on the History Channel. They spoke to elementary schools, colleges, corporate gatherings, veteran’s meetings, bookstores, churches, untold dinners and banquets, and vintage aircraft fly-ins. In 2003, Harvard University flew them to Boston to present them with gold medals for “promoting racial understanding.” In 2007, I published a nonfiction book for older kids about John and Herb called Black & White Airmen. That set off more invitations.

Things are closer than they appear. In 2012, a dozen years since I first met them, the Herb and John Show is still going, although Herb is a solo act most of the time. At 92, Herb is hail and hearty and eager to talk about Miss Pitchell. At 92, John has been diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disorder and lives in a care community. In the spring of 2012, John and Herb were guests of honor at the local premiere of “Red Tails,” the George Lucas action movie about the Tuskegees. John managed a short speech of thanks for the crowd but he scarcely recognized anyone outside his immediate family except for Herb.

Herb continues to give speeches about John and Herb. At veterans’ events or B-17 fly-ins, Herb is like a rock star, especially to those who had fathers, grandfathers, and now great-grandfathers who flew in WWII. When they meet Herb, they often start crying and hugging. Herb starts crying and hugging them back. I have been to a half dozen of these events and the reactions are genuinely moving.

I remember the first time that I saw John and Herb in action together. They were to speak at a suburban Cincinnati community college and John picked me up in his sparkling cream-colored Cadillac. On the way to Herb’s house, I noticed that he drove like a pilot, checking instruments, scanning the horizon, and carefully watching his tail. Moving me into the back and Herb in the second seat—belts on—John flew us to the gig.

I thought there must have been some mistake. The audience turned out to be senior citizens enrolled in an “Institute for Learning in Retirement” course on World War II. Surely John and Herb would be preaching to the choir, until I realized that many of those taking their seats in the lecture hall were “only” in their 70s. During WWII, they had been children and teenagers. WWII was their parents’ and their older siblings’ war. Herb and John’s story was fresh to their ears.

John talked about the Tuskegees—about his near washout as a trainee, the abrupt violence of aerial combat, and the phony logic of a segregated air force. Herb talked about the bomber war—about the physical ache after nine hours at the wheel of a lumbering bomber and the shock of seeing his group’s Executive Officer sweep the metal nameplates of a lost crew from the ready board into the trash.

Herb talked about their different homecomings in 1945, about meeting John all those years later and piecing together their joint past. Then Herb put up Miss Pitchell’s class. The Picture never misses.

Getting to know John and hearing about the Tuskegees’ war opened his eyes, Herb said. “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,” Herb told them. “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 hugged. The audience roared approval.

One arm around John, Herb said that the two airmen had one request: “Don’t forget us.”

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