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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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.

On a typical 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 the fighters’ arrival, high above the box, cutting S turns to eat up the difference in ground speed between bombers and fighters. The escorts did their best to handle enemy interceptors, but they couldn’t do much about ground-based attacks. The Germans moved mobile flak units around to ambush Allied bombers 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.

“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. 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,” he continued. “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,” said John. “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.’
“In some instances, we were able to escort them far enough from the target so that they could make it on back,” recalled John. “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.”

After his 132nd combat sortie, John was rotated home to train at Tuskegee as one of the first black flight instructors. 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,” said John. “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 white sailor intervened by pulling the black officers out of the gathering mob and hustling them onto the next bus to escape.

Herb’s combat role was over by then. On April 15, 1945, he had landed safely after his 35th mission, a milk run in support of Allied ground forces in northern Italy. Three weeks later, Herb was aboard a troop ship 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. He explained that after the war, they resumed their parallel lives in Cincinnati. Both were in sales for a time. Herb sold radio advertisements and then commercial real estate. John was the first African-American to pass Ohio’s financial and securities license exam and the first to become vice president of an Ohio brokerage firm.

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 Tails’ reception, Herb and John were living 10 minutes apart.

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. During World War II, Cincinnati’s railroad station had the distinction of being the south-bound point where passenger racial segregation began. Most of Cincinnati’s hotels, restaurants, and even hamburger stands were for whites only.

After Herb learned that he and John had gone to the same school, he went through his photo albums. Of course he still had his second-grade picture.
In the sandwich shop, John moved our empty plates to make room for The 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,” he said, pointing to the white boy with the home-barbered bangs standing 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.

Since the late 1970s, John had been campaigning to tell young people about the Tuskegee Airmen, especially after he discovered that black schoolchildren had no idea that African-Americans had fought as fighter pilots in World War II. 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.

One of their first appearances was at a racially mixed elementary school. Kids can be a tough audience, especially for two old men who come 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, projected onto a screen. The kids fell silent. “That’s me,” said Herb. “And right next to me, that’s John.” For the first time, the children really saw John and Herb—as kids, as young men, and as old friends. They were speechless.

That was the start of the Herb and John Show. The two have been featured in numerous newspaper stories, on the NBC Nightly News, in Reader’s Digest, and on the History Channel. They have spoken to elementary schools, colleges, corporate gatherings, veterans’ 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 and White Airmen: Their True History. That set off more invitations.

In 2012, a dozen years since I first met them, the Herb and John Show was still going, although Herb is a solo act most of the time. At 92, Herb is hale and hearty and eager to talk about Miss Pitchell. John, 93, 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. Though John managed a short speech of thanks before the crowd, he scarcely recognized anyone outside his immediate family—except for Herb.

Herb continues to give speeches about John and Herb. At veterans’ events and B-17 fly-ins, he is like a rock star, especially to those whose fathers, grandfathers, and now great-grandfathers flew in World War II. 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 I saw John and Herb in action together in 2000. 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 the war, they had been children and teenagers. Herb and John’s story was fresh to their ears.

John talked about the Tuskegees—about his experience as a student pilot, 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 aircraft 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 the photo of 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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