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)
Air & Space Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 1)

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.’ ”

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus