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 2)

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.

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus