Real Tuskegee airman approves of new film about their service in WW II

One good tale

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Helen Lanauze was talking during the movie.

"That's where you were!" she whispered to her husband, seated next to her in the theater Thursday night for the sneak preview of "Red Tails," the new George Lucas film about the legendary Tuskegee Airmen.

Harry E. Lanauze, 85, watched the opening scene, set in an Italian airfield during World War II, and silently nodded.

It brought back memories.

"Red Tails," which opened in theaters nationwide this weekend, tells the story of the 332nd Fighter Group, a squadron of African-American fighter pilots who overcome racial prejudice to prove themselves in the dangerous skies over Germany in 1944.

Dr. Lanauze was one of those pilots.

For a long time, he didn't discuss the experience, and he kept no mementos of his service. After the war, he became a college biology professor and attended medical school to fulfill the focus of his life.

Today, he still works as a family practitioner in McKeesport, where he lives with his wife of 41 years.

"For years and years, there was no talk about [the Tuskegee Airmen]," Mrs. Lanauze said. "He always said, 'That's in my past.' But it's gotten so much press the past couple years."

During World War II, the U.S. military was segregated, and African-Americans were not allowed to serve as pilots. But with pressure from civil rights groups -- and a growing need for trained pilots -- an all-black pursuit squadron, and the ground crew that supported it, was assembled at an airfield near the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

The largest contingent of those men and women came from Western Pennsylvania, including 17 from the Hill District, 16 from Homewood, seven from Sewickley, six from Beltzhoover, four from the North Side and 20 others from elsewhere in Allegheny County. A memorial in their honor will be dedicated in Sewickley Cemetery later this year.

On Wednesday, Dr. Lanauze was honored at the Heinz History Center with an award for his service. Thursday night, he attended the movie preview, sponsored by WAMO 100.1-FM at AMC-Loews Waterfront in Homestead, and was applauded by the full house.

After the showing, one of those in attendance asked him what he thought of the movie.

"Was it real? Yes, I know, because I was there," he said. "It was fairly authentic. They did an excellent job. But, remember now, this is a movie."

So, naturally, there are some story-telling elements in the film that condense and massage what really happened. Still, Dr. Lanauze said, there were moments that rang true, sometimes painfully so. He recalled the difficult training and the bigotry that kept them from fighting.

"They didn't think we could fly," he said. "And if we did fly, they certainly didn't think we could fight the enemy."

Some of his memories from those days have faded, Dr. Lanauze admitted. But key elements of the story -- the camaraderie of the pilots and the contributions of the ground crew -- stood out for him. Another part of the movie that hit home was where the pilots show what they are capable of doing and move up from P-40 fighter planes to the newer P-51s.

"The P-40 was a terrible plane to fly because when you were taxiing, you'd have to swivel to see over the front. You couldn't see anything," he said. "The P-51s were like driving a car. The speed. Oh, you loved that. You used the plane like a rifle. Line it up and shoot it."

The characters in the film are not real, their personalities and story lines created by the writers. But Dr. Lanauze said, like in the movie, some pilots were daredevils while others did as they were told.

"Oh, you had orders to follow, and you followed them. You had to be by-the-book and fly properly."

But further reflection revealed that he didn't always toe the line, especially while he was training in the States.

"I flew under many a bridge in Georgia," he said. "I proved to myself that I could do it, though that was the damned craziest thing that you could do.

"When you fly solo, you take those little chances. I would stall out the airplane -- even though you weren't supposed to -- just so I could make sure I knew how to kick it back in."

Dr. Lanauze's main fault with the movie was that it ignored the pilots' training experiences in the States.

"They completely skipped the beginning. They only told half the story," he said. "It was shocking, what happened to us at Tuskegee. What happened to us in Alabama," referring to the racial prejudice.

Other picky points included the way the fighters are shown knotted in the sky -- in real life, the planes were spread across miles -- and the movie's romantic subplot, which suggests a pilot staying in Italy.

"We weren't thinking of staying there," Dr. Lanauze said. "We were more, 'How am I going to get home?' "

And where the movie emphasizes the rah-rah, combative spirit of the pilots, Dr. Lanauze said, the real emotions of the pilots were much more complex and muted. There wasn't so much of the team-cheering. The opportunity to prove themselves was uplifting, but the job -- risking their lives and taking others -- was sobering.

"You get to the point where you get the feeling, 'Damn, why am I here shooting at someone? I don't know him. I'm shooting at strangers. I'm shooting at him so he doesn't shoot me,' which is a ridiculous thing," Dr. Lanauze said.

"You come to the point where 'War is terrible.' There's no such thing as a good war."

Dan Majors: and 412-263-1456. First Published January 21, 2012 5:00 AM


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