A recent Daily News article quoted Dr. Ronald Myers, an organizer in the drive to make Juneteenth a national holiday, saying: "I tell people making speeches about Juneteenth, 'When you mention the Tuskegee Airmen and the Buffalo Soldiers, make sure you mention the African-American Army Engineers and the Alcan Highway" ("Juneteenth event celebrates Alcan Highway work," published Oct. 26, 2011).
The article was about the African American Army engineers who helped build the highway to Alaska during World War II, creating what Myers and others identify as the first move toward an integrated military. A newsroom colleague commented that the story would make a good movie: "Glory' meets 'Bridge Over the River Kwai," is how he put it.
Myers told me he was amazed that "everyone knows about the Tuskegee Airmen, but no one knew about the Alcan workers." In an age when a startling number of Americans can't correctly identify Hitler or Stalin as America's foe or ally in that war, I'm not sure that everyone really does know about the illustrious all-black team of fighter pilots, though the right movie would certainly help more people know about them.
In a wonderfully serendipitous turn, we learned 10 days ago that Alaska has a connection with the Tuskegee pilots too and that someone is turning their story into an upcoming movie. And that someone is George Lucas.
"Red Tails" won't be the first film about the Tuskegee Airmen when it's released next year. Previous movies have included a 1996 HBO movie starring Laurence Fishburne, and Ronald Reagan narrated a wartime morale-boosting documentary about them. But the level of talent coming to this effort is noteworthy. The screenplay is by John Ridley ("Three Kings") and the director is Anthony Hemingway. It's Hemingway's first shot at directing a major film. He has previously been an assistant or second unit director, but he's mostly known for directing television projects for shows like "Oz," "Community," "The Closer" and "Heroes."
Here's the background: In the segregated armed forces of World War II, black pilots trained at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to shuttle aircraft to the battle front. They worked with a variety of planes. But then they got their hands on the P-51 Mustang fighters and were given the chance to engage the enemy, they showed remarkable skill and courage. The squad's bright red tails gave them their nickname. Bomber crews called them "Red-Tail Angels."
There is some dispute among historians over whether they never lost a single Allied bomber under their protection, but their record was good enough that every general in the Army Air Corps began demanding fighters from 332nd Fighter Squadron to provide cover for their planes.
Now here's where Alaska comes in. On Dec. 15 at the Regal Tikhatnu theater, a rough cut of Lucas' flick was screened for about 200 Alaskans associated with the U.S. Air Force Reserve's 477th Fighter Squadron. That's the outfit that flies the F-22 Raptors based at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
So what's the connection? Well, the way the military looks at things, the personnel with the Raptor unit are the grandkids of the Tuskegee Airmen.
A press release explained:
"The Group's 302nd Fighter Squadron historically was part of the 332nd Fighter Group, also known as 'The Red Tails,' the famous all-black unit that fought both American prejudice and Nazi militarism.
"Additionally, another Tuskegee Airmen unit, the 477th Bombardment Group was activated in 1944. The 477th and the 302nd were reactivated here in October 2007 when the group became the Air Force Reserve Command's first F-22 Raptor unit and the only Air Force Reserve unit in Alaska."
Among those who attended the screening was one of the "Red Tails" actors, Marcus Paulk. He toured the Tuskegee memorabilia that is now displayed in the 477th headquarters at the base and got a close-up look at a Raptor.
"That plane is sick," Paulk said -- meaning it as a compliment, not a comment on the reported oxygen supply problems that have bedeviled the engineers and thus far kept the awesome aircraft out of combat.
Paulk also said, "It was an honor to do this film and pay respect to these great Americans."
Rightly said. It is worth noting that Lucas, who can make a movie about anything he wants, has chosen to spend his talent and resources on this piece of the American legacy. It's uplifting to see someone in such a position use his power for good.
The African-American Alcan engineers story is still up for grabs, history buffs. And by the way, history buffs, the United States fought with Stalin and against Hitler.
New program for artists with disabilities
In October, Focus, Inc., a local organization that provides support to individuals and families experiencing disabilities, started a new program to offer structured art classes and studio time to adults with disabilities.
Disciplines range from drawing, painting and printmaking to acting, dance, music and photography. Students in the Focus:art program can pursue their projects alongside professional artists.
Classes and open studio time are available Tuesdays-Thursdays every week at Out North, 3800 DeBarr Road. The cost, which helps cover art supplies, is $5 per session.
Art and crafts produced by the participants will be offered for sale from time to time with proceeds going to benefit the program and participants. For more information, go to www.focusoutreach.org.
Opera gala announced
What is sure to be one of the swanker events in Anchorage will take place March 23. Anchorage Opera is hosting a gala at the Atwood Mansion -- aka "The Versailles of the North" -- near West High School. Tickets are $250 per person and available by calling 279-2568, along with additional details.
Reach Mike Dunham at email@example.com or 257-4332.
By MIKE DUNHAM
Anchorage Daily News