‘Red Tails’ movie recalls memories for Tuskegee airman

For a couple of hours Tuesday night, Ralph L. Turner sat in a cushy, red recliner at the Palms’ Brenden Theatres and thought he was back in the cockpit of a P-51 Mustang in a dogfight with Nazi fighter planes.

Turner, of Las Vegas, with 160 friends and invited guests watched the first local showing of the World War II action film "Red Tails," an adventure movie about the challenges the famed Tuskegee Airmen faced at home and in Europe as the nation’s first black fighter pilots. The movie opens Friday.

An 87-year-old retired major, Turner was one of the youngest captains of the Tuskegee Airmen, who escorted bomber groups when they attacked Berlin in 1945.

The movie jarred his memories of the March 24, 1945, flight of nearly 60 P-51s with their signature red tails that escorted U.S. bombers on a raid to destroy a tank production facility in Berlin.

It was one of 52 combat missions Turner flew with the Red Tails and one he will never forget because they were attacked by Messerschmitt-262s, the world’s first jet fighters.

Turner was in the cockpit of a single-propeller P-51 Mustang, dubbed "Tinsel," that he had taken over for a previous pilot in the 302nd Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group, the select group of black pilots who demonstrated their flying skills at Tuskegee Airfield in Alabama.

One of the new German jets appeared out of nowhere.

"I didn’t see the guy," Turner recalled. "He flew by me so fast. I was at the highest altitude the P-51 could fly. He came zooming in behind me and went straight up.

"I couldn’t get any higher, and he kept going. If he shot at me, he didn’t hit me," he said after watching the movie.

Turner didn’t score any kills from the air but did take out an enemy train on one sortie into Germany to find targets of opportunity.

One of his fellow pilots, Roscoe Brown, however, knocked out a Messerschmitt-262, one of three downed by the Red Tails out of eight total shot down in the war.

In all, the Tuskegee airmen shot down 111 enemy fighters and had the best record for keeping U.S. bombers safe during missions over Europe.

Turner, who sat stoically next to his wife during the preview, described the movie as "excellent" and "pretty close to the real thing," right down to the runway made of prefabricated steel landing mats instead of concrete.

One scene in which the pilots were talking on their radios as they departed for a mission wasn’t real, Turner said, because they were always under strict orders for radio silence.

"They didn’t talk that much," he said. "There was yakkin’ in the cockpit during attacks, but most of the time there was radio silence."

A part in the movie about a Tuskegee airman who was shot down, captured and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp hit close to home for Turner. The character portrayed as Junior in the movie was a pilot he came to know, Lt. Harold H. Brown, after Brown escaped from Stalag 7A and rejoined the 332nd Fighter Group in Italy. In the movie, the POW camp is Stalag 18.

In all, 33 Tuskegee Airmen were POWs, and 66 were killed in action.

Asked how he managed to dodge all those bullets, Turner said, "I wish I knew."

Turner was born April 25, 1924, in San Antonio and grew up in Los Angeles.

As a kid he built "lots of model airplanes" and wanted to learn how to fly.

After high school, he was selected for the Army Air Corps Aviation Cadet program after first being rejected because he was underweight. Once, he was told the program "was not for his color," according to a 2008 Air Force story about him.

Turner graduated from pilot training at Tuskegee Airfield in April 1944 and was sent to Italy late that year having trained on P-40s and P-47s.

When he arrived at Ramitelli Airfield, Italy, he was assigned to a P-51 Mustang. He flew his first combat mission in it with only five hours of flight time under his belt.

For people who watch "Red Tails," Turner hopes they will gain one insight from the movie: "If you do your job, do your work, segregation will take care of itself."

The movie has scenes in which black fighter pilots at first weren’t welcome in the officers club until after an escort mission during which they succeeded in warding off attacks from German warplanes.

Turner, who moved to Las Vegas last year from Massachusetts, said segregation and discrimination, for him, weren’t pressing problems compared with the task of fighting the war.

"We didn’t see much of it unless you went to the club, and I didn’t go to the club," he said.

After watching the movie, his wife, Veronica, said she thought it was "fabulous."

Said Turner: "I’m going to go see it again."

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308.

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