Georgia Walk to School Day, with members of D Company,
369th Battalion providing the hospitality.
Herb Heilbrun and John Leahr were twenty-one when the United States entered WWII. Herb became an Army Air Forces B-17 bomber pilot. John flew P-51 fighters. Both were thrown into the brutal high-altitude bomber war against Nazi Germany, though they never met because the Army was rigidly segregated – only in the air were black and white American fliers allowed to mix.Both came safely home but it took a chance meeting 20 years ago when the two retired salesmen met at a reunion of the Tuskegee Airmen in Cincinnati. That meeting led them to review their parallel lives and discover their shared history.
It began in 1995 when Herb read in the newspaper that the city was honoring the local chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen; the all-black 332nd Fighter Group. They flew “Red-Tail” P-51s on missions escorting bomber squadrons from Italy into Germany and German held territories. Herb could still remember hearing, amid the radio chatter over the target, the distinctive voices of the Tuskegee Airmen. He felt that his thanks were overdue.So Herb went down to the hotel where they were having a reception and told somebody he flew B-17s in Europe during WW II and that the Tuskegee Airmen escorted him.He then asked if there was a fighter pilot around that was over there and that he’d like to give him a hug for saving his behind. One guy pointed telling him there was a fellow standing across the room that he thinks flew fighters.
The man was John Leahr. When the two were introduced, Herb hugged John and said, “I’ve been waiting 50 years to meet one of you guys. You saved my tail on many a day.” John, who felt for many years that the nation he had served had paid him back with prejudice and discrimination, had been waiting just as long for one of those white bomber pilots to come along and say thanks. That was all he ever wanted.
It did not take long for the black ex-fighter pilot and the white ex-bomber pilot to become friends. They went out for lunch. They visited each other’s homes for dinner. Both men had their old mission logs and Herb also kept a diary. They began matching up dates and other details of combat missions they’d flown. Turns out John had flown cover on at least two of Herb’s 35 missions: once on Dec. 16, 1944 on a bombing raid on an oil refinery on Brux Czechoslovakia and the next day a strike on an oil refinery in Blechemmer Germany. Flying through a wall of flak in Brux on Christmas Day 1944, Herb’s fuel tanks were hit, his high-altitude oxygen system was smashed, and his armor gunner ended up getting wounded in the foot. Herb left John sitting and returned moments later with one of the 89 chunks of shrapnel that ventilated his bomber on that mission.
As the two got to know each other even better, they discovered other things in common. The men had been born within a mile of each other, and only seven months apart. Both had come up through Cincinnati public schools, and both had managed to scrape together two years of college during the Depression. Both had enlisted in the Air Corps within weeks of Pearl Harbor. Both had to wait months to be called for flying school, so both took jobs at the same airplane engine factory: Wright Aeronautical in Lockland, Ohio. Herb tested engines, firing up Cyclone Engines on test stands. John worked in the plant foundry. The work was filthy, hot, and done exclusively by blacks.
Following flight training, Herb got assigned to Italy as part of the 32nd Squadron of the 301st Bomb Group. He arrived well-schooled in the elaborate squadron takeoff ritual that quickly launched and stacked dozens of bombers into box formations. Rising from field all around Foggia, Italy the bomber echelons assembled themselves until hundreds of aircraft were swarming up the Adriatic.
Like Herb, John too had always wanted to fly and volunteered for flight school, ending up at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama for primary pilot training. Travelling to the deep-south in that era scared him to death. There were so many stories. At that time, there was no federal anti-lynch law, and black people were beaten up and killed and nothing was being done about it.
John earned his wings in February, 1944 and was assigned to the all-Black 332nd “Red Tail” Squadron located at Ramiltelli Airfield on the Adriatic Coast in Italy. The black airmen completely segregated from the white Air Corps. The pilots also flew hand-me-down aircraft. When John’s squadron first went into combat with the 12th Tactical Air Force, they were the only Americans in Europe flying the cranky and obsolete P-39 Airacobra. That July, the squadron was given weary P-51Bs and Cs Mustang fighter planes left them by white squadrons trading up to the more advanced P-51Ds.
Initially, they were little used and looked down on by the military establishment, but eventually they were given brand-new P-51Ds and, at the insistence of their commander Col. Benjamin O. Davis (retired as a Brigadier General), given the mission of dive-bombing and strafing missions. They were so successful that they were assigned to one of the most important tasks in the Army Air Force: escorting bombers deep into Europe on strategic bombing missions.
On missions, the bombers would be about two hours out when the fighter escorts caught up with them. The escorts were supposed to handle enemy interceptors, but nothing seemed to lessen the flak. The Germans moved mobile flak units around to surprise the Allies while they were crossing the Po Valley or near the mountain passes that they followed into Austria and Germany. And once the bombers reached their target, all the anti-aircraft guns on earth seemed to be waiting for them, altitude fuses set.
John recalled seeing those poor bomber boys line up and go straight into that flak. “Those bombers would fly right through it,” he said. “We watched those guys go through hell. 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.” None of the B-17s that survived the missions were lost with the Tuskegee squadron escorting them home.
Once he was out of the military, John discovered that he was a pretty good salesman. He sold securities and managed a brokerage office before retiring as an office administrator from Cincinnati Gas & Electric. Herb became a salesman too, selling radio ads and then commercial real estate. Today, John is a widower with children and grandchildren. Herb is remarried and busy with his own children and grandchildren, as well as his step-children and step-grandchildren, plus the kids who attend his wife Carol’s in-home daycare center. When their paths crossed at the Tuskegee Airmen’s reception, the men were living 10 minutes apart.
One night, Herb were having dinner when John said he had grown up in Avondale. Herb said he had also. John reminded Herb there were only five black families in Avondale, and that he went to a school on Clinton Springs Avenue which had at one time been an old mansion. Surprised, Herb reported he too had gone to that school.
Both claimed they did not remember the other but that wasn’t surprising. When it came to racial matters, Cincinnati had Southern ways. During World War II, Cincinnati’s railroad station had the distinction of being the southbound point where passenger 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 wondered if they had ever crossed paths. When he got home he went through his photo album looking for his second grade picture taken more than 75 years ago in front of North Avondale School. After a short search, he found the 1928 photograph.
In it are 40 kids; 38 are white and two – a boy and a girl – are black. Herb sent the photograph to John with a note that read, ‘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.’
The two men now in their early 90s have been speaking publicly for years telling their stories in words and picture, putting on record not just their valor at war but the ugliness they confronted at home. An underlying theme is about the segregation that kept them apart.
John begins by showing a video – a segment from a TV documentary on the Tuskegee’s. He talks about his training, about shipping out, and about getting jumped over Linz, Austria, by 40 German Bf 109s. Two of his wing mates were shot down at once, his flight leader was driven off, and, surrounded by enemy aircraft, he discovered that his machine guns had frozen at the high altitude and were unable to fire. He tells the audience that he owed his escape to a mixture of aerial acrobatics and applied religion. He then introduced Herb, gives him a hug to the wide applause from the audience.
When it’s Herb’s turn, he tells the audience about the bomber war. He tells them about the wooden boards in the briefing room where each crew member’s last name was posted on a metal strip; one morning Herb watched the operations officer take down a stack of strips and toss them in the trash. They were shot down, the officer explained. They’re not coming back. Herb reaches into his pocket and with a grin hold up a battered metal strip with “Heilbrun” written in white. The audience claps.
He talks about his homecoming in 1945, about meeting John all those years later, and about piecing together their past.
Herb hits the button of the projector and up comes the black and white photo of the second grade kids standing in front of North Avondale School. When he points out the two 8-year-old boys squeezed together shoulder-to-shoulder, the audience cheers wildly.
At the end of their presentation, John wraps his arm around Herb and says the two have one request: “Don’t forget us,” he says.
In 2003, the men were honored guests of The Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations for their mission of telling young people why race once made all the difference and why it shouldn’t anymore.
In January 2012, they were both honored in a private screening ceremony in Cincinnati for the George Lucas film “Red Tails”. The movie tells the story of a fictional squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group who fought discrimination and prejudice to become one of the most decorated fighting units of World War II earning 1,000 awards and decorations; and the respect of the white bombers pilots whose tails they protected on thousands of mission.
As the movie ended, John and Herb, trim and erect and dressed in his Army Air Force uniform, slowly made their way up the stairs out of the theater, surrounded by fellow movie-goers who wanted to shake their hands and thank them for their service.
“It was real,” John said, leaning on his cane at the top of the steps. “That was pretty much the way it was.”
John and Herb were featured on NBC and The History Channel. Please go to the URLs below and check it out.
View the Military Service of Baseball Legend:
Cpl “Tug” McGraw
US Marine Corps Reserves
Short Bio: Before he was known as Tim McGraw’s dad, “Tug” McGraw was known for his pitching for the “Amazing Mets” during the ’60s & 70’s. Ya Gotta Believe
RMCS Jack Pickard
U.S. Coast Guard (Ret)
PLEASE DESCRIBE WHO OR WHAT INFLUENCED YOUR DECISION TO JOIN THE COAST GUARD?
I had completed my first year of college and decided that I needed to take my life in a different direction. I worked for radio station KBSF in Springhill LA after completing my First Class Radiotelephone License requirements with a broadcast endorsement in the summer of 1969. I served as A combo DJ/Station Engineer/Salesman during that short tenure. Sometime later that fall I scored high on the first National Lottery of the Draft. I decided around January 1970 that I needed to take the leap and try to pick which military outfit that I would join. Had a friend serving in the US Marshall Service in Dallas that advised he knew the recruiters in Dallas for the U.S. Coast Guard and felt this would be a good move for me.
I visited the Recruiter and scored high on the testing and was enroute to Alameda for Recruit Training in the middle of March 1970 for what would turn into a 22 year career, with a brief civilian stint from 1974-76 and a return to the Coast Guard until my retirement in November of 1993.
WHETHER YOU WERE IN THE SERVICE FOR SEVERAL YEARS OR AS A CAREER, PLEASE DESCRIBE THE DIRECTION OR PATH YOU TOOK.
I was in the Coast Guard for a total of 22 years: 20 years active and 2 years inactive reserve. I went straight from Boot Camp to Radioman “A” School when it was located in Governors Island New York. I did my complete tour of duty as a Radioman and have never regretted picking that career path.
I think the last three years of my service was the most challenging. I served as the RMIC/Senior Enlisted Advisor/ and as a Duty Officer both on shore and underway as Law Enforcement duty Officer on board multiple Naval Units including such platforms as the USS Wasp.
It was a great duty adventure, many drugs captured and lots of bad guys put away. Port calls all over the Caribbean, the Canal zone and south eastern pacific. I made many new Coasties and Navy friends during this time.
All good things come to an end had to retire due to family responsibilities in Texas, but will always remember my Coast Guard Career.
IF YOU PARTICIPATED IN COMBAT, PEACEKEEPING OR HUMANITARIAN OPERATIONS, PLEASE DESCRIBE THOSE WHICH WERE THE MOST SIGNIFICANT TO YOU AND, IF LIFE-CHANGING, IN WHAT WAY.
I did not participate in combat operations however I did receive hazardous duty pay due to areas I served in while with COMCARIBRON.
OF ALL YOUR DUTY STATIONS OR ASSIGNMENTS, WHICH ONE DO YOU HAVE FONDEST MEMORIES OF AND WHY? WHICH ONE WAS YOUR LEAST FAVORITE?
I believe my favorite assignment was as an Instructor at USCG TRACEN Petaluma, California. I started as an Instructor and after a year made Chief and became the Code Department Head. Later I went to Procedure Department Head. Many friendships developed and remembered from here will always remember this unit.
FROM YOUR ENTIRE SERVICE, INCLUDING COMBAT, DESCRIBE THE PERSONAL MEMORIES WHICH HAVE IMPACTED YOU MOST?
I think my entire career prepared me for my final unit in the Coast Guard: Commander Coast Guard Caribbean Squadron. I served as RMIC, CEA both ashore and afloat, and as Command duty officer from July 1990 to October 1993 while afloat. In that time I participated in 17 Staffdeployments in U.S. Navy surface combatants.
In those deployments I participated in the confiscation of nearly 17,000 pounds of cocaine and over 64,000 pounds of marijuana. Needless to say coordinating Communications nets between Coast Guard, Air Force and Navy assets when not everyone is on the same channel is challenging. However in this case the dedication was there and all participants did their best to excel in all facets of the operations.
No single person accomplishes the activities of a group like this and this extensive in numbers of different types of personnel and units. I gained a special recognition of all the unique talents of the US Military Personnel and will never forget the close friendships developed across the decks of many Navy ships during this demanding time.
I salute all my Military Brothers and Sisters and wish them all fair winds and following seas.
WHAT ACHIEVEMENT(S) ARE YOU MOST PROUD OF FROM YOUR MILITARY CAREER? IF YOU RECEIVED ANY MEDALS FOR VALOR OR OTHER SIGNIFICANT AWARDS, PLEASE DESCRIBE HOW THESE WERE EARNED.
I received the Coast Guard Commendation Medal for activities during my time with Commander Coast Guard Caribbean Squadron out of Miami, Fl.
I received the Coast Guard Achievement Medal for superior performance of duty from August 84 through July 1987 as an Instructor and then Department Head at Coast Guard Training Center Petaluma in the Morse code department. Through realignment of weekly goals for students and other efforts the rephrase and attrition rates were dramatically reduced. These efforts resulted in a tangible savings to the Coast Guard in an amount in excess of $250,000.
A second Coast Guard Achievement Medal was awarded while stationed at Communication Station New Orleans. It was for performance as the Special Projects officer in the High Frequency Data Link Project Serving. I supervised the installation and operational testing at COMMSTA New Orleans, Greater Antilles Section and several 110′ cutters at Roosevelt Roads and Miami Fl., completing installations and testing successfully five days ahead of schedule.
MCC Lowell Whitman/Navy
Mary Edwards Walker, was an American feminist, abolitionist, prohibitionist, alleged spy, prisoner of war and surgeon. She is also the only woman ever to receive the Medal of Honor.
Prior to the American Civil War, she earned her medical degree, married and started a medical practice. The practice didn’t do well and at the outbreak of the War Between the States, she volunteered with the Union Army as a surgeon. Despite her training, however, she initially had to work as a nurse. At the time Union Army Examining Board felt women and sectarian physicians were considered unfit as surgeons. Proving her skills as a physician, she eventually became the Army’s first female surgeon while serving with the 52nd Ohio Infantry.
Known to cross enemy lines in order to treat civilians, she may have been serving as a spy when Confederate troops captured her in the summer of 1864 and sent to Castle Thunder, a converted tobacco warehouse for political prisoners near Richmond, Virginia. Four months later she was released as part of a prisoner exchange and returned to duty.
After the war, Walker was recommended for the Medal of Honor by Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and George Henry Thomas. On November 11, 1865, President Andrew Johnson signed a bill to present her the medal, making her the only woman to date to receive the decoration.
In 1917, the U.S. Congress created a pension act for Medal of Honor recipients and in doing so created separate Army and Navy Medal of Honor Rolls. Only the Army decided to review eligibility for inclusion on the Army Medal of Honor Roll, resulting in the revocation of the award of 911 non-combatants including those of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker and William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody. None of the 911 recipients were ordered to return their medals although on the question of whether the recipients could continue to wear their medals the Judge Advocate General advised the Medal of Honor Board that there was no obligation on the Army to police the matter. Dr. Walker continued to wear her medal until her death two years later in 1919.
Walker felt like she was awarded the Medal of Honor because she went into enemy territory to care for the suffering inhabitants when no man had the courage to respond in fear of being imprisoned.
She had no such fear, resulting in her doing what her calling was which was becoming a doctor.
An Army board restored Walker’s Medal of Honor in 1977, praising her “distinguished gallantry, self-sacrifice, patriotism, dedication and unflinching loyalty to her country, despite the apparent discrimination because of her sex.” She was one of six people to regain their awards that had been stripped from them in 1917.
Walker herself was a center of controversy throughout most of her life. Early on she was a strong advocate for women’s rights and dress reform. She later resorted to dressing in men’s clothing; a practice which got her arrested several times.
Dr. Walker was born, raised and died in Oswego, N.Y. at the age of 86 on February 21, 1919. A statue of her was unveiled in Oswego Town Hall in May 2012.
FACT: Contrary to popular belief, the official title of the highest U.S. military distinction is simply the Medal of Honor, not the Congressional Medal of Honor. The confusion may have arisen because the president presents the award “in the name of Congress.” There is, however, a Congressional Medal of Honor Society, which represents recipients of the Medal of Honor, maintains their records and organizes reunion events, among other responsibilities.
SN Beau Bridges
US Coast Guard
Short Bio: The actor, accepting on behalf of his late father and his younger Oscar-winning brother (off working on his sideline as a country singer these days), did eight years, including time in the reserves; on the USCGC Dexter he was both a cook and editor of the ship’s newspaper.
Personal Service Reflections of USAF Airman:
CMSgt Don Skinner
US Air Force (Ret)
WHAT INFLUENCED YOUR DECISION TO JOIN THE MILITARY?
I began working as a carpenter after high school but soon realized that I desired something more for a career. In my economic situation, it appeared that the military service was the answer to obtain the training I desired. Most of my male relatives (uncles and older cousins) had served in World War II, so I sought their advice concerning opportunities. Based on their experiences and suggestions, I chose the Air Force as the best place to obtain a career and an education.
Our basic was approximately 4 months long at Lackland AFB. We did not have a flight photo, but rather individual portraits. Although we had been issued OD uniforms, we used a blue blouse and blue tie (over our ODs) for the picture. I requested several technical schools, but was told that with my test scores, I would be sent to radar maintenance school.
BRIEFLY, WHAT WAS YOUR SERVICE CAREER PATH?
I was initially trained in radar maintenance on specialized airborne (B-29) bombing equipment but was sent to a Troop Carrier unit in Japan. After a short time, I realized this was not what I desired, so I asked for a transfer to a B-29 unit where my training could beutilized. With the Korean War starting up, I was sent to a heavy ground radar unit in Korea. There, because I did not know the equipment, I was assigned to a jeep patrol forward air control unit. In the spring of 1951 when the Army assumed this duty, I was assigned to one of the auto-track ground-directed bombing radar sites known as “Tadpoles.” Here, I served as maintenance and assistant controller.
When I returned from Korea in 1952, I was assigned to Keesler AFB, first in the maintenance shop maintaining the ground radar equipment used in school, and later in the maintenance section maintaining the auto-track trainers. While in Korea, my MOS 867 had been converted to 30251 AFSC. At Keesler, it was changed to 30353, Auto-Track Maintenance.
In 1954, I was sent to Patrick AFB, Florida to assist in activating the AF’s second tactical missile unit. The only operational tactical missile at that time, the B-61A “Matador”, unofficially designated a Pilotless Bomber, was later known as the TM-61A. The unit was then deployed to Germany where I served on radar sites used for Matador missile guidance. This was done by a secret guidance system that utilized the radar beam and eliminated radio commands.
From 1956-1959, I was at Eglin AFB, FL, serving as radar maintenance and controller in the range work such as safety-monitoring, bomb drops, intercepts, missile launches, and general range research work. I also was selected to activate a new range for Air Launched Ballistic Missiles at Cape San Blas, Florida, setting up a radar system to track, monitor, and record information concerning missile flight and impact. I later returned to Keesler AFB to attend a school on auto-track radar equipment.
In 1959, I returned to Germany, assigned to the 601st Tactical Control Squadron for more Matador missile guidance, returning in 1962 to Detachment 9, 11th RBS Squadron (Winslow, Arizona,) where I was assigned to the maintenance crew.
We later moved the site to St. George, Utah. I was selected to attend the first class of factory school for a new system Reeves Instrument Company was building for RBS and some months later was selected as maintenance man for the field tests in White Sands, New Mexico.
I was stationed at the St. George site until 1964 when I was sent to 10th RBS Squadron Headquarters at Carswell AFB, and served there as maintenance staff supervisor until 1966.
I attended the SAC NCO Academy at Barksdale in January 1966, graduating as Outstanding Graduate. I was then transferred to 1st Combat Evaluation Group at Barksdale AFB, LA where I became a member of the Staff Inspection Team for all detachments as well as installing and supervising two radar systems (Michigan and Utah) used to train SAC pilots on evading and avoiding SAM-2 missiles. I was selected in the summer of 1966 to assist in re-writing the 5 and 7 level skill tests for the Auto-Track radar maintenance field.
In early 1967, I was requested to take over maintenance supervision of all the ground-directed bombing radars in Vietnam and Thailand which I did until 1968 when our site was attacked during Tet and I was critically wounded.
When I was discharged from the hospital, I was assigned to Aiken AFS, SC (861st Radar Sqdn) where I served as Chief of Maintenance for 5 years.
In 1973, I was sent to Opheim AFS, MT (779th Radar Sqdn) as Chief of Maintenance. I retired at Opheim on May 1, 1974.
DID YOU PARTICIPATE IN COMBAT OPERATIONS? IF SO, COULD YOU DESCRIBE THOSE WHICH WERE SIGNIFICANT TO YOU?
As a forward air controller in Korea, I was exposed to potential combat. The radio equipment used in the jeeps had no facilities for remote operations, so men and equipment were necessarily exposed while observing enemy targets. The unit I was associated with lost several men to small-arms fire.
The radar we used at the ground-directed bombing sites was very short range, and consequently, the sites were positioned near the front. Several of the areas were heavily probed by enemy patrols, so skirmishes occurred, as site personnel were responsible for security.
In Vietnam all of our bombing sites were liable for attack, mainly rocket and mortar fire but occasionally ground action was involved.