CHICAGO (CBS) — A new major motion picture from producer George Lucas tells the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, the famed all-black World War II fighter squadron. About 16 of its members now live in Chicago.
CBS 2’s Derrick Blakley explored the legacy of the famed unit with one of its members and the son of another.
The new film, “Red Tails,” tells the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, but 89-year-old Julius Echols lived it.
“All through the training, it was rough; because we had to deal with the discrimination first, because we were designated as an experiment,” Echols said.
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Echols didn’t graduate from the Tuskegee Flight School until October 1945, after the war was over. He joined the Illinois National Guard, where he flew fixed wing aircraft and helicopters.
But first, he had to withstand the test Tuskegee provided.
“They didn’t do no great help for you to get you through. If you got out of line in any kind of way … you’d get washed out,” Echols said. “My class started with 89 people and we only graduated 21.”
John Rogers Sr., a retired Cook County judge, flew 120 missions as one of the original Tuskegee Airmen.
His son, John Rogers Jr., CEO of Ariel Capital, said, “Growing up, I can remember him telling me the stories of how challenging it was. When you were really dodging the bullets and you could hear the bullets hitting the plane.”
“That experience of being overseas and fighting for their country, I think gave them a lot confidence when they came home that they could accomplish anything,” Rogers added.
Echols said the experience taught the pilots, “If you put your mind to it, you can do it. That’s what we try to instill into the younger people now.”
Echols had a long career as a police officer. He retired from both the Chicago Police Department and the National Guard in 1981.
Rogers Sr. is now 93, and unfortunately, he didn’t quite feel up to speaking about his time with the Tuskegee Airmen.
Movie producer George Lucas found some barriers still exist as he was making the film. He said couldn’t secure financing from Hollywood studios for an expensive war movie with all black stars, so he’s spending almost $100 million of his own money to make and distribute “Red Tails.”
The film opens in theaters Friday.