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Latest Lucas venture: The Tuskegee Airmen

Associated Press

The black airmen whose lives will be the basis of a George Lucas movie know the picture will highlight their success at escorting thousands of U.S. bombers in World War II.

They also feel it should tell of the trials they encountered stateside, like seeing German prisoners of war being treated better and afforded rights withheld from black American citizens.

Now that “Red Tails” is in preproduction, some of the airmen say they are excited their story is coming to the big screen but torn over how much it should devote to each of their two historic fights – against Adolf Hitler abroad and Jim Crow at home.

Lt. Col. Eldridge Williams, 91, who served in the military from August 1941 to November 1963, said a white doctor's false diagnosis of an eye condition kept him from achieving his dream of being a pilot, though he became a navigator.

“I think the story that has not been told is stories like mine in which the home battle that was waged … shall we say, helped open the door so that the unit could enter combat and demonstrate its capabilities,” he said.

Col. Herbert Carter, who also was with the airmen in the '40s, said the racism the men encountered should be mentioned but not dwelled upon in the Lucas film.

“That's bitter history that has been thoroughly emphasized and publicized,” the 88-year-old said.

He said the real story is how they blew apart the notion that blacks could not fly planes in war.

Producer Rick McCallum said both elements are addressed in a script by John Ridley that “balances difficult and painful issues with what is, at its heart, the story of men with a dream to fly and serve their country.”

Lucas hopes to begin shooting by year's end or early 2009, McCallum said. The movie's title refers to the color of their fighter planes' tails, which were distinctive and allowed U.S. bomber crews to know they were being escorted by the aggressive Tuskegee Airmen.

“It is a story of incredible adventure and enormous courage,” said the producer, who's scouting locations for “Red Tails” in Prague, Czech Republic, and Italy. “I think the story will speak to anyone who has ever wanted to succeed at something others told them was impossible.”

At first called the “Tuskegee Experiment,” the first aviation cadet class began with 13 students at the Tuskegee Army Air Field, about 40 miles east of Montgomery, in July 1941. Black people weren't allowed to fly in the military at the time and the “experiment” was to see whether they could pilot airplanes and handle heavy machinery.

Over the next four years, the airmen went on more than 15,000 combat trips throughout Europe, the Mediterranean and North Africa.

Nearly 1,000 pilots were trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Field before its 1946 closing, after which the men from the all-black units were sent to an air base in Ohio. President Truman's 1948 order to desegregate the country's armed forces eventually led to a racially mixed military.

The men have been the subject of several documentaries and books. But a 1995 HBO movie, “The Tuskegee Airmen,” starring Laurence Fishburne, was the film that jump-started much of the attention the airmen have received in recent years, said Christine Biggers, a park ranger at the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site.