Wednesday, March 8, 2006

Heroism the hard way

Express Staff Writer

Had the U.S. culture not been so filled with hate for black Americans and a condescending dismissal of women, genuine World War II heroes wouldn't have had to wait decades for rightful honors.

Last month, Congress finally issued the Congressional Gold Medal to Tuskegee Airmen, only about 200 of whom survive from the more than 1,000 who flew and maintained P-40 Warhawks and P-51 Mustangs while shooting down 100 enemy Axis planes and never losing a U.S. bomber they escorted.

And not until 1977 were dwindling ranks of the WASP -- Women Airforce Service Pilots -- finally declared to be WW II veterans, although the original 1,074 women pilots flew the largest bombers and fastest fighters without military benefits. They even paid for funerals of comrades killed in crashes.

The black Tuskegee and WASP pilots -- all highly qualified -- returned home to find doors slammed when applying for jobs with the growing airline industry. It would be the 1970s before blacks or women were hired.

In one of my other career detours as a hopeful, but unsuccessful, film producer, I learned about the painful despair and struggles of blacks and women to serve their nation in the air against such mindless, formidable resistance from whites and men through the eyes of an almost forgotten black female pilot.

Egged on by a black friend in Phoenix, I hoped to produce a film about Bessie Coleman, the first licensed black U.S. pilot (1920s), daughter of a cotton-picking family, born in Atlanta and raised in Waxahachie, Texas. Refused lessons by white instructors, Bessie went to France to learn to fly, and, while there, have a steamy, publicized romance with Dutch aviation pioneer Anthony Fokker.

I hired best-selling black novelist Bebe Moore Campbell ("72 Hour Hold," "Sweet Summer," "Growing Up With My Dad," "Brothers and Sisters," "Singing in The Comeback Choir," "What You Owe Me," and more) to write a film treatment. We unearthed a treasure of little-known tidbits about Bessie, who, until her death in a crash outside Orlando, Fla., in 1926, had become a genuine celebrity, sporting her signature military boots and mufti.

When I talked to today's black and female airline and military pilots, Bessie Coleman inevitably was cited as helping eventually smash the racial and gender barriers in aviation.

Although our film went unsold in Hollywood, honors eventually came to Bessie Coleman: Atlanta and Chicago named streets for her, the Texas Aviation Hall of Fame inducted her and the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp with her portrait.

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