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EAA AirVenture Today is published by the Experimental Aircraft Association for EAA AirVenture from July 27 - August 3. It is distributed free on the convention grounds as well as other locations in Oshkosh and surrounding communities. Stories and photos are copyrighted 2008 by EAA AirVenture Today and EAA. Reproduction by any means is prohibited without written consent.


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The official daily newspaper of EAA AirVenture Oshkosh

Volume 9, Number 8 August 3, 2008     

Airmen’s friendship is more than black and white
By Frederick A. Johnsen

Herb Heilbrun, left, and John Leahr have shared third grade, World War II, and postwar friendship as a bomber pilot and a Tuskegee airman who protected him. The B-17 behind the airmen is similar to those flown by Heilbrun. Photo by Frederick A. Johnsen

When little Herb Heilbrun posed for his third grade class picture in Cincinnati, Ohio, he didn’t really know the black child beside him. Years later, when Herb piloted a 15th Air Force B-17 over targets in Europe, he didn’t really know the fighter pilots escorting him who kept his bomber safe from German fighters. In the 1990s when Herb Heilbrun dropped in on a reunion of black World War II fighter pilots, the Tuskegee Airmen, he didn’t know he would make a lifetime friend of a hitherto anonymous person who stood beside him in grade school and flew beside him in combat.

Herb and Tuskegee fighter pilot John Leahr came to AirVenture 2008 and shared their history with hundreds of visitors clustered around the Lone Star Flight Museum’s B-17G bomber at AeroShell Square on Saturday.

Comparing mission notes in the 1990s, Herb was pleased to determine his new friend John had escorted Heilbrun’s B-17 formation at least twice in combat. "He actually took me to Brux, Czechoslovakia, and Blechhammer, Germany," Herb told the crowd. The two veterans have become good friends. "John and I have had a wonderful experience together…my life has been enriched having him as a friend." Remarkably, in the course of sharing their life experiences, Herb and John determined they had shared a classroom in Cincinnati, but had not realized it at the time.

For John Leahr, the ticket to the sky as a fighter pilot was punched with incidents of brutal racism, especially in the south more than six decades ago. Blacks from the north—Ohio—did not cross the river into the south. "If you didn’t have to go in the south you stayed across the river," he explained. When he joined the Army Air Forces, he learned his training base was Tuskegee in Alabama. "I learned what really rigid segregation was," he said. When John and a few of his fellow Tuskegee airmen were stopped in their car by a white policeman, he was shocked to be asked "Where are you n—s going?" When he replied, "We’re not n—s, we’re officers in the United States Army Air Forces," John said the policeman drew his gun and pointed it at Leahr, swearing and threatening to shoot him. "I had no safety, no security, anywhere in the south," Leahr said. Yet he and his fellow student pilots persevered in their training and went to war to defend the nation that did not yet fully realize its need to defend all citizens equally.

Persistence and the passage of time have made a difference; white audience members who identified themselves as coming from southern states expressed sadness at John Leahr’s wartime stateside experiences, and showed respect for his combat contributions.

When asked, John Leahr confirmed that he and his fellow Tuskegee Airmen have been told that no bombers under their protection were ever lost to enemy fighters. "We didn’t know that at the time," he said.

Herb Heilbrun still has that third grade class photo depicting him and John Leahr. Leahr and Heilbrun kidded each other during their presentation; Herb freely put his arm around Leahr’s shoulder as they talked. Leahr said he doesn’t often get hugs from men—"especially white men."

Moderator Dan Bowlin expressed a heartfelt hope that the vintage racial scenarios described by Leahr "can be put behind us." Veterans Heilbrun and Leahr received a warm ovation from the crowd at the conclusion of their presentation, followed by requests for autographs and snapshot opportunities.

FUTURE AIRVENTURE DATES: 2014: July 28-Aug. 3; 2015: July 20-26; 2016: July 25-31; 2017: July 24-30
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