Courier Staff Writer
The average American movie-goer may not realize a recent release has a strong Ottumwa connection.
The film “Red Tails” tells the story of World Warr II fighter pilots, the first African-Americans to take to the sky in that capacity. They were called the Tuskegee Airmen. And 12 of them were from Iowa.
Red Tails, a fictional movie produced by George Lucas, doesn’t list any “real” Ottumwa characters, but the history books do.
The most famous was Ottumwa native Capt. Robert Williams, who according to information from Fort Des Moines, flew 50 combat missions from Italy with the 100th Fighter Squadron, 332nd Fighter Group of the 15th Air Force.
The pilots had to fight racism just to risk their lives fighting America’s enemies, the display says. According to historic documents in use at the time, the display said, black people would not make good soldiers. When a desperate military finally let the men fly escort missions, they were so successful that bomber pilots would request only the red-tailed P-51 Mustang fighter planes to guard them from the enemy.
Williams was awarded, among other medals, the Distinguished Flying Cross. Williams was confirmed as having shot down an enemy plane in 1944. The following year, he shot down another one.
When Williams was inducted into Ottumwa’s newly established aviation hall of fame in 2006, the “Significant Ottumwa Aviators Roster,” his Ottumwa High School classmate and friend Geri Winston invited the captain’s widow to stay in her home.
“Bob would come back for reunions,” Winston said. “He was born and raised here. Ottumwa is home for him.”
Winston said she was glad Joan Williams would get to meet some of the people her late husband grew up with.
Williams’ claim to fame may have come after the war because he used the GI Bill to get an education.
“At that time, despite their [heroics], no airline would hire them as airline pilots,” said Elsie Mae Cofer, the author of Carrier on the Prairie, about Ottumwa aviation history.
Williams did a lot of things, she said, including writing and acting. Years later, he wrote about his war experiences. His original script was picked up by a studio, and became the award-winning 1995 HBO film “The Tuskegee Airmen.”
The Ottumwa native was portrayed by actor Laurence Fishburne.
Another local connection to the Tuskegee Airmen: Before going off to war, Williams had learned how to fly under flight instructor Clifton “Ole” Oleson of Ottumwa.
Less is known, Cofer said, about William Bibb. What is known is that he was a World War II Tuskegee Airman — and that he was from Ottumwa.
According to the Fort Des Moines display, even the training facility, Moton Field in Tuskegee, Ala., “was built by prominent black engineer Archie Alexander who was a native of Ottumwa.”
Filmmaker George Lucas had to spend $58 million of his own money to bring the movie to the big screen because he couldn’t get a major studio to fund it.
The movie “Red Tails” starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terrence Howard opens in theaters on Friday.