The new fighter pilot movie "Red Tails" shares a mission with a Sewickley-based group.
Both hope to perpetuate the heroic legacy of World War II's Tuskegee Airmen, the first black military squadron.
Ground was broken Nov. 10 at the Sewickley Cemetery, with construction scheduled to begin in March, for a Tuskegee Airmen memorial listing the 84 members who hailed from western Pennsylvania, seven of them from Sewickley.
"We're hoping to complete the memorial this year," said the monument's designer John Dioguardi, president of Rome Monument in Rochester. "We've got good funding in place."
The Sewickley monument's chairman, Regis Bobonis, believes more needed funding and support for the project could arise when "Red Tails" lifts off Friday. The George Lucas-produced PG-13 drama about the legendary African-American flyers stars Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr.
"I think the movie will help us, judging by all the phone calls I've received most of the day," Bobonis said. "I'm getting invited to Rotary Clubs and various schools and what-not, which makes me confident."
Bobonis, a Sewickley historian, helped document that the largest contingent of Tuskegee Airmen came from western Pennsylvania. They included Calvin Smith of Aliquippa, Paul Short of Rochester and airplane mechanic Rosa Alford of New Brighton, the lone female whose name will be included on the Sewickley memorial.
Blacks weren't allowed to fly in the military before 1940, so the Tuskegee Airmen were an inspiration to many, said the 85-year-old Bobonis, a retired journalist who worked for the Pittsburgh Courier.
A local monument to the legendary aviators could inspire young people today, particularly young blacks, Bobonis said.
"They need heroes desperately, to help them follow in career paths that will fulfill opportunities for well-paid jobs," Bobonis said.
Bobonis plans to attend Friday's "Red Tails" debut at the Cinemark in Robinson Township. The film also is showing at the Cinemark in Center Township, Carmike Plaza 6 in Big Beaver and Westgate Cinemas in New Castle.
Planners of the Sewickley memorial bought 100 opening-day passes split between Cinemark-Robinson and the AMC-Loews theater in West Homestead. Those tickets will be given to supporters of the memorial.
"This memorial and this film will bring to light what these special men did," Dioguardi said. "It's a story that needs to be told. They fought prejudices at home, and they fought the Nazis, and defeated them both."
Sitting on a serene parcel of land donated by Sewickley Cemetery, the monument will include two 7-foot-by-3-foot ebony granite towers inscribed with the names of the Tuskegee Airmen from western Pennsylvania. The towers will flank the memorial's centerpiece, a 10-foot-by-8.5-foot white monument, in the center of which will be a 7-foot-by-5-foot porcelain reproduction of an original color painting by Ray Simon of Columbiana, Ohio.
The monument will help visitors comprehend the achievements of the Tuskegee Airmen, members of the 332nd Fighter Group of the U.S. Army Air Corps that included more than 900 black pilots who trained at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
More than 300 pilots saw combat in 1,578 missions over Europe, North Africa and the Mediterranean. They were credited with destroying 112 airborne enemy aircraft, 150 aircraft on the ground, 950 railcars, trucks and other motor vehicles and a German Navy destroyer.
Nicknamed "Red Tails" after pilots began painting the tails of their planes red, they successfully battled the German Luftwaffe and Axis airmen, while shooting down 1940s stereotypes and racial barriers in the military and in society.
A former Tuskegee fighter pilot, Dr. Harry Lanauze of McKeesport, was honored Wednesday at the Sen. John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh.
Lanauze said he'd never flown before joining the Army Air Force in 1943, but he still recalls his first solo training flight.
"All of a sudden, My God, I'm up here by myself!" said Lanauze, 86, who still sees patients at his medical practice.
He is also part of the local group working on the Tuskegee memorial.
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