Thurston Gaines watched a private screening of “Red Tails,” which opens today nationwide, and believes it will give young people an idea of what the Tuskegee Airmen went through during World War II.
But, he added, “it would be difficult for anyone to capture everything ... the subtleties.”
The George Lucas film, which features Terrance Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr., was inspired by true events and based on the group of African-American pilots who fought in World War II.
“I found myself at times making mental comparisons on the screen to what I went through,” said Gaines, a Sun City West resident. “This movie is an interpretation of what some people said and others imagined, but I believe the younger generation will benefit from it.”
The movie follows the pilots, who faced segregation on the ground during the war and were led into battle by Col. A.J. Bullard.
“Whatever legacy remains of the Tuskegee Airman is attributed to Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr.,” said Gaines, 89. “We carried out our missions and did it despite the segregation going on at the time.”
At 20 and a pre-medicine student at Howard University in Washington D.C., Gaines joined the ROTC. He entered the military reserve in 1942.
In 1943, he was drafted and went through several months of training before he moved on to Tuskegee Airfield.
“I had never flown before so it was an exhilarating experience,” he said. “And I never even thought about becoming a pilot.”
After his training, Gaines deployed to Italy where he was a part of a replacement unit for the 332nd Fighter Group.
The group’s primary mission was to escort bombers in Europe.
He flew his first combat mission out of Italy in February 1945.
In April 1945, he was shot down on his 25th mission by an anti-aircraft gun, becoming a prisoner of war and surviving two German jails and prison camp before being released.
He eventually returned to Tuskegee as a pilot instructor but eventually went to medical school and became a surgeon.
“I won’t forget any of the experiences I’ve had, and I’m grateful for it all,” Gaines said.
The Long Island, N.Y. native will be honored this afternoon at Ultrastar Cinemas in Surprise during a reception along with retired Col. Robert Ashby, also a Tuskegee Airman and Sun City West resident.
Luke Air Force Base officials are expected to be in attendance along family members of deceased Tuskegee Airman Lincoln Ragsdale.