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'Red Tails' film hits close to home for family of Tuskegee Airman from Hagerstown

Robert W. "Bob" Johnson served in the unit in the U.S. during waning days of World War II

January 20, 2012|By DAN DEARTH | dan.dearth@herald-mail.com
  • Artifacts from Robert W. "Bob" Johnson's time with the Tuskegee Airmen are part of an exhibit at The Discovery Station at the corner of Summit Avenue and West Washington Street in Hagerstown.
By Yvette May, Staff Photographer

Hagerstown residents Patricia Johnson and her granddaughter, Michele Sonntag, said they're planning a special date Friday.

The two are going to the movies to see "Red Tails," a film that tells the story of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American pilots to serve in the U.S. armed forces.

Johnson and Sonntag said the Tuskegee Airmen hold a fond place in the hearts.

Robert W. "Bob" Johnson, Patricia Johnson's late husband and Sonntag's grandfather, served in the unit in the United States during the waning days of World War II.

"I knew she would be interested in going" to see the movie, Sonntag said. "It was history, and he was a part of it. I'm proud of that."

"Red Tails" opened nationally in theaters today. The film tells the story of the fighter squadron's distinguished service in the skies over Europe during World War II.

Patricia Johnson said her husband wasn't sent overseas because he was in training when the war ended.

"Their class would have been the next to go out," she said. "By him being young, he took a discharge and went to college."

Robert Johnson earned a bachelor's degree in health and physical education at Morgan State College in Baltimore. He later settled in Hagerstown and coached basketball, football and baseball for nearly two decades.

He died on June 17, 2009.

"I very much enjoyed being married to him," Patricia Johnson said. "He was a fine husband, father, gentleman and friend .... I never heard a negative word spoken about him."

Patricia Johnson reminisced about when she and her husband attended a Tuskegee Airmen reunion several years before his death. She said he told the fliers who served in Europe that he didn't belong because he missed the fighting, but they embraced him and invited him to sit behind a table to sign autographs.

One of the Johnson's four children, Stephen Johnson, said he usually waits to see movies after they come out on DVD, but said he plans to watch "Red Tails" at the theater.

He said he has no doubt that his father would have wanted to see the movie as well.

"I was proud of my father and everything he did," Stephen Johnson said in a phone interview Thursday from his home in Beaumont, Texas. "To me, he was always just dad, but I was always proud of him."

Stephen Johnson said his father never really talked about serving with the Tuskegee Airmen. But Robert Johnson opened up to give his son information for a college project.

"I did a paper on dad in college and he provided information about the airmen," Stephen Johnson said.

The younger Johnson also said his father talked about working as a railroad porter to earn money for college.

Several artifacts noting Robert Johnson's duty with the Tuskegee Airmen are on display at The Discovery Station at the corner of Summit Avenue and West Washington Street in Hagerstown.

The display includes photographs, newspaper articles, airplane models and some of Robert Johnson's military papers. It also includes a painting by John Nichols of a wounded B-17 bomber being escorted by Tuskegee pilots.

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In theaters

“Red Tails” is playing locally at Regal Valley Mall 16 in Hagerstown, Leitersburg Cinemas north of Hagerstown, and in West Virginia at Berkeley Plaza 7 and Regal Martinsburg Stadium 10.

Editor's note: This story was edited Jan. 20, 2012, to correct the name of the artist of a painting on display at Discovery Station.

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