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'Fresh Air' honors veterans with interviews with 2 men who served in WWII

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University, in for Terry Gross. Today is Veterans Day, and we mark it by listening back to interviews with two men who fought in World War II. Of the 16 million veterans of that war, a little more than 167,000 are still alive.

First, we listen to our 1999 interview with Robert Kotlowitz, author of the memoir "Before Their Time." He was a college student when he was drafted into the infantry in 1943. He was Jewish and was sent to France to fight the Germans. In one battle, nearly his entire platoon was wiped out. We'll hear him describe that experience in a few minutes. After the war, Kotlowitz was a managing editor of Harper's Magazine and former director of programming and broadcasting for the New York public TV station WNET. He died in 2012 at the age of 87. When he spoke with Terry Gross, he told her that after basic training, he was sent with the 26th Division to the French countryside.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ROBERT KOTLOWITZ: I was sent to the Alsatian countryside because I had been what was called an ASTP infantryman. In the summer of 1943, about 175,000 18-year-olds were drafted out of college and given basic training, primarily at infantry centers like Fort Benning where I had been sent. And after 13 weeks of basic training, I was sent off to the University of Maine in Orono to study engineering along with a thousand other 18-year-olds. And within two months, that program folded. And lo and behold, the Army had 175,000 infantry-trained 18-year-olds to fill in divisions that were below strength. We went to the 26th Infantry Division, which was the New England National Guard, and then shipped to Europe in August of 1944, about eight weeks or so after D-Day.

TERRY GROSS: And what was your mission in the countryside?

KOTLOWITZ: The mission in the countryside was to simply rest, bivouac, until the new 9th Army was formed, of which we were to be a corps division along with other divisions that were arriving and bivouacking exactly as we were. And we were there for three weeks or so. And suddenly, the orders were changed. And we joined the 3rd Army in Alsace-Lorraine, which was General Patton's army. And the 3rd Army had broken out of Normandy. It was primarily an armored division group. And those armored divisions had run out of fuel and food and were now stuck in foxholes in Alsace. So they shipped us out. We relieved the 4th Armored Division, moved into their foxholes, and there we were.

GROSS: I want you to describe what it was like for you to be fairly new in the war and living in a foxhole.

KOTLOWITZ: Well, the first thing was that it was very scary. I mean, it was not the first time I had lived in a foxhole. Training in the States tended to be as realistic as possible. So the physical aspect of living in a foxhole and dealing with the daily filth, the ordinariness of it, I was familiar with. What was new, of course, and what was threatening was that we were facing German troops across a no man's land that was perhaps 200 yards wide, if that. It was a very static period in the war, not unlike World War I. And the tension that built up by just staying in a foxhole and unable to get out unless you were called for night patrol or were sent back for food and ammunition to replenish what you didn't have - that tension was really awful. And as a kid, I was really very scared.

GROSS: You describe how the Germans would taunt you through a megaphone. So what were some of the things they would say?

KOTLOWITZ: Well, they would first tell us that Franklin Roosevelt was a chew, as they called it - C-H-E-W. And they would tell us that New York had been flattened by German bombers and Seattle wiped out by Japanese bombers and that the Statue of Liberty had been sunk and - you know, things like that, things that you knew immediately were hilariously false and had no effect on us at all.

GROSS: How were you given orders to get out of your foxholes and attack the Germans, who are about 200 feet away?

KOTLOWITZ: Well, you receive orders always at night. So whoever is carrying the orders, usually the squad leader, can reach each of the foxholes in which his men are occupying. And he tries to do it before dawn, before there's any light at all, so he won't be caught out by German snipers and riflemen and so he can get back to his own foxhole in time to lead whatever has to happen in the morning.

GROSS: And what did you think of the orders?

KOTLOWITZ: Well, I knew there were going to be orders like that at some point. I mean, we had been occupying foxholes, facing a kind of series of small rises in which we knew the Germans were somehow hidden in their foxholes. And we knew that, at some point, we would have to try to take those rises because they made a kind of thumb sticking out of the lines. In other words, if you can imagine two straight lines facing each other with the opposite line bulging towards our direction, that would have been those rises. And we knew that, at some point, we would have to try to take it because it was too much of a threat to us to have that sitting there.

But when we actually did get the orders, I mean, my mind was not working rationally at all. I was just instantly paralyzed with fear. And by the time we gathered to make the move out, I was going through the motions in a kind of automatic, robotic way, you know, depending upon my training, trying to stay alert to what the situation was, and hoping not to get killed.

GROSS: What happened in the first few seconds when you and the rest of your troop got out of your foxholes?

KOTLOWITZ: What happened was that we formed a diamond formation. That's literally what it was, the shape of it is a diamond. It was the whole platoon. And the leader of the platoon, Francis Gallagher, moved out very quickly to the head of it. And we started across that no man's land. It was still dark. And at the first break of light, we were moving up those rises. And the head of the diamond was already at the top and almost over when the Germans had us with machine guns - they took us with a sweep of machine guns and mortar fire and then rifle fire and grenades. And our platoon lieutenant, Francis Gallagher, was shot within 10 seconds of our ascent of those rises. He was shot through the neck, probably the carotid - both carotid arteries were destroyed at the same time. And he was gone.

The rest of us fell instantly against this assault of so many weapons. And I don't know how many died in the first assault or how many died in the second assault. But the assaults went on for the entire day. And by 6 - this was 6 in the morning. By 6 in the evening, there were only three of us left alive. Two were wounded. One was unwounded, and I was the unwounded one. And I think our survival was based on some kind of luck dealing with the geography of those rises, because we made a small cluster of our own. We were a BAR team. My - the man I shared the foxhole with and my closest buddy were the BAR team - the Browning automatic rifle. And somehow we were missed. They were shot. They were wounded. But I was not. I don't know why except I did not move or - and I don't even think I breathed for the entire time.

GROSS: How many men were killed?

KOTLOWITZ: I never really got the figures straight, but I would guess it is 37 or 38, maybe even as many as 40.

GROSS: You survived by playing dead for about 12 hours. The Germans were walking around with guns, picking off people who appeared to be alive but wounded. How did you play dead for that long?

KOTLOWITZ: Well, I just want to say that they were not walking around. We never saw the Germans. They stayed in their foxholes, if that's what they were occupying. And they had formed a semicircle into which we had walked. That's exactly what happened. And they surrounded us on three sides. They did not have to appear. They just had us perfectly. And I survived by just - I began to count very, very slowly in order to get my breath slowed down so that I would not be breathing in a normal way. And that's what I did for several hours.

And I lay there for 12 hours without moving. And that was it. Hoping, in fact, that I might get a kind of respectable wound that would enable me to concentrate on - you know, a wound in the thigh, the fleshy part of the thigh, or - so that I could concentrate on that and forget about my own anxieties. I had the feeling that if I were wounded, my fear would lift and disappear. I would have gotten it.

GROSS: What position did you fall in, and how uncomfortable was it to hold that position for the 12 hours?

KOTLOWITZ: I was sprawled - not flat, but sort of in that position where you're half on your hip and more on your stomach with my face really in the mud. It was very muddy and had been raining for days before that. And was not a comfortable position, not a usual position, but there it was. And that's what I stayed with.

BIANCULLI: Robert Kotlowitz speaking to Terry Gross in 1999. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEN PEPLOWSKI'S "COPI")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our Veterans Day salute and Terry's 1999 interview with Robert Kotlowitz, an infantry soldier in World War II. When Terry spoke with him, he had just published a memoir, "Before Their Time," focusing on his wartime experiences.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: As you lay playing dead in the mud, you were listening to your buddies die. What did you hear?

KOTLOWITZ: Well, the sounds that I heard were the worst sounds I have ever heard. And I do feel that the sounds of war are the worst part of it. I heard young men screaming in terror and pain, calling for their mothers in some cases, which is the saddest call of all, some of them speaking in a language I had never heard, including my friend who I shared the foxhole with. He was grunting a kind of animal-like way all day. Violently thirsty - I could not get him any water. And those sounds were almost worse than the sounds of the machine gun rounds and the grenades and the mortars and the snipers. It's unbearable to hear people you have trained with for months and months - to listen to them die in a helpless way and be unable to give them any help at all.

GROSS: How did you know when it was safe for you to get up?

KOTLOWITZ: Well, dusk had really begun to fall. It was really getting dark. And it quieted down. It really got quieted and for a - and I thought maybe the Germans had pulled back having won the day. I mean, no question of that. Not that I thought of it that way, but there was no reason for them to stay anymore. And I heard English being spoken, and I listened and listened. And I realized that there were, I think, three medics scouring that rise where we were, looking for survivors so they could take them back to company headquarters and from there to the division hospital. And so I spoke up. I just said - I forget what I said.

GROSS: What was the first scene you saw when you picked your head up out of the mud?

KOTLOWITZ: It was a kind of litter of bodies, most of which I knew were dead. And three upright young Americans wearing Red Cross armbands, carrying two stretchers among them.

GROSS: You must have had such conflicting emotions when you emerged - the exhilaration of having survived and the agony of having lost just about everyone who you trained with.

KOTLOWITZ: Well, I was in terrible shock. Although part of me was functioning in a very clear way. I mean, I could - I saw everything that I saw, heard everything that I heard and processed it the way I normally did. But my system was in terrible shock. I no longer was afraid when I stood up and spoke to the medic, and I was no longer afraid. I mean, it was about 500 yards to company headquarters. And we made the - I made that move feeling just - well, exalted is not the word, but it's not far from it. I think I was running on the last of my adrenaline and that it was getting me to the end and that when I got to company headquarters, it sort of vanished again. And I began to shake and tremble and all the things that you do when you're in shock. And that's how I felt when I got out of there.

GROSS: Now, you were very angry with your commander. Why?

KOTLOWITZ: Well, I had the feeling that, clearly, those orders - I don't know where the orders came from. Whether they came from battalion headquarters, regiment or division, I don't know. But they had not been thought through, and the timing was off. And our company commander was not part of the action. He was 500 yards behind us. We had no help all day. There was no artillery, no artillery fire and no troops sent out to help us. So, of course, I was enraged, and I saw him, too.

GROSS: Where'd you see him?

KOTLOWITZ: He was in his company tent, talking on the phone with the company master sergeant in the tent, a major I had never seen before standing there sort of beating his thigh with a stick, his own thigh. And there were company commanders from two adjoining companies there - they were probably discussing a counterattack - and two MPs. And when the - my company commander saw me, he said, let's - he said I - he didn't quite remember my name. He knew it began with a K. And he said, let's get this man a Silver Star. Let's put him in for a Silver Star right away.

He had no idea what had happened, what I had done, what my part was. But I could see that he was hysterical. And it was not the first time I had seen him like that. His tendency was to - when he lost control of the situation, when it slipped out of his hands, he got hysterical. And he was hysterical, and I was not far from it myself. And we had - he made - did this monologue about the afternoon. And I knew - I mean, it was just awful to hear it and to see him. And I just said, get me out of here, and I left the tent. And one of the medics was going back with a stretcher to the divisional hospital. And I hopped on the jeep and was off with them.

GROSS: After the battle, one of the people you were introduced to was an infantry historian whose job it was at that point to write up what happened in the battle that you survived. Did you get to read his history? And how did it compare to your memory of what you had lived through?

KOTLOWITZ: Well, his history, as I found it, was an entry of about three lines in the 26th Infantry Division history of the war. And it was not specific in any way. In fact, you couldn't tell whether anything had really happened or not. So it was useless, absolutely useless to me.

GROSS: Did you find other references to that battle in other history books?

KOTLOWITZ: I found one in the U.S. Army - Alsace-Lorraine history, which was a line suggesting there was an action, which was even more meager. And then, I found an entry in the 4th Infantry Division of the 26th Division, which acknowledged that something had happened and that it was important to the division because it marked such a serious loss.

I later met with a German historian who was member of the German army in Berlin. And he found, for me, an entry in one of their war report - daily war reports, which matched the experience in terms of the location and date, which, in six lines, said that the panzer division was attacked by Americans at 6 in the morning and, by 6 in the evening, they had been totally destroyed. And after this lieutenant had translated this for me, he turned to me, deadpan, and said, it misses the reality, doesn't it?

GROSS: After being one of three men of your platoon to survive this German attack and the only member of the platoon to survive unwounded, you were sent to an army psychiatrist. Did you feel you wanted or needed one at that point?

KOTLOWITZ: Actually, I had no idea because psychiatry, or whatever the words were, were such a new concept for me at that time. I knew I wanted to talk to somebody in some serious way, to somebody who would get it, who would understand what I was talking about and what I was saying. If it were with a psychiatrist, that was fine with me. And I certainly had a chance to talk. I mean, I had a chance to tell that story endless numbers of time. I was given sodium pentothal, which was known, in those days, as a truth serum, which enabled me to tell the story again in exactly the same way. But at least they, you know, shot me with their newest medicine. And it was a help to talk to a stranger like that. It really was a help.

GROSS: Why was it helpful to talk to a stranger?

KOTLOWITZ: It was somebody who had no investment in the engagement and only cared about me at that particular time.

BIANCULLI: Robert Kotlowitz speaking to Terry Gross in 1999. We'll continue their conversation after a break. And we'll also hear from another World War II vet, Robert Williams, who served with the now-famous Tuskegee Airmen. And our film critic Justin Chang reviews "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. We're paying tribute to veterans today. Let's get back to Terry's 1999 interview with Robert Kotlowitz, who was a college student when he was drafted into the Army in 1943 and sent to the French countryside to fight the Germans. His memoir about his experiences in the infantry is called "Before Their Time."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Reading your book made me think a little bit of the fact that it must be, in a way, a little bit perilous to be a very introspective man in a war and in a foxhole. I think, for people who have - I guess what I'm trying to say is, I think, the more introspective you are, the more likely to be self-critical you are, the more likely you are, perhaps, to feel very vulnerable. And that's not really the way you're supposed to be feeling when you're in a war. I think it's probably better to feel kind of invincible and to feel very strong.

KOTLOWITZ: Well, yes. I think that's probably correct. And as you can imagine, many of those 175,000 ASTP students who were returned to the infantry were not unlike me. And all my real friends in the Army came from that group. And we shared many emotions, including sensitivity to fear, the introspection that led us to question our own behavior all the time, the inability to get out of ourselves and just do what had to be done the way some men seem, to me, clearly able to do. No, I think you're absolutely right.

GROSS: Now, you're Jewish. You were fighting in the French countryside against the Germans. Your dog tags had an H for Hebrew on it. And you write in your memoir about how you'd lie in your foxhole and wonder, well, should I maybe take these dog tags off. Say I get captured by the Germans. And it says right here I'm Jewish.

KOTLOWITZ: Yes (laughter). It was something that, for a short period in combat, worried me. And I thought, you know, would I be - if I were captured, would I go to an ordinary, conventional PW camp? Or would I be sent to a special camp for Jewish soldiers? And I finally decided my dog tags were the only thing that really identified me, you know, and that I would wear them the way everybody else was wearing them.

GROSS: Do you think, in that sense, that the Army made a mistake in identifying your religion on your dog tags?

KOTLOWITZ: Well, the identification was really intended for burial purposes. I mean, if you're going to be killed during the war, then the Army wanted to bury you in a way that was faithful to your faith, assuming you had a faith. And I think, given the time - given 1943, 1944 - there was probably no choice in the matter. I mean, soldiers were identified on their dog tags by religion just as they were by their blood type.

GROSS: You know, when we read about war, we usually read about camaraderie. And your book has much about camaraderie. But I believe it also has feelings of alienation that are expressed in it. And I wonder if you could talk about that at all, this sense of camaraderie and alienation that you experienced during the war.

KOTLOWITZ: Do you mean alienation from my friends or...

GROSS: Well, from some of the people in your platoon.

KOTLOWITZ: Well, you know, it was my - I had very close friends, and one of whom was the wounded - one of the wounded ones in the platoon, whom I still see. But there were other guys in the platoon who were absolutely new to my experience, I mean, people I had never known before because I had led a very protective life. And it was difficult for me for the first year to even be able to hold - maintain a conversation with these people.

I mean, we had one guy, for example, who was OK, except for the fact that he liked to steal his pals' underwear when it came back from the laundry. And, you know, we were so self-righteous at 18 and morally-driven. And we made a big case out of this until our squad leader said, forget it. It's just clothes, for God's sake. I didn't have that tolerance then. And living with all of these strange, unexpected people from everywhere, living with so many different kinds of religions and beliefs, it was beyond my comprehension for a while. But that certainly created a kind of reservoir of tolerance in me, which enabled me to live with them and has served me, I think, well in my life since.

GROSS: Robert Kotlowitz, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

KOTLOWITZ: Thank you. I enjoyed it.

BIANCULLI: Robert Kotlowitz speaking to Fresh Air In 1999. The World War II veteran spoke about his experiences fighting overseas in his memoir "Before Their Time." He died in 2012. Coming up, to conclude our Veterans Day salute, we hear from another veteran of that war, Robert Williams, one of the elite pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF HERBIE NICHOLS' "EVERY CLOUD")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Robert Williams was one of the now celebrated Tuskegee Airmen. The 332nd fighter group, of which he was a part, was the first squadron of African American fighter pilots in the United States Air Force. During World War II, they fought two enemies, the Germans and racial prejudice. The Tuskegee Airmen flew over 200 missions, escorting heavy bombers into Germany. They never lost a plane to the enemy. And they shot down some 400 German aircraft. When Terry Gross spoke with Robert Williams in 1995, he had co-written and was co-executive producer of the HBO feature film "The Tuskegee Airmen." He died in 1997 at the age of 75. Williams grew up in a fairly well-integrated town in Iowa and was taught to fly a plane by his father. He tried to enlist soon after Pearl Harbor, but was turned away. When the Air Force decided to accept Black pilot trainees, he took a train from his hometown to Tuskegee, Alabama. He told Terry that trip was the first time he encountered raw racism.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ROBERT WILLIAMS: When I got to Evansville, Indiana, that was the line of demarcation between sanity and insanity, better known as the Mason-Dixon Line. Once you crossed that line, there was no more integrating of the races. So they forced me and every other Black person who was on that integrated train to get off and get in the Jim Crow car, which was closer to the engine and the smoke and soot from the engine would make the seats dirty and a very unpleasant ride. And so that was the Jim Crow car. And as I got off and the other Blacks - we saw them usher in this contingent of German prisoners of war into the same car that we were forced to get out of. In other words, the enemy, our national enemy, was more welcome in that car and with others more welcome than we were. And that was still quite a smack in the face.

GROSS: There's a scene in the movie "The Tuskegee Airmen" where the Laurence Fishburne character is flying a plane as part of his training, but he has to make an emergency landing. And he lands in a field in Alabama where, coincidentally, a chain gang, a prison chain gang, is at work. Did that happen to you?

WILLIAMS: It did.

GROSS: Tell me about that and tell me about the reaction of the men in the chain gang when they saw that you, an African American, was the pilot of this Army plane.

WILLIAMS: We...

GROSS: I should mention that these were African American convicts in the chain gang.

WILLIAMS: That's true. That's very true. We were on a navigational - our final navigational exercise. These chain gang people had probably seen white pilots many, many times land and take off from that field. But as we landed, we removed our goggles and our oxygen mask, which revealed our brown faces. And as we taxied back to take off position, one of these young Black fellows looked up and saw my Black face, and he screamed as though he had seen God. And he said, My God, they's colored boys. And the others looked up, and they screamed too.

And it was the most heartrending thing I've ever experienced in my life. We had to wait a few moments before we took off to clear the tears from our eyes, it was so impactful. It was not unlike the feeling we all had about Joe Louis when he would win a fight. We were hungered - we hungered for heroes. And I guess we were heroes to those Blacks at - on that chain gang. And it was the first time that we ever felt that what we were doing had some significance. We were just young kids who wanted to fly because it was glamorous and exciting and a safer place to be in the war. But when those people reacted in that manner, it was very, very revealing to us that somehow this was kind of special. But even so, we still never thought of it in historical context. We didn't realize that we were making history.

GROSS: The Tuskegee Airmen flew missions during the war protecting American bombers. And you never lost a bomber. Were there ever white bombers who objected to having African American escorts?

WILLIAMS: Oh, strenuously, initially. They succumbed to the stereotypical perception of who and what Black people were, and they refused, I guess, to accept the fact that we were professional and courageous, just like anybody else, maybe even more so. And they really resisted and really did not like the idea of Blacks protecting them. I'll give you an example of how that happened or a passage of what happened one day. I was leading the entire group. We normally fly 64 planes. That's four squadrons with 16 planes each. And if nobody aborts, has engine trouble and has to go back to the base, we normally had 64 planes. So I had 63 planes strung out behind me. And I was on a collision course with a group of bombers that we were going up to protect. So I decided to go under them. And I switched to their channel to tell them that I was going under so that they would know what my decision was.

And as I switched my channel, I heard somebody say, ooh-wee, look at them jigaboos go. They knew that we were the all-Black group because of the red tails on our P-51s. And I was so incensed that I pressed the button on my microphone, and I said, these jigaboos just may save your bigoted ass someday, you cracker bastard. I was so angry. Here we are, up there offering our lives to protect them, and they are talking about us in that manner. It was very, very insulting to us. Ultimately, however, they recognized very shortly that whenever we flew with them, they didn't lose any bombers. And so later, it didn't take much time for them to recognize that we were not only courageous, but we were also very professional. And they started to ask for us - I think you better make that beg for us to fly cover for them because they knew that we would not run off and look for victories and leave them to the mercies of the German fighters who would cut them to pieces.

GROSS: Now, I believe you flew 50 missions...

WILLIAMS: Correct.

GROSS: ...Shot down two German planes...

WILLIAMS: Correct.

GROSS: ...And got a Distinguished Flying Cross.

WILLIAMS: Correct.

GROSS: I'd like you to describe what it was like to be up in the air in one of those planes during World War II.

WILLIAMS: Well, I got to tell you, in viewing this film, I look at it today and shudder.

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah.

WILLIAMS: I said, I did that? My God, it's incredible. But at the time, you don't even think about it. You know, it's - I guess that's why the military wants young people, you...

GROSS: (Laughter).

WILLIAMS: ...Don't have sense enough to be frightened, you know? I remember I was telling the - our director, our marvelous director, Bob Markowitz. I said - he asked me what was the most fearful time I ever experienced over there. And I told him that the most fearful time I can recall was sitting on the end of the runway one morning when there was a blizzard. And the bombers went so we had to go. We had to go provide top cover and protection for them.

But as the plane in front of me took off, he'd get a quarter of a way down the runway and disappear in this snow. And I sat there wondering, how in the hell am I going to find them to fly formation with them? And, you know, we're taking off toward the mountains. If I can't see him a quarter of the way down the runway, how in the world am I going to see anything else out there? And I said, you know, if I come back, and it's still snowing like this, where am I going to land? I knew I was going to die that day. And I sat at the end of that runway with tears running down my eyes. But I pushed forward, pushed the throttle forward, and took off like the rest of the guys did. And, you know, it's - I'm sorry, but I'm breaking up a little here, a little emotional.

GROSS: What saved you that day?

WILLIAMS: Well, you do what you're trained to do. You - the man says go, you go. And once we got a little altitude, we got past the snow and the field was clear. And we were able to land. But, you know, nobody knew that when you took off. You just hope for the best. And that's - fortunately, the best turned out to be what happened.

GROSS: You had to wear an oxygen mask in order...

WILLIAMS: Right.

GROSS: ...To breathe at the altitude.

WILLIAMS: Right.

GROSS: You needed goggles.

WILLIAMS: Yes.

GROSS: It was cold, I imagine.

WILLIAMS: In the winter, it's beastly cold. You lose - I think it is two degrees every thousand feet. So if it's zero when you leave the ground or if it's - you know, let's say, for practical purposes, it's zero when you leave the ground. Every thousand feet you gain in altitude, you lose two degrees of temperature. So if you get to 20,000 feet, it's 40 below zero. So yes, it gets quite cold.

GROSS: Were there times when you were in the air and had to watch as a friend of yours was shot down?

WILLIAMS: Oh, yes. I can't tell you how heartrending that is and how hopeless you are. You can't help him. You know, he's hit. And you know he's going to die. And he's - if he's a close friend, it just tears your heart out. I've seen people who were in bombers that were - a bullet or one of those heavy shells, 88-millimeter shells, would hit the wing of a bomber, for instance. And it would crumble like a wounded goose and tumble out of the sky like a wounded goose, cartwheeling and twisting in all kinds of manner. And you know full well that there's no way that anybody in that plane is going to get out because it's twisting so violently.

And you know that everyone in there is going to die. I don't know how many people were - comprised a crew. But you know whoever, however many there are, 10 - five, 10, 12, whatever there is, they're all dead. And you just feel so helpless. You can't help those people at all. And that tears your heart out. And their - you don't even know them. So it's magnified many times when it is someone you knew and loved.

GROSS: When you got home from the war, did you feel that your accomplishments flying planes was recognized?

WILLIAMS: No, I don't. I - recognized by the Black press and the Black public. But we still did not get any credit from the white press and from the military. However, ultimately, the president, Harry Truman - bless his soul - when he signed the executive order integrating all of the military, he made the observation that he did so because of the outstanding and courageous work of the 332nd fighter group. Colin Powell, who is - was a top general in the military, made the observation that his promotion and ascendancy to the status that he was in was accelerated by the outstanding work of the 332nd fighter group. The astronauts, the Black astronauts, make that same observation many, many times. So now we are, more or less, getting the recognition that we thought we had earned years ago and was denied to us years ago.

GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

WILLIAMS: I thank you for your interest in the project and in the picture. And thank you so much for your time.

BIANCULLI: Robert Williams speaking to Terry Gross in 1995. He co-wrote the HBO movie "The Tuskegee Airmen," based in part on his exploits serving as a pilot in that celebrated unit during World War II. He died in 1997 at age 75. After a break, film critic Justin Chang reviews the "Black Panther" sequel, "Wakanda Forever." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIJAY IYER TRIO'S "HUMAN NATURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.