Boyhood War Heroes Remembered : Building Airplane Models Labor of Love

Times Staff Writer

It started when he was a small boy growing up in McComb, Miss., listening while World War II fighter planes such as the Warhawk, Mustang and Thunderbolt screamed overhead on training missions.

He watched as dapper pilots in leather flight jackets and aviator sunglasses strutted through the small town, awing the populace with their splendor.

Clint Martin didn't know it then, but those were no ordinary pilots. They were Tuskegee Airmen, the country's first black military flyers, part of the U.S. Air Force's Negro Aviation Unit.

Based in Tuskegee, Ala., the more than 900 blacks who trained at the segregated Tuskegee Army Air Base flew hundreds of combat missions, destroying Luftwaffe planes and German military convoys. In the process they reaped a myriad of Purple Hearts, Bronze Stars, Distinguished Flying Crosses and Legions of Merit.

Yet they occupy a relatively obscure niche in America's World War II exploits--a situation that Martin, who now lives in Inglewood, would like to change.

"Those guys made a big impression on me," recalled the 47-year-old Martin, who is black. "They gave me more than a sense of patriotism. They gave me a sense of 'I can do it too,' a feeling that blacks could be more than sharecroppers and laborers. They were blacks of distinction in our neighborhood."

Martin's longing to commemorate the heroic feats of those first black fighter pilots finally found fulfillment when he embarked on what he sometimes refers to as his "obsession."

For the last six years, he has spent up to 20 hours a week painstakingly crafting models of the planes flown by the airmen.

Now, he said proudly, part of his dream will be realized--his planes will be displayed by Carson on Jan. 13 at Avalon Park as part of that city's first Martin Luther King celebration.

"That makes me feel really good," he said. "I'm not looking for personal glory. I just think the airmen never have gotten the recognition they deserve, and I'd like to see they get some of it."

With more than 3,000 hours of tedious labor invested in them, the five planes are delicate, silvery pieces of near museum-quality perfection. Measuring up to 28 inches from wing tip to wing tip, each has tiny working flaps, retractable landing gear, movable canopies, gun turrets, insignia and the distinctive scarlet tails that gave the fighters their moniker--the Redtailed Blackbirds.

Working from blueprints that look complex enough to build the real thing, Martin boasts that each plane has more than 600 parts, including delicate ribs of balsa that must be carefully attached to the wing skeleton, and the heavy-grade silk paper that gives each plane its lustrous silver sheen.

"I guess it sounds crazy to spend so much time on these planes, but I wanted them to be perfect because this is my tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen. Those guys have been my idols," he said.

To his infinite satisfaction, Martin's work has brought him in touch with many of those idols.

"I talked to a lot of them to get exact details on the planes," he said. "They even invited me to one of their meetings, and I showed them one of the planes. That was great."

Through years of research, Martin said, he developed an affinity for particular pilots that led him to build the exact planes they flew.

"This one's the Alice-Jo," he said, pointing to a P-51 Mustang. "I built that for Capt. Wendell Pruitt. They used to call him the best damn pilot in the outfit." Pruitt, he said, was credited with helping sink a German destroyer using only machine gunfire--a feat that earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross.

"It's been a lot of work," Martin said, staring at the row of planes. "More than I realized I was getting into. But it's also been one of the most satisfying things I've ever done."

But, he said with a sharp shake of his head, the obsession is far from over.

"Now I'd like to build a model P-51 that will actually fly," he said, his face lighting in anticipation. "I'd also like to take my planes to inner-city schools and talk to the young black kids--show them they've got some real heroes to look up to."

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