Local Tuskegee airman saved lives, fought prejudice
Ask Art Leahr if he has a favorite memory of his dad, and he doesn’t hesitate to answer.
It was Art Leahr’s high school graduation and his father gave him a 1968 Ford XL convertible.
“I still have that car,” Art Leahr said. “In the last few years, I would pick my Dad up and we would ride around in the car in the summer. He’d see the car and say, ‘Oh man, that’s my car.'”
To Art Leahr, his dad was just that – dad.
To the rest of the world, Art Leahr’s father, Lt. John Leahr, was a hero – a Tuskegee Airman pilot who saved countless lives during World War II; a man who completed 132 combat missions, a phenomenal amount of missions; a man who flew fighter planes like the P-39s and P-40s over Europe, dipping in and out of cloud formations through enemy fire; a man who faced prejudice after he had fought for his country.
John Leahr, a hero, passed away Friday. He was 94.
If you had told John Leahr during his life that he was a hero, he probably would have shrugged it off.
“He never really looked at himself as a hero,” Art Leahr said. “He felt like he did what he needed to do. He wanted to fly. He and the other guys went in and did the job. They didn’t join the service to become heroes.”
John Leahr, who lived in Kennedy Heights most of his life, graduated from Withrow High School in 1938 and went on to work at Wright Aeronautical in Evendale.
One day in 1938, Leahr attended a Career Day at Lunken Airport and was told that there was no place in aviation for Negroes.
But a few years later, Leahr found a way to follow his passion. An African American fighter unit in the U.S. Army called the Tuskegee Airman had formed in 1941, and in 1943, Leahr began training as a pilot.
Even though Leahr was a member of the military, willing to fight for his country, he continued to face prejudice, especially in Alabama where the 332nd Fighter Group trained.
“If they left the base, they were subject to the local laws and no one was coming to bail them out,” Art Leahr said. “They could be strung up. The U.S. government wasn’t going to help.”
“One time, a local sheriff put a gun to his head and said he’d blow his brains out if he spoke another word.”
Leahr completed his training and went on to serve in Europe, becoming one of the legendary group of black pilots who protected bombers in the air from German attack during World War II.
His time overseas saw its fair share of danger, too.
“I was almost trapped once when I looked around me and all I could see was enemy fire coming at me, and I couldn’t raise anybody on my radio,” Leahr told the Enquirer in 2006. “I finally was able to get underneath the fire and get out of there.”
Leahr expected that once he returned stateside, treatment would get better. But he was shocked once he returned. It was as if nothing had changed.
“We were hoping this was going to be the way things changed,” he told the Enquirer in 1995. “But there was so much prejudice that the Army tried to keep our success a secret. They didn’t want us to be successful. I’m just now beginning to see mention of the Tuskegee Airmen in the textbooks.”
Several years after returning home, and due in part because of a chance meeting, Leahr’s story became well-known throughout Cincinnati.
In 1997, Herb Heilbrun, a white bomber who also served in World War II, read a newspaper article about a reunion of the Tuskegee Airmen. Heilbrun decided he would go to the hotel where the airmen were staying to express his gratitude.
There, he met Leahr and gave him a hug.
“I’ve been wanting to hug one of those guys for 50 years,” Heilbrun told the Enquirer in 2002. “You don’t know how many times they saved my tail.”
Little did he how much that gesture would mean to Leahr.
“All I wanted was for someone to say, ‘Thanks,'” Leahr said at the time.
A friendship was born. The two realized they actually had much more in common –they flew on two of the same missions in Europe, they were both retired salesmen, they both had worked at Wright Aeronautical, and they had even attended the same elementary school. A 1929 third grade class photo of the two shows them side-by-side.
“That was destiny,” Heilbrun said on Saturday. “To be in the same class would be one thing. But to be standing next to him? Destiny.”
Heilbrun and Leahr became good friends, speaking publicly at schools. They even had a book written about them, titled “Black and White Airmen: Their True History.” In 2003, the two were honored by the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations. And their story appeared on the History Channel and in a PBS documentary.
Heilbrun said Saturday that he was pretty shaken up about his good friend’s passing.
“He was just a rarity, not just because he saved my butt,” he said. “As a human being.”
Heilbrun said it’s incredible to see the tides change and see people begin to honor the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of men he credits to saving his life.
He pointed to a report he received from two Cincinnati first graders who were studying the Tuskegee Airmen. It went something like this:
My report is about John Leahr. When he was little, black and white kids could not be friends. When he grew up, he became friends with Herb Heilbrun. This is important because it teaches us that all people can be friends.
“He’s not famous, but he should be,” the first grader wrote.
Finally, many years overdue, Leahr is getting the credit he deserves.
A memorial service will be held at the Kennedy Heights Presbyterian Church. A date has not been set yet.