James Sheppard Jr., a member of the first all-black aviation unit in the U.S. military that saw action in World War II and whose experiences were chronicled in a Hollywood movie, will be buried Monday at the Southern Maine Veterans Cemetery in the Springvale section of Sanford.

Sheppard, who died Aug. 19 at age 93 at the Maine Veterans’ Home in Scarborough, where he had lived for the past three years, was a mechanics’ crew chief with the famed Tuskegee Airmen during the war. A longtime Westbrook and South Portland resident, Sheppard worked on fighters that battled German planes and escorted American bombers during World War II.

He was one of 300 airmen to be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President George W. Bush in 2007. He was portrayed in the 2012 American war film “Red Tails,” which tells the story of the country’s first all-black unit of fighter pilots to fly combat missions for the U.S Army Air Force.

Before 1940, African-Americans were barred from flying for the U.S. military. Civil rights organizations and the black press exerted pressure that resulted in the formation of an all African-American flight squadron in Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1941. The squadron became known as the Tuskegee Airmen.

The Tuskegee Airmen included pilots, navigators, bombardiers, maintenance and support staff, instructors and all the personnel who kept the planes and pilots in the air.

The Tuskegee Airmen overcame segregation and prejudice to become one of the most highly respected fighter groups of World War II. Their accomplishments paved the way for full integration of the U.S. military.


In the 2012 movie “Red Tails,” which was produced by George Lucas, one of the actors portrayed a chief mechanic, who is often shown in the film comically complaining about pilots getting bullet holes “in my beautiful airplanes.”

In an interview that year with the Press Herald, Sheppard said there was a lot of truth in the chief mechanic’s crusty demeanor when it came to taking care of the airplanes. “Oh, I said some things like that to the pilots. I used to tell my pilots not to shoot their guns because then we’d have to clean them,” Sheppard said.

Red Tails starred Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr.

In retirement, Sheppard told his story to hundreds of audiences in more than 20 states and a half-dozen countries. In recent years the ranks of the 996 pilots and about 16,000 ground personnel who served in the unit have dropped precipitously as members died. It is not known how many still survive, according to Tuskegee Airmen Inc., a nonprofit that aims to keep their history alive.

“Growing up he never talked about the war experience. But later on he opened up and started filling us in about what was going on,” said Arthur Sheppard, one of Mr. Sheppard’s four children.

“He was an individual that spoke his mind, wasn’t into frills and thrills. He was a matter of fact guy, he liked to help his neighbors,” Arthur Sheppard said Saturday. “He was proud to serve his country.”


Sheppard, the son of Antiguan immigrants, grew up in Harlem, New York, with a fascination for mechanics and aviation. He graduated from the Haaren Aviation High School, a New York magnet school that trained students to become pilots and mechanics. He enlisted in the Army Air Force at age 18 and was soon headed to Alabama for the airfields next to Tuskegee Institute as part of an experimental Army Air Corps program preparing black Americans to fight in World War II.

“It was an experiment to see whether or not black Americans could fight. Because of prejudice at the time it was believed black military were not capable of fighting or flying a plane,” said his son.

Mr. Shepard ended up at Ramitelli, Italy, where he was a crew chief overseeing work P-47s and P-51s. He emerged from the war as a staff sergeant and with many lifelong friends among his fellow military comrades.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.


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