Martin C. Evans

Arlington Burial for Watson, Vet of First African American Air Combat

In Uncategorized on July 30, 2010 at 1:45 pm

Funeral procession for Lt. Col. Spann Watson. (Photo: Newsday/Charlie Eckert)

By Martin C. Evans, Newsday – His wife, Edna, clasped her hand over her heart. His youngest son Weyman, in Navy dress whites, offered a crisp salute. A daughter, Cynthia Hobson, dabbed at tears.

Through a silence broken by the jingle of harness chains, the retort of horses’ hooves and the squeal of the wheels of a caisson draped in black bunting, the body of Lt. Col. Spann Watson was born to his final resting place yesterday at Arlington National Cemetery.

Watson, who as one of the original Tuskegee Airmen was among the first African American pilots ever to fly in combat, was buried July 29 with full military honors. The Westbury resident died April 15 at age 93, of complications of pneumonia.

Spann Watson, August 14, 1916 - April 15, 2010

His funeral, delayed by Arlington’s months-long backlog and held at the Old Post Chapel an hour before his burial, drew several people who had known Watson from his earliest days of military flying. At least two of them were former Army pilot cadets – both in their 80s – who he had helped to train.

Many more of his old flying colleagues likely would have attended were it not for a scheduling conflict with the annual convention of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. an organization composed of the Tuskegee pilots and black support personnel.

Attendees at the four-day convention, which began Wednesday in San Antonio, timed a two-minute moment of silence to coincide with Watson’s funeral. He had been the organization’s second president.

“A lot of his friends are here,” said Roscoe Brown, of Sag Harbor, a Tuskegee pilot, told Newsday by telephone from the convention.

William Wheeler, of Hempstead, a former Tuskegee cadet who Watson helped train, eulogized him as a tough but smiling mentor who insisted that young black cadets not stumble, least the Army’s WWII decision to end its ban on black aviators be deemed a failure.

“I was fortunate to be one of his students,” said Wheeler, 86. “He was a warrior.”

“It is gallant men like Spann Watson who pointed the way for the military and civilian populations to make this a better country, by breaking down color barriers, making demands, serving as a lightning rod for changes and serving as magnificent role models,” Wheeler said.

The Tuskegee Airmen were African Americans who in 1941 had been chosen to participate in an Army training program based at Tuskegee, Alabama designed to test whether black men had the intelligence, coordination and discipline to become military pilots. Watson, then a civilian pilot who had been repeatedly rejected by the Army, was among the first cadets to complete the training program.

“The first response I got when I applied as a cadet was ‘you don’t have the mental capacity, you don’t have the physical coordination, you just don’t have it’,” Watson said in 2007. “We wanted to prove to the white folks we could do it all. We were good.”

Sent to Italy with the 99th Fighter Squadron, Watson and five other pilots on June 9, 1943 became the first African Americans to engage an enemy in aerial combat. The others were Charles Dryden, Willie Ashley, Sidney Brooks, Lee Rayford and Leon Roberts.

The squadron’s success and civil rights agitation – military police arrested Watson in 1945 for entering a whites-only officers club on an Army base – helped persuade President Harry Truman to end segregation in the military in July, 1948. When members of the Tuskegee Airmen overflew Truman’s 1949 Inaugural Parade, Watson was at the controls of one of the planes.

Watson’s passing brings nearer the last of an aging group of black aviators who shattered the U.S. military’s color bar. Of the 996 pilots who completed the Tuskegee program, only about 50 – all of them in their mid-80s or older – are still living. Many of them are in ill health.

Watson’s youngest son, Navy Capt.  Wayman Watson, said his father chose to be buried in Arlington rather than closer to family on Long Island because he felt it was important that members of the pioneering group of black aviators be represented at the nation’s premier military burial ground.

“He wanted to make sure the 99th and the Tuskegee Airmen were remembered and had a presence there, so that nobody would forget them,” Weyman Watson said. “He considered Arlington to be the military’s Hall of Fame.”

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  1. […] additional aerial training there from Tuskegee graduates who had already flown in combat, including Spann Watson. Watson, a longtime Westbury resident, died last […]

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