Written by Victoria Caruso-Davis Friday, 23 April 2010 00:00
Westbury’s own Lt. Col. Spann Watson, a Congressional Gold Medal recipient who, during World War II served as a P-51 Mustang pilot with the famed Tuskegee Airmen’s 99th Fighter Squadron, passed away at Winthrop-University Hospital on April 15. He was 93 years old.
In 1941, Mr. Watson, a 25-year-old man from South Carolina joined nearly 1,000 African-American aviators for training at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and broke the color bar banning black pilots in the United States military. It wasn’t until March 2007 – nearly 66 years later – that he was recognized with the Congressional Gold Medal. One of the country’s most distinguished and highest honors, the Congressional Gold Medal is considered the congressional equivalent to and holds the same degree of prestige as the Presidential Medal of Freedom (awarded personally by the president), yet in our nation’s history, fewer have been awarded.
“To receive a gold medal from the United States Congress is a great deal for me ...,” said Mr. Watson during a 2007 interview with The Westbury Times. “It’s something I have waited nearly 70 years for. It’s been a long time coming, that’s for sure.”
Mr. Watson, who later in his career served as a pilot instructor, began his aviation training at Howard University in 1939, studying mechanical engineering and was in the original College Pilot Training Program. He continued under the same program at Tuskegee Institute and joined the U.S. Army Air Corps as a flying cadet. Mr. Watson was one of the Tuskegee’s original 160 pilots and one of only eight who successfully fought the German elite Luftwaffe over the Mediterranean Sea, marking the first time African-American pilots fought in air combat. His 30 plus combat missions included flights over North Africa, Italy and Southern Europe.
Mr. Watson spent 24 years as a lead pilot before moving to Westbury and building his dream home. In 1965, the late Bobby Kennedy offered him a position with the Federal Aviation Authority in Washington, DC. For the next 27 years, Mr. Watson worked as an equal opportunity specialist and also served as an air traffic specialist. As an equal opportunity specialist, Mr. Watson provided hundreds of job opportunities to minorities, as well as white men and women, all the while commuting every week from his home in Westbury to the capitol. When he retired in 1992, Mr. Watson had logged approximately 2,700 trips back and forth.
“Colonel Watson’s life story should be an inspiration to all people,” said Westbury Village Mayor Peter Cavallaro. “Anyone who had the pleasure of spending time with Colonel Watson knows that he was a true gentleman; that he loved Westbury and his family without bounds, and that he was a giant of a man from whom we all can learn important life lessons. He was a true American hero, and hero of Westbury.
North Hempstead Town Councilwoman Viviana Russell, during a February 2010 ceremony honoring the Tuskegee Airman, stated, “Spann Watson is an individual who has and still perpetuates the ideal characteristics of what it means to be an American who loves their country. Proclaiming his love for his country when serving at a time when our society did not necessarily judge individuals by their character but rather the color of their skin, shows true veracity of his character.”
Mr. Watson is survived by his wife Edna Marie Marshall; sons, Spann Marlowe Watson of Silver Spring, MD, and Weyman Watson of South Orange, NJ; and daughters Cynthia Hopson of Bratenahl, OH and Dianne Capers of Hempstead. A third son, Captain Orrin Watson, was an Air Force flier who died in 1981. At press time, funeral arrangements had not been finalized.