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Letter: North Hempstead Mourns Loss of Local Hero, a National Icon

Recently our town and our nation lost an American hero.  Tuskagee Airman Lt. Col. Spann Watson from Westbury died at the age of 93 on April 15, 2010.

The Tuskagee Airman are recognized as dedicated, determined young men who enlisted to become America’s first black military airmen at a time when many people thought that blacks lacked intelligence, skill, courage and patriotism.

Four hundred and fifty of the 996 pilots who graduated at the Tuskegee Army Air Field from 1941 through 1946 served overseas in either the 99th Pursuit Squadron (later the 99th Fighter Squadron) or the 332nd Fighter Group. The 99th Fighter Squadron flew P-40 Warhawk aircraft in combat in North Africa, Sicily and Italy from April 1943 until July 1944 when they were transferred to the 332nd Fighter Group in the 15th Air Force.

Earlier this year, the Town of North Hempstead honored Lt. Col. Watson during a Town Board meeting during Black History Month where all present were struck by his iconic accomplishments. I believe we were also all moved by his humility and the simple declaration that he made that night.

“I am an American,” he said proudly, his posture arrow straight as I handed him a proclamation. “This is my country.”

He told us of how he was a boy of 10 when his family moved north after observing a lynching in his native South Carolina.  That horrible experience remained with him until the day he died. 

He would earn a pilot’s license while studying mechanical engineering at Howard University after an army recruiter on Long Island scoffed at him when he said he wanted to fly.

But his flame, fueled by what family members called “unwavering discipline” could not be snuffed out.

He applied again and was accepted when the National Association for Advancement of Colored People forced the War Department to establish a special training program for black pilots.

He was one of only 13 black pilots in his 1942 graduating class to earn their military wings.

He went on to fly missions over Europe. But he didn’t rest on his laurels.

He helped train black pilots during the war, voluntarily submitted to arrest along with more than 50 other black pilots by entering a “whites only” officers club at an Indiana Army base, and worked as an equal opportunity officer for the Federal Aviation Administration.

As the leader of an increasingly diverse municipality, I was inspired by his story and his contribution to our great nation but sobered by his indelible words reminding me that we must take the baton from our Lt. Col. Watson and continue onward in every way that we can.

We in the town mourn his loss and send our condolences to his family in their time of grief.

Jon Kaiman
Supervisor, Town of North Hempstead