October: Spann Watson

Published: Oct. 2, 2001 at 8:07 PM EDT|Updated: Apr. 28, 2003 at 1:03 PM EDT
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Spann Watson was born near rural Johnston, South Carolina, on August 14, 1916, the second son of Sherman and Leona Holt Watson. His education began at the age of four at Red Hill, a one-room school. Later, he attended Simpkins School and finally Reeder Branch School, on the grounds of Reeder Branch Church, which still exists in Saluda County.

When Watson was 10 years old, his family moved to Lodi, New Jersey. A frequent visitor to the nearby Teterboro Airport, Watson watched Charles A. Lindbergh fly the Spirit of St. Louis on July 4, 1927. This historic event had a lasting impact and inspired Watson to pursue an aviation career. Almost two decades later, Watson served as a fighter pilot instructor at the Combat Crew Training Center for Tuskegee Airmen, located at South Carolina's Walterboro Army Air Field.

Watson attended public school in Lodi and Hackensack. At Howard University, he studied mechanical engineering and began his aviation training in 1939, 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. A pioneer of the Tuskegee Airmen Experience, he was an original member of the famed 99th Fighter Squadron. Watson was one of eight pilots who successfully fought the German elite Luftwaffe over the Mediterranean Sea, marking the first time African-American pilots fought in air combat. In World War II, he distinguished himself flying missions over North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and Southern Europe.

Watson's effort and determination were instrumental in the integration of the armed forces and federal agencies. With a segregated military during the 1940's, Watson played a key role in developing an integration plan for the Armed Forces that became the nation's official policy. In 1965, after a 23-year military career, Watson joined the Federal Aviation Administration as an equal opportunity specialist and subsequently as an air traffic specialist. His EEO efforts have resulted in 35 candidates winning appointments to the three major service academies and more than 500 minorities gaining employment as airline flight attendants and pilots.

Lt. Col. Watson's photo hangs with other Airmen in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. He is the first African-American elected as an Elder Statesman of Aviation by the National Aeronautics Association and served as the National President of the Tuskegee Airmen, a group he helped organize. Among his many honors include the Charles A. "Chief" Anderson Award from the National Coalition of Black Federal Aviation Employees; the Brigadier General Noel F. Parrish Award, the highest honor of the Tuskegee Airmen; the Department of Transportation Exceptional Service Citation for his exceptional EEO achievements; the Legion of Merit from the mayor of Washington and the D.C. National Guard Organization; and an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Public Service from Rhode Island College. In September 2000, he was awarded the Henderson Trophy for Humanity Services. A new Tuskegee Airmen Chapter in Columbia, SC, has been named in his honor.