Spann Watson was born in 1916 near rural Johnston, South Carolina, the second son of Sherman and Leona Holt Watson. He began his education 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.
In 1927, 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 in his famous plane “Spirit of
St. Louis” on July 4, 1927. This historic event had a lasting impact on the youngster and inspired him to pursue a career in aviation.
Watson was educated at Lodi and Hackensack Public Schools and at Howard University where he studied mechanical engineering. He began his aviation training in 1939 in the original College Pilot Training Program at Howard and continued under the same program at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. In 1941, he 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. On July 8, 1943, Watson was one of eight pilots who successfully fought the German elite Luftwaffe over the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Sicily, 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.
At the midpoint of his combat tour with the original 99th
Fighter Squadron (F.S.) in North Africa/Southern Europe, he was selected and ordered back to the U.S. to bring combat experience to the 332nd Fighter Group as it transitioned to a combat status for services in the Mediterranean theatre in 1943/44. That one time opportunity was lost during an untimely delay caused by his misdirected travel orders. His assignment was withdrawn and he was reassigned to form the 553rd F.S. as an instructor pilot at Selfridge Air Field, Michigan. Subsequently, the 553rd F.S. was dissolved in the creation of a Combat Crew Training Center for Tuskegee Airmen replacement pilots enroute to the 99th Squadron and the 332nd Fighter Group (F.G.) at Walterboro Army Air Field,
South Carolina. That assignment proved to be rewarding during 1944/45.
At the close of the Air War in Europe, the 99th F.S. was withdrawn from Italy and reactivated at Fort Knox, Kentucky to prepare for participation in the war against Japan. Spann Watson was selected again to reassemble the 99th F.S. completely. It quickly grew to a peak of 136
Tuskegee Airmen Pilots, 14 Flight Leaders and 79 F47 N Airplanes by the time “A” weapons closed out the war in the Far East.
Spann Watson supervised the flight activities of the 99th F.S. as the
U.S. Air Force reorganized and reduced its air units to peacetime levels until the integration of military services came to the 99th F.S. and the 332nd Fighter Group in June 1949. Spann Watson played a major role in the development of the Armed Forces integration plans becoming the Nation's 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, but his EEO efforts did not diminish at all. He was responsible for more than 35 youngsters winning appointments to the three major service academies. He helped hundreds of minorities gain employment, including 483 airline flight attendants, and first-time pilots. He resolved hundreds of other on job situations and military acute assignment situations.
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 achievements in the area of equal opportunity; 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 May 1994.
He was one of the Tuskegee Airmen honored by
President William “Bill” Clinton at the White House, Washington, D.C. on October 9, 1998.
In September 2000, he was awarded the
Cliff Henderson Achievement Award, by the National Aviation Club. A new Tuskegee Airmen Chapter in Columbia, S.C. was dedicated in his honor on September 30, 2002.
His awards and recognition continue from many origins as the
Heckscher Museum of Art in Huntington, New York, made him one of its 2003 honorees, and awarded its trophy,
“In Recognition of Outstanding Leadership,” at its Juneteenth Celebration on June 19, 2003.
Col. Watson and his wife Edna were married December 17, 1943. They have five children, seven grandchildren and one great grand child.
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