Congressional Gold Medal

In 1941, 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. Next week, nearly 66 years later, he will be recognized with one of the country's highest honors - the Congressional Gold Medal.

The man is Westbury's own Lt. Col. Spann Watson who, during World War II served as a
P-51 Mustang pilot with the famed Tuskegee Airmen's 99th Fighter Squadron. The Congressional Gold Medal is a recognition Watson, now 90, has longed to see come to fruition for himself and his fellow 388 known, living airmen.

"To receive a gold medal from the United States Congress is a great deal for me in my life," said Watson, who later in his career served as a pilot instructor. "It's something I have waited nearly 70 years for. It's been a long time coming, that's for sure."

Last April, Congress voted to bestow the honor - the highest civilian award given to any individual who performs an outstanding deed or act of service to the security, prosperity and national interest of the United States. On April 11, 2006, President George Bush signed
H R 1259, which was co-sponsored by Senator Carl Levin (D-Michigan) and
Congressman Charles Rangel (D-15th C.D, New York), into law.

Initially, the plan was to present the awards during the Congressional Black Caucus' annual convention in September 2006 but, since the medals bear no standard design and each Congressional Gold Medal is unique, revisions delayed its creation and issuance.

The Tuskegee Congressional Gold Medal was designed with input from the airmen themselves and will be unveiled for the first time at next week's ceremony, which will be held in the Capitol's Rotunda. An authentic large gold coin issued by the US mint will be placed in the Smithsonian while all veterans, including the widows and families of Tuskegee Airmen, are expected to receive bronze replicas, according to Ron Brewington, national public relations officer for the non-profit Tuskegee Airmen, Inc.

"As a recipient, you are allowed to be part of the medal's design process as opposed to other awards, like the Medal of Honor, in which the mold has already been cast. Input from everyone, including Mr. Watson, as to how they wanted it to look was taken into consideration," said Brewington, adding, "It took a long time but its all part of the process. There are so many other groups that need to be recognized. Many things are going on in the country right now and we are very privileged. We can't thank Congress enough, especially Senator Levin and Representative Rangel."

Formed in July 1941, the Tuskegee Airmen were the first black aviation unit in the United States armed services. Back then, the military had just begun to be integrated while most of
American society remained segregated. All Tuskegee members were required to pass the same muster as their fellow white officers and enlisted counterparts.

During World War II, the 332nd Fighter Group (which the 99th Fighter Squadron later fell under) was involved in 1,578 combat missions with no pilot losses. According to the
Tuskegee Airmen's website, these brave men damaged or destroyed 409 enemy aircraft, garnering 744 Air Medals, including 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses.

No military honor, however, is as distinguished as the Congressional Gold Medal, which 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. Past recipients of the Congressional Medal include such historical icons as George Washington, the Wright Brothers, Pope John Paul II, the
Navajo Code Talkers and Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King.

Perhaps what is most meaningful about the medal is what it symbolizes to Watson today. At the time of the war, according to Watson, America was a different place - a country that was opposed to blacks in the military. The formation of the 99th Fighter Squadron provided men like Watson to make their mark.

"We were determined to prove America wrong," Watson said. "When people said we couldn't, we went out there and said 'we'll show you a thing or two.' We excelled instead of failed like people expected us to and, as a result, people stopped saying blacks couldn't do this or that. We weren't going to let people say we didn't have the capability to excel. We weren't superior but we all had our own battles and something to prove."

Watson 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. Watson was one of the Tuskegee's 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.

Watson's path into the military, however, was not a smooth one. Despite being turned down by the military anywhere between 15 and 20 times because of the color of his skin, Watson said he never gave up. "I wasn't going to be a poor black youngster working at a restaurant as a bus boy. I was going to be a full-fledged American," he said. "I wanted money, a classy and pretty wife and a big house and good kids. That was my goal and the pledge I made and I wasn't going to stop until it happened."

Watson spent 24 years as a lead pilot before moving to Westbury and building his dream home. Finding a job, however, Watson said was difficult. "I went to every building in New York and New Jersey with a personnel office and kept getting turned down," he said, adding that his opportunity finally came with the help of the late Bobby Kennedy who, in 1965, offered him a position with the Federal Aviation Authority in Washington, DC. For the next 27 years,
Watson worked as an equal opportunity specialist and also served as an air traffic specialist.

As an equal opportunity specialist, 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, Watson had logged between 2,600 and 2,700 trips back and forth.

When asked why he made the commute, Watson said, "I wanted to see how many people I could help. What I did for other people is something I am very proud of."

Looking back on his life, Watson has a lot to be proud of. Personally, he married the love of his life, Edna Marie Marshall and raised five children who in return gave him seven grandchildren and one great grandchild. Professionally, he achieved his childhood goal of being a pilot and on March 29 will be honored for it. The Congressional Gold Medal, said Watson, "is the final leg" of what has been a very good life. On March 29, Watson will share this great milestone with his wife of 63 years as she will be his "plus one" at the exclusive, invitation-only ceremony.

"One cannot imagine the emotion, memories and pride that will be in that room [the day of the awards ceremony]," added Brewington. "These men have waited a long, long time for this and now, when you know you are going to get it, you want to see it in your hands before you close your eyes."

Article By Victoria A. Caruso article from:


Background image of an Air Force Pilot