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USAF Tuskegee Airman Retired Lieutenant Colonel Interview

 

 

I received my Alumni book in the spring of 2009 and put it on the shelf after glancing through it and there it sat until I decided to mail letters to various people telling them about the Veterans web site in early January of 2010. When I was going through the Alumni book I came across the name Spann Watson. The write up was longer then most and it had an extensive account of his military service including being a past President of the Tuskegee Airmen organization. I went to the High school the next day to verify his graduation year of 1936 and sure enough there he was his name and photo in the 1936 Comet yearbook. I decided to send him a flier about the veterans web site which had my address and phone number on it but to be honest I thought he had probably past on. I made a file of him with a copy of the alumni book record and his High School photo and when I did not get a response I figured he had past on and at least I had information just in case I came across his name in a news article during World War II.

I had pretty much left the thought of Spann Watson in my folder as January came and went. February was slipping by also when I opened up the paper at break time at work at Giant Stadium where I am working as a Union Carpenter and I saw an article in the local section of the Record newspaper on a Tuskegee Airman named Spann Watson. I read the article and there was no mention of
Hackensack High School in the article only Lodi . I started to question weather I had the name right. When I came home I quickly went to my file and there he was! Even though he was 93 years old he still closely resembled the High School photo of 1936. I called the phone number in the Alumni book and his wife
Edna answered around 8:00 pm on February 25, 2010. I told her I researched a Veterans Wall Unit at Hackensack High School and I asked if Spann Watson was the same Spann Watson who graduated from Hackensack High School in 1936. In a very soft voice she answered “Yes it is the same Spann Watson.” I said “what a stiff he never mentioned Hackensack High School ”, she laughed. I asked her if I could speak to Spann and she said he was unavailable but he would call me tomorrow.

There was a snow storm the following day on February 26, 2010 and I (Bob Meli age 54) stayed home from work that day and around 1:30 in the afternoon I called the 93 year old Spann Watson. His wife Edna answered the phone again but this time Spann Watson came to the phone and we spoke for close to an hour. He was so engaging and not a resentful thought about his struggles but rather a stealy personality that would not let any obstacle get in his way coupled with a great sense of humor made for a wonderful conversation, with this 93 year old great American Veteran of World War II.

I asked Spann Watson where he lived before he moved to Hackensack and he said “ We lived on Hill Crest Avenue in Lodi from 1927 to 1934. In the spring of 1934 we moved to 122 John Street in Hackensack .” “Even though the people in Lodi were so good to us my dad felt it was lonely for my mom because she had no black women to be with and she was becoming lonely and isolated.

I asked him how it was attending Hackensack High School and Spann Watson revealing his strong persevering personality said , “I always sat in the front of the class. When I went to school most of the black students would sit in the back of the class because they were so put down over the years. I always sat in the front of the class, I wasn't going to let anything get me down.

Having his year book photo in front of me I asked Spann Watson how he did on the track team and he replied, “Ask me about baseball!” I said “but your year book just has you on the track team.” Spann Watson said, “That's right I couldn't play baseball at Hackensack . I was a very good player and I had played in Lodi, but when I came to Hackensack I signed up to play and the coach his name was Thompson (Oscar J. Thompson) said, “Son you don't expect to play baseball for Hackensack do you?” I said ‘Yes I do'. And then coach Thompson said “son no colored boy has played baseball for Hackensack and as long as I am coach no colored boy is going to play for my team.” “ Well when the coaches and guys I played with in Lodi heard that I couldn't play at Hackensack they all wanted me to put down a Lodi address so I could play for Lodi but my parents would have none of that. The people from Lodi even offered to get me on a black team just so I could continue to play but I just stopped playing. The track coach a Mr. Welch recruited me and so I ran track. I won the Gold medal in 1936 in the broad jump, I jumped 20 plus feet. My brother Hughitt Watson graduated from
Hackensack High School in 1937 and he did very well in track also running the 440. He was part of the segregated Army and he fought in Europe.”

Spann Watson told me the story which appeared in the Record on February 25, 2010, about the plane show in Teterboro airport when Spann Watson at the age of 9 or 10 told the M.C. at the air show that the plane above them in 1927 was the Spirit of Saint Louis and he made fun of Spann Watson saying “This here little colored boy says the plane circling over head is the Spirit of Saint Louis” and every one started laughing at him. Even all these years later you could sense how hurt and annoyed Spann Watson was over this event he said , “I was only 9 or 10 years old and I told the speaker that the plane flying over our head was the
‘Spirit of Saint Louis' he made fun of me and it really hurt my feelings because I was learning the different sounds of engines even at such a young age and I new it was that plane! Well they found out I was right and so I kept going over to the M.C. after that during the day and saying ‘man you don't even know the sound of the ‘Spirit of Saint Louis'. He really hurt my feelings but boy did I give it to him after that.

I asked Spann Watson if he remembered the Principal and any other people on the faculty who may have influenced him in any way. Spann Watson replied “The Principal his name was Marlatt (Edward T. Marlatt) he didn't care about the black students, he just did what he wanted.” The Principal Marlatt had the drama teacher her name was Mrs. Trott who got me while I was in the Hall way to be in a group that traveled around the County to schools that did not have blacks and we would sing Black Spirituals. I did it but some of the songs were offensive to me. They had me play in a biblical story where I played this black Arab King and I didn't mind that.” “My homeroom teacher Mrs. Calnan (who the year book of 1936 was dedicated) taught me Ancient history which I found to be very helpful throughout my life.” What a compliment this is all these many years later for a teacher to hear.

I asked Spann Watson if there was anything he wanted to tell me about how he became a pilot and he said, “Well you needed two years of flying school and I always wanted to fly but from 21 to 25 years old I was unable to get into pilot school. Finally I did get in and it all worked out pretty well.” “ I had a final interview at Maxwell Field in Alabama and the final item was an interview with a panel of senior officers. When I got there we were the last group and the first thing that one of the officers asked me was, ‘what do you think of niggers marrying white women?' I said, “I think it is a personal thing between two people and they should decide but as for me I will stick to own crowd.

I always stood against segregation. Once in 1954 I was always bitterly against segregation, I told this guy who said you guys want desegregation all at once and I said you want to sell it to me in the 1000 year installment plan (then he laughed). I was instrumental in desegregating the military on every level throughout my life. I received a Gold Medal award from Congress for my services.

I asked Spann Watson if there was anything else he wanted to add and
Spann Watson said “Our family went to a Christian Church in Hackensack. Also there was a George Hopper I believe that was his name, who owned a construction company and he was very helpful to our family and then there were these two guys I think there last name was Wilmont and they were cousins, well the Hoppers and the Wilmont's these two families had money and they had the convertible cars and the big house and the pretty women and I wanted that too, and I wasn't going to stop trying to get that stuff. Well over the years I got the big house and I have had a beautiful wife all these years and the convertible cars I have had over the years and I flew a plane all over the world. I just don't have a lot of money right now. (We both laughed)

Spann Watson may not have a lot of money 93 years later but he has left us far richer through his experiences he has shared with us.

Let us never forget the Airmen's Sacrifice.

 

Written by:
Bob Meli
April 12, 2010

 

Background image of P-51 D Mustang obtained from:

http://www.maam.org/wwii/ww2_rides.htm