Thursday, April 22, 2010


Keith Bettinger

It was announced in the newspaper’s obituary column that a man named Spann Watson passed away recently from complications of pneumonia in Winthrop Memorial Hospital in Mineola, NY at the age of 93. Many people didn’t know this gentleman, and a regret of mine is I didn’t meet him sooner. You see Spann Watson was living history. He was one of the first men picked to be a Tuskegee Airman. He was Lt. Colonel Spann Watson, USAF, Retired.

In the dark days of World War II and during a time of non-existent civil rights for African Americans, he fought for the privilege to fight for this country. This was the same country that in certain places, would deny him the same rights that were afforded German prisoners of war who were residing in Prisoner of War camps in America.

I went to Westbury High School with Orrin Watson, Colonel Watson’s son. Orrin was a year ahead of me in school. He went on to follow in his father’s career path by going to the United States Air Force Academy and graduated in 1971. He went on to fly B-52s for the Air Force and commercial jets for the airlines. Tragically, he was taken too soon when he died in an automobile accident while attending training to fly F-4 Phantom jets.

I had the pleasure of inviting Colonel Watson to be a guest speaker for a meeting of the SHIELDS of Long Island. When he answered the phone, he barked WATSON HERE! I thought I was going to jump up and stand at attention. I invited him to be a speaker at our meeting at the Swan Club in Glen Head, New York. When I arrived, there he was sitting in his car waiting to come in. I introduced myself and as he got out of his car, he removed his driving shoes and put on his spit shined military oxfords. Over his shoulder he carried a clothing bag. Before the meeting he slipped out of his sport jacket and put on the famed red blazer of the Tuskegee Airmen, a garment of pride that he carried in the clothing bag. He spoke for almost an hour and received a standing ovation at the end of his presentation.

At the following annual board meeting of the Shields, he was invited to be an honorary member. He graciously accepted our invitation and was proud of his membership. Recently, he returned to a Shields meeting at the Stewart Thomas Manor in Plainedge, New York. Although he was some years older and a little bit slower, he still mesmerized the attendees with his presentation.

When he was 91 years old, he had Lasik surgery and no longer needed glasses. His eyes were clear and strong enough to return him to the cockpit that he so loved.
All the Tuskegee Airmen, both living and dead finally received a prestigious citation for their service to this country and Colonel Watson was there to receive his overdue thank you from a grateful nation. He received an invitation to attend President Obama’s inauguration with other fellow Tuskegee Airmen. What an honor to receive, an invitation to attend a historic event.

Now at age 93, what a war could not do, pneumonia has accomplished; it has stolen Lieutenant Colonel Spann Watson from us. The only good thing to come out of this is that Spann’s son Orrin now has a very special wingman.


Kit Sloane said...

What a terrific story and how lucky you were to know this fine man.

Thanks for sharing it.


Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Thanks for that post, Keith. Great story, great man.