He was a charismatic man who excelled among an elite group of military fliers.

But as he lay in a flag-draped coffin at a Westbury funeral home, Spann Watson's youngest son eulogized him as a man of humble roots who believed success came from helping others succeed.

"What he learned . . . and was burned in his heart was anyone could be a friend, an ally," said Watson's son, Navy Capt. Weyman Watson. "That's why he always greeted you with that mile-wide smile, those twinkling eyes."

Watson, a member of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen, died Thursday of pneumonia complications.

Wednesday, hundreds of friends and neighbors gathered to honor Watson, who had lived in Westbury since building a home there in 1962.

The son of a South Carolina farmer, he helped carve the nation's path toward civil rights.

After being turned away in 1940 by an Army recruiter on Long Island who told him the U.S. military did not allow blacks to fly aircraft, Watson applied again when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People forced the War Department to open a special training program for black pilots.

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When his cadet class graduated in July 1942, only a dozen other black pilots had their military wings.

He flew missions over Europe, then returned to the United States during the war to help train other black pilots. In doing so, he came to know virtually every black man in America who knew how to fly.

On April 6, 1945, 10 years before Rosa Parks' defiance sparked the Birmingham bus boycott, Watson was one of 58 black pilots who voluntarily submitted to arrest for entering a "whites only" officers club at an Army base in Indiana. The incident, known as the Freeman Field Mutiny, proved a huge embarrassment to a War Department that was touting unit cohesion and is credited with hastening the end of segregation in the military.

After retiring as an Air Force lieutenant colonel in 1965, Watson became an equal opportunity officer for the Federal Aviation Administration. He used the position to persuade the airlines, which had refused to hire black military pilots, to integrate commercial cockpits and flight crews.

A funeral at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia is being planned.