Weyman Watson, son of Lt. Col. Spann Watson — one of the original Tuskegee Airmen — has spent much of his adult life flying, in pilot parlance, “top cover” for his father’s legacy.
That’s what the all-black Airmen squadrons often did during World War II: flying above the formations of American bombers, guarding them against aerial attacks during their long missions over enemy territory.
As a family historian, public speaker, member of the nonprofit heritage group The Tuskegee Airmen Inc. and a race car owner, the younger Watson has helped preserve and promote the legacy of his father and the approximately 1,000 other African-American men who took to the skies against Nazi Germany.
Spann Watson was born in 1916 in South Carolina and raised in Lodi, New Jersey. He was inspired to fly as a boy after seeing Charles Lindbergh at an air show. In 1941, he joined the segregated U.S. Army Air Corps and became an original member of what became, in essence, a separate black air force. The new units did much of their training in Tuskegee, Alabama.
In April 1943, Watson’s unit, the 99th Fighter Squadron, was the first of the Airmen to deploy to Europe. There, he flew 32 combat missions in his P-40 Warhawk and earned several decorations for heroism.
Weyman Watson, 59, lives in South Orange, New Jersey, and is the youngest of Spann’s five children (three boys, two girls). A Navy airman (and later, Reservist) himself from 1980-2010, Weyman shared the bond of military experience with his father, although it is Spann Watson’s post-military career with the Federal Aviation Administration that his son feels may be his most important work.
Spann Watson died in 2010. His funeral in Arlington National Cemetery was front-page news. Weyman Watson is an account manager for a computer hardware company. Recently, he talked with Newsday about his life and that of his late father.
Growing up, were you aware of the fact that your dad was a war hero? Did he talk about it?
Very little. Many of the adults I knew in the early part of my life, when we were living on Air Force bases, were his fellow Tuskegee Airmen. Back then, I just knew them as Colonel so and so, my dad’s friend. They’d socialize and play basketball and softball together, but they never gathered around the fire and sang the Tuskegee Airmen song or anything like that.
How did your family end up in Westbury?
My dad wanted his kids to go to integrated schools and live in an integrated neighborhood. The schools in Westbury were already integrated by the early 1960s. They had a top-flight reputation at that time. And he and my mom knew the area because they had visited it when he was stationed at Mitchell Field after the war.
Did your father’s service record help him find a house on Long Island?
I don’t think so. Before he and my mom decided on Westbury, he actually went out to Levittown to investigate buying one of the houses there. They told him to his face, “We’re not going to sell you a house because you’re black.” Even when we did get to Westbury, it was pretty segregated. Most of the black people lived in New Cassel. I remember looking around our neighborhood and it was obvious you were in the minority. I remember my father being pretty conscious of that, too. He wanted to make sure our house was the best-looking on the block.
When did you learn about the Tuskegee Airmen and your dad’s role?
I left Westbury when I was 18, and nobody was talking about the Tuskegee Airmen then. It wasn’t until I was in the service that it really hit me. The TV show “Real People” did a big story on the Tuskegee Airmen. I was walking around the hangar the next day and people started coming up to me, saying, “Hey, I saw that thing about the Tuskegee Airmen. Wasn’t your old man one of those guys?” They thought it was amazing, and that’s when it started to click that what my dad had been part of was a big deal.
But it wasn’t until later that you and he really started to talk about it?
After I had spent some time in military aviation, been overseas, been involved in some hot situations, he felt like he could talk about it with me. When he finally did, he talked about it in gory detail. My dad started out in North Africa, then flew in Sicily and Italy when the Allies invaded there. They used to do a lot of strafing missions. He told me that when you’re flying at 300 feet people don’t think you see what’s happening on the ground. But he told me you see everything; you see everybody you kill and everybody you don’t kill. One time he said, “I don’t have to wonder if I killed anyone in the war, I know that I killed a lot of people. That’s not a good feeling.”
How did you get involved in the history and legacy of the Airmen?
My old man was a kind of high-profile guy, and people had a lot of respect for him. When I started going to conventions, people would say, “Hey, you’re Spann Watson’s son, let me talk to you.” And sometimes I would show up in my uniform, so it became a natural transference. He had been the president of the alumni association for a few years, and so then I was expected to carry on the tradition. I’ve been active in the organization. I maintain the website for the New York Chapter. (nyctai.org)
You feel your biggest contribution to the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen was in auto sports?
Yes, with the support of two good friends, I formed Top Cover Racing in 2009. Junious Matthews, who idolized the Airmen, had been a member of championship racing teams for years. Andrew Prendeville was an active racing driver whose grandfather Edward was a navigator on a World War II bomber crew escorted by the Tuskegee Airmen on missions over Europe. My father, now bitten by the racing bug, enlisted the support of other Tuskegee Airmen to help Top Cover field cars with the paint scheme of the Tuskegee Airmen’s World War II aircraft . . . silver bodies, red tails, red noses, gold stripes. We raced in over 20 major competitions and demonstrations through 2012, and through broadcast, online and social media coverage, we were able to expose millions to the Airmen’s legacy.
These days, the Tuskegee Airmen and their wartime exploits are well known. But you feel that their real significance is not as well understood?
The thing that’s really important about the Tuskegee Airmen is that they went to war to prove that they could do anything anybody else could after the war. What gets missed a lot is all the doors they opened for blacks and other minorities. Some people that were key to Martin Luther King’s movement were Tuskegee Airmen. The first black mayor of Detroit was a Tuskegee Airman. Percy Sutton, the first black borough [Manhattan] president, was a Tuskegee Airman. He and my old man were training partners in the war.
Speaking of your dad again, can you talk about his post-military career?
He got out of the Air Force in 1965 and was hired by the Federal Aviation Administration to work in their Equal Opportunity Office. This was right after the Civil Rights Act of ’64 passed, and the job of that office was to make sure minorities had equal access to jobs in aviation. He got a whole bunch of people hired. In fact, if you took a plane in the 1960s, 1970s or even 1980s, and saw a black pilot in the cockpit, or just walking down the concourse at the airport, chances are Spann Watson got him his job. I’m very proud of that.