ARLINGTON, Va. - His wife, Edna, clasped her hand over her heart. His youngest son, Weyman, in crisp Navy dress whites, snapped a firm salute. A daughter, Cynthia Hobson, dabbed at tears.

Through a silence broken by the jingle of harness chains, the clomp of horses' hoofs and the squeal of the wheels of a caisson draped in black bunting, the body of Lt. Col. Spann Watson was borne to its final resting place Thursday at Arlington National Cemetery.

Watson, who as one of the original fabled Tuskegee Airmen was among the first African-American pilots ever to fly in combat, was buried with all the pomp of full military honors. The Westbury resident, 93, died April 15 of complications from pneumonia.

His funeral, delayed by Arlington's months-long backlog, was held at the Old Post Chapel an hour before his burial. The service drew dozens of people who had known Watson from his earliest days of military flying. At least two of them were former Army pilot cadets - both in their 80s - whom he had helped to train.

 

Remembered as a pioneer

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He was remembered as a role model and pioneer who, in helping break the military's racial barrier, made history and helped make his country a better place.

Many more of his old flying colleagues likely would have attended were it not for a scheduling conflict with the annual convention of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc. organization, composed of the Tuskegee pilots and black support personnel. Attendees at the four-day convention, which began Wednesday in San Antonio, held a two-minute moment of silence to coincide with Watson's funeral. He had been the organization's second president.

"A lot of his friends are here," said Roscoe Brown, of Sag Harbor, of the funeral service. Brown was a Tuskegee pilot who trained with Watson.

 

Insisted on excellence

William Wheeler, of Hempstead, a former cadet whom Watson also helped train, eulogized him as a tough but smiling mentor who insisted that young black cadets not stumble, for fear that the Army's World War II decision to end its ban on black aviators be deemed a failure.

"I was fortunate to be one of his students," said Wheeler, 86. "He was a warrior.

"It is gallant men like Spann Watson who pointed the way for the military and civilian populations to make this a better country, by breaking down color barriers, making demands, serving as a lightning rod for changes and serving as magnificent role models."

The Tuskegee Airmen were African-Americans who in 1941 were chosen to participate in a training program based at Tuskegee, Ala. The program was designed to test whether black men had the intelligence, coordination and discipline to become military pilots. Watson, then a civilian pilot who had been repeatedly rejected by the Army, was among the first cadets to complete training. When his class graduated in July 1942, only a dozen other black pilots had their military wings.

Sent in 1943 to Italy with the 99th Fighter Squadron, Watson and five other pilots soon became the first African-Americans to engage an enemy in aerial combat.

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Squadron was a success

The squadron's success and civil rights agitation - military police arrested Watson in 1945 for entering a whites-only officers club on an Army base in Indiana - helped persuade President Harry Truman to end segregation in the military in 1948. When Tuskegee Airmen overflew Truman's 1949 Inaugural Parade, Watson was one of them.

Watson's passing further reduces the small group of black pilots who shattered one of the military's most significant color barriers. Of the 996 pilots who completed the Tuskegee program, only about 50 - all of them in their mid-80s or older - are still living.

Watson's son, Navy Capt. Weyman Watson, said his father chose to be buried in Arlington rather than closer to his family on Long Island because he felt it was important that members of the pioneering group of black aviators be represented at the nation's premier military burial ground.

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Another of Spann Watson's sons, Air Force Capt. Orrin Watson, died in 1981 and is also buried at Arlington.

"He wanted to make sure the 99th and the Tuskegee Airmen were remembered and had a presence there, so that nobody would forget them," Weyman Watson said of his father. "He considered Arlington to be the military's Hall of Fame."