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Edna Watson, of Westbury, a military wife during an era before armed forces were fully integrated

Edna Watson talks about the Freeman Field Mutiny

Edna Watson talks about the Freeman Field Mutiny event from her Westbury home March 16, 2015. Watson was married to a young lieutenant during the of this significant event in the press for civil rights among America's black soldiers, sailors and airmen. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

In spring 1945, a seasoned black Army Air Force pilot stationed in the Midwest came home and told his wife about a troubling decision he had made.

Fellow black pilots had been turned away from a whites-only officer's club at Freeman Field, Indiana. They had asked the pilot, Spann Watson, who was widely respected as a veteran of 20 fighter missions in Europe and North Africa, whether he would return with them to the officers club in an act of civil protest.

And knowing it could cost him his career, Watson had agreed to go.

"He always said, 'Don't worry don't worry, it's going to work out'," his wife, Edna Watson, remembers. "But he said, 'We're not backing down.' "

Edna Watson, 94, was among the untold number of black women who waited out World War II while wondering what would become of their soldier and sailor husbands.

In the atmosphere of racial segregation that ruled some part of the U.S. military then, Edna Watson and others knew that their men were endangered not only by enemy bullets abroad, but by police batons and racial violence at home.

"There was an added element of fear whenever their husband's protested for their rights," said Rosemary Crockett, who has taken the oral histories of more than 50 spouses of black World War WII pilots -- including Watson's -- for a book she is writing. "They were wondering what is going to happen to my husband, and if they had children, what is going to happen to my family?"

The service members' protests "didn't get much notice because this was on military facilities and not in public," said Crockett, whose parents married shortly before her father, Lt. Col. Woodrow Crockett, began training to become one of 996 black men who earned their wings during the war. "But theirs was a quiet revolution that was helping to change society."

That was the case at Freeman Field, whose command in April 1945 was directed by a Maj. Gen. Frank Hunter, a Georgia-born WWI veteran who insisted on strict racial segregation.

Racial tensions at a series of other airfields had led Army officials to relocate hundreds of black soldiers to Freeman Field, a military installation located 20 miles north of Louisville, Ky.

But when a handful of black officers were told to use another facility rather than Freeman Field's officers club, they planned a protest in which dozens arrived and demanded entry.

In all, more than 100 black officers were arrested during the peaceful protest. They were held at a nearby Army facility to await a court martial trial that could have resulted in lengthy prison sentences and dishonorable discharges. Edna Watson's husband was among them.

"I was afraid for the pilots," she said. "Of course we were angry, because we felt they had as much right to go into the club as anybody else, as much as any white officer."

"They had fought, had given their time and training, had given their all," she said. "Why should they be segregated and denied the privileges they were due?"

Fear of racial reprisal was a near constant concern for the wives of black World War II soldiers, who often found themselves stationed in rural settings in the South and the Midwest.

The couple had met at Tuskegee Army Airfield in Alabama, which at the time was the only training center for black pilots in the U.S. military. Edna Watson, the daughter of a middle class black family from St. Joseph, Missouri, was a civilian teletype worker there. They were married at the airfield's chapel in December 1943.

The threat of racial violence forced the couple to leave South Carolina, where Watson had been assigned to train other pilots at Walterboro Army Airfield in South Carolina upon his return from combat in Europe.

A mob had assembled after a confrontation between Spann Watson and a white garage owner who had refused to service his car. Himself from the South Carolina area, Spann Watson well knew the potential for deadly violence. He had been 8 years old when a mob dragged three family friends into a nearby woodland and tortured them to death in a 1925 incident known as the Lowman Lynching.

But rather than allow Watson to be arrested, his commanding officer had him transferred out of the area.

A year later, having been arrested for insubordination at Freeman Field, Watson's intolerance of racial slights again had his military career teetering on the brink.

But pressured by civil rights organizations and sympathetic members of the public, the War Department eventually dropped the charges against all but three of the protesting officers, who had been accused of bumping a superior officer in the commotion. Two of them were acquitted by a court martial panel; a third was convicted, stripped of rank and dishonorably discharged.

Historians credit the protest with pushing the Army toward full integration. Following the incident, the War Department placed black officers in what had been the all-white leadership structure of the segregated black unit. It named Col. Benjamin O. Davis - who went on to become America's first black four-star general - as commanding officer of the unit, the all-black 477th Composite Group.

Three years later, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which ended segregation in the U.S. military.

The Watsons eventually settled in Westbury, where they raised five children in a house they had built for them. After completing his military career in 1964, he went to work for the Federal Aviation Administration, a position he used to urge the airline industry to drop whites-only hiring policy that kept black World War II and Korean War veterans from airline cockpits. Spann Watson died in 2010 at the age of 93.

Edna Watson said although being the wife of a black soldier during World War II had been challenging, the contributions made by black soldiers in confronting racial discrimination made her feel the sacrifices were justified.

"Well of course it made me very proud," she said. "Anyone who knew Spann Watson knew he was not going to accept anything like that. He was going to fight. And we know now he and the others made a difference to America."

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