As a Tuskegee Airman, the late Leon “Woodie” Spears was one of fewer than 1,000 African-Americans pilots in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. He was among the last cadets to be trained on the grounds of (and in the air above) the Tuskegee Army Air Field near Tuskegee, Ala. Several thousand other African-Americans were also trained there to be navigators, traffic controllers, mechanics, and bomber crew members.
Nothing was easy for the young black men who came to Tuskegee from all around the country in the early 1940s. Woodie was from Trinidad, Colo., where he was born in 1924. One of his earliest memories was lying on his back in an open field and watching longingly as planes flew overhead, but hardly anyone encouraged his ambition to fly.
The rationale and procedure for training the Tuskegee Airmen in an era that was characterized by severe racial discrimination, particularly in the Jim Crow South, was at once progressive and insulting. It was the result of pressure by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and black owned newspapers who advocated opening all areas of the U.S. military to participation by African-Americans, but the authorities who acceded to this pressure nevertheless deemed the program an “experiment” because they did not believe that African-Americans could be taught to fly, let alone fly in combat. When First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited Tuskegee in 1941, she worried her handlers by insisting that a black flight instructor, Charles “Chief” Anderson, give her a ride in his plane. The event was filmed and shown in movie theaters around the country. Mrs. Roosevelt became an outspoken champion of the program.
When Woodie became a cadet, relatively late in the war, he and his fellow cadets still faced the same obstacles as earlier cadets, including inhospitable treatment from local white Alabamans and white instructors who showed little confidence in their abilities. Tuskegee washed out pilots who were better than some of the pilots who graduated from all-white training programs, with the ironic result that all the cadets who graduated from the Tuskegee program were above average pilots. Woodie and his classmates felt that they were about to go overseas to fight an enemy in a shooting war while still having to fight for their civil rights in their own country and army.
Woodie and I met in the 1990s in Oakland, Calif., where we worked at the same hospital and often ate lunch together in the cafeteria. I enjoyed and encouraged his reminiscences about his exploits. After being deployed late in 1944, he was part of a squadron that brought down a German Heinkel He-111 bomber. But on another mission, in 1945, his P-51 Mustang was hit by anti-aircraft fire during a mission.
Woodie was the harshest critic of his own performance. He said that, at that time, he did not fully recognize the damage to his aircraft, and he found that the measures he took to keep his plane aloft, instead made it lose altitude. This brought him within range of German 88-millimeter guns on one side of the Oder River between Germany and Poland. Unfortunately, he was also taking fire from Russian guns on the other side of the river, because the P-51 looks like a German Messerschmidt Me-109 when it is flying toward you. Forced to fly back into Germany with his plane running on the last fumes of its fuel, Woodie crash landed on an airfield. Without its landing gear deployed the plane skidded on its belly, tearing up the lower part of the fuselage (which Woodie deemed good because he did not want the Germans to capture his plane intact), but also injuring his foot. Five armed Germans surrounded him and took him into custody.
He was not imprisoned for long. Within days, Soviet troops overran the Germans and liberated him. He was subsequently awarded a Purple Heart medal for his wounds.
Leon “Woodie” Spears was called up again during the Korean War, advancing to the rank of captain in the integrated U.S. Air Force. He died in Oakland May 12, 2008.
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