Lt. Spann Smart Tuskegee Airmen
Second Lieutenant Calvin J. Spann was a smart Tuskegee Airman. During the second World War, he was arguably, the United States’ smartest Airman, Tuskegee or otherwise. He did not set out to become a Tuskegee Airman. Spann simply wanted to fly fighter jets. At the age of 17 he was attending high school in New Jersey. He learned that the Army had a written examination for pilots.
Spann took the exam. He scored higher than anyone in the State of New Jersey on the pilot’s exam and was invited to join the United States Army’s pilot training program.
Spann, standing in the strength of his African heritage, showed up at Fort Dix, New Jersey for induction. His presence stunned and shocked the military brass. They were shocked to learn that the New Jersey youngster who had outscored every other applicant had skin color as dark as the night is dark at midnight.
Quickly, as if scrambling jets to meet an incoming threat, the top brass told Spann that he could not train with a white unit, but that a group was being organized in Tuskegee, Alabama for colored pilot applicants and they would reassign him to the Tuskegee unit. He had not heard of the pilot program at Tuskegee.
The Air Force put Spann on a bus to transport him to the Jim Crow south. It would be his first trip below the Mason-Dixon Line. Outside of Washington, he had to sit in the back of the bus, finally arriving in Tuskegee, Alabama to begin his training to become an Airman in the United States Army.
Prior to Spann’s arrival candidates had been hand picked for the Tuskegee Pilot Experimental Program, based upon lightness of skin color, family heritage and previous college coursework. Spann broke the mode. His bloodline was one hundred percent African. His family in New Jersey carried no particular political or social weight. He had not been to college.
However, Spann was smart. He survived the Tuskegee experiment. He became an Airman, but because of the racial mores of the 1940s, his classmates had to wear a special designation. This designation separated them from other airmen in the US Army; they were Tuskegee Airmen, a code word in the parlance of that day, for a Negro pilot, who was inferior to white pilots in training, skill and courage.
Spann endured with grace the indignities of that day while escorting bombers to their targets and safely back home.
In 1977 I interviewed several Tuskegee Airmen who were living in Tuskegee at that time for a series on the exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen for the Tuskegee Voice. Spann was not one of them. He did not return to Tuskegee after the war.
I would not meet him until February 5, 2013. He was 88 years of age. He came out to the corporate headquarters of Southwest Airlines in Dallas, Texas to meet me. I was there autographing my novel Paper Puzzle (Cascade Publishing House, 2011). Spann had a medical procedure earlier that morning. He was clearly discomforted, but he came to spend time with a fellow Tuskegee alumni. He visited with me most of the day. He took me to the Air Force Museum and later out to dinner. He made me feel like I was the Tuskegee Airman.
It was this spirit that he lived. This spirit that transitioned with him on September 6, 2015. We all should be as kind, smart and unflinchingly courageous as Calvin J. Spann.
Harold Michael Harvey, is the author of the legal thriller “Paper Puzzle,” and “Justice in the Round: Essays on the American Jury System,” available at Amazon and at haroldmichaelharvey.com. He can be contacted at email@example.com