A couple of weeks ago, while doing research on Frank Petersen, the first African-American Marine pilot, Jesse Brown was mentioned because it was his heroic combat in the air that inspired Petersen. Within a few days of completing the story, Lt. Calvin J. Spann, a highly decorated Tuskegee airman, passed away. Rather than an obituary, Spann gets his moment here in the Classroom, which is just a small token of esteem for his courageous aerial conquests. He was 90 when he died in Allen, Texas, Sept. 6.
Three years ago, at the Jersey City Free Public Library, Spann was saluted when he was the featured speaker at the 10th annual Black History Month program of the Miller Branch Library. From the moment he entered the assembly, dressed in a red blazer, bedecked with ribbons, the room was his. He beguiled everyone with one war story after another. In attendance were other Tuskegee airmen, so Spann dared not stray too from the truth about his experiences during World War II.
But for a man of his character and integrity, there was never a reason for him to lie or fancy up a tale, particularly if it had anything to do with being a “Red Tail” fighter. During the dogfights in the sky with the German planes, the Tuskegee pilots were easily distinguished by the red tails of their P51 Mustangs.
Spann’s adventures began in Rutherford, N.J., where he was born Nov. 28, 1924. Always energetic and inquisitive, Spann, at the age of 16, was a Golden Gloves boxing champion. It was not too long after this success in the ring that he embarked on another fight in the war against fascism. He was 17 when he dropped out of high school, passed a two-year college equivalency test and was called to serve in the Army Air Corps.
As a new recruit, he was sent to Tuskegee, Ala., for aviation cadet training in 1943. Upon completing the course work, at which he excelled, he was dispatched to Italy as a replacement pilot. This deployment was on short notice, and because he had never flown a P51, they gave him an instruction manual. This lack of information was no challenge for a man who was a quick study.
His stint in Italy could have ended if the military had known his home had burned down while he was overseas. His mother kept this information to herself, fearing that disclosing the news to the Red Cross would end his career, as he would have been sent home because he was the oldest male in the family.
Spann was assigned to the legendary 100th Fighter Squadron, part of the 332nd Fighter Group. He flew 29 combat missions in Europe before the end of World War II. On his first mission, according to what he said in his biography by Lee Frances Brown, he flew on the wing of Lt. Roscoe Brown, a distinguished airman who is credited with being the first to shoot down a German jet.
These missions were flown with the utmost of confidence by the Tuskegee Airmen, Spann related. Whether flying reconnaissance or escorting bombers, which was their primary task—and they never lost a bomber to enemy fire—Spann said, “That first ride is a thrill, even for a young, crazy guy … We were trained to feel that if something was going to happen, it would be to the other guy, not you. Prayer has always been in the forefront of what I’ve tried to do.”
His tenure with the Tuskegee Airmen was illustrious, and he was the recipient of many awards, including the Air Medal with one oak leaf cluster, a Presidential Unit Citation and the Mediterranean Theatre of Operation ribbon. There were also victory buttons for his chest.
He was honourably discharged in 1946. Though he was no longer in uniform on a regular basis and never retired, he was in the Air Force Reserves until 1961.
In 2006, Tuskegee University awarded him a Doctor of Public Service degree. After being inducted into the New Jersey Aviation Hall of Fame, Spann was invited to the White House by President Barack Obama, along with other Tuskegee Airmen and their families, for a Veterans Day event.
According to information gleaned from background material available during his appearance at the Library, Spann left the reserves because of the limited scheduling opportunities allowed for African-Americans to fly. “I was trying to go to school at nights and work during the day,” he recalled. “I couldn’t spend the weekends trying to get a plane and not even get one. They didn’t allocate enough planes for people to get their time in. And pilots have to fly at least four hours a month to qualify for flying pay. Not getting a chance to fly, I decided to get my discharge.”
Spann was no longer in the cockpit of a plane when President Harry Truman in 1948 issued an executive order that desegregated the military. Even so, the Black airmen were not stifled by the discrimination and the racism they received. To them, it was another obstacle to overcome, one on the ground and not in the air.
Getting a job as a commercial pilot for one of the major airlines, however, was a barrier he was unable to hurdle. Instead, Spann worked for a pharmaceutical company for many years.
After his speech at the Library, Spann was presented with Key to the City by then-Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy, along with proclamations from New Jersey Sen. Sandra B. Cunningham and Councilwoman-at-Large Viola Richardson. He was gracious in his acceptance of the awards, somewhat bewildered and wondering how he would make room in his vast collection.
Up until a year ago, Spann lived in Englewood, but last year he moved to Allen, Texas, to be closer to his family.
This family was his second family because once you’re a Tuskegee Airman, that family, that entourage of courage, takes precedent over all other ensembles