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Tuskegee airman tells students of his long journey

332 Fighter Group, 100 Fighter Squadron fighter pilot Lt. Calvin Spann looks into the camera during a Black History Month celebration at the National Airport in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 24, 2015. The squadron famously know as the "The Tuskegee Airmen" is also referred to as the "Red Tails." Spann flew 26 combat missions in the European theater before the end of World War II.

RICK VASQUEZ/STARS AND STRIPES

By RICK VASQUEZ | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 27, 2015

WASHINGTON — Original Tuskegee airman Calvin Spann flew 26 combat missions over Nazi Germany.

But after he returned from Europe, he never flew again.

Spann separated from active duty in 1946, but was enlisted in the Air Force Reserves until 1961. But even while keeping contractual obligations of being in the reserves, he was denied the opportunity to maintain his flying hours to keep his pilot’s license.

“Jim Crow was in the north — it was just undercover,” Spann’s wife, Gwenelle Johnson, told students from Charles Drew Model Elementary School in Arlington, Va. during a Black History Month celebration at the Reagan National Airport in Washington. “He would never get a plane to keep up his hours, and he really, really got frustrated.

“He just said ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ because every time he would go down to get a plane,” Johnson said, referring to the airport in Teterboro, New Jersey, “they would say, ‘There is no planes available’ and he would see the planes down there.

“And 50 years later,” she said, “they put him in their aviation hall of fame.”

Spann was inducted in to the New Jersey Aviation Hall of Fame in 2006 and is a recipient of Doctorate of Public Service from Tuskegee University.  In 2006, the Congress awarded the Tuskegee Airmen a Congressional Gold Medal.

Spann received his wings from the Tuskegee Flight School as part of the graduation class of 44G. The original Tuskegee Airman served in Europe during World War II as a fighter pilot for the 100th Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fighter group.

He flew 26 missions before the end of the war, including the longest bomber escort mission in 15th Air Force history: a 1,600-mile round trip mission, from Ramitelli, Italy, to Berlin. The objectuive was to destroy Daimler-Benz manufacturing facility, and they were awarded Presidential Unit Citation for the mission, credited with destroying three German Me-262 jet fighters and damaging five more.

The 90-year-old Spann is frail, these days, and silently listened the program presentation at the Tuesday event, occasionally dozing off. Johnson said they struggled to attend the event because of his frequent visits to the hospital during the last six months.

“He made it here just by the grace of God,” she said. “He was actually in the hospital [Wednesday].”

The only time Spann addressed the audience during the program presentation was to speak about a replica of a US Airways Airbus presented to him as a gift of appreciation from American Airlines.

“I do want to mention something about this plane that I’m holding in my hand,” said Spann. “When I came out of the service most pilots got the opportunity to fly this type of plane. But we were denied that privilege.”

“I’m happy to be one of the persons that, later on, had American Airlines rescind that order.”

Johnson said that during the 30 years she has been around Tuskegee Airmen, she found that their feeling was that they did a job, they came home, and they got back into the routine before the war.

“If you talk to any Tuskegee Airman,” she said, “they will say ‘I fought because it was my country and I would do it again. We made changes in this country that needed to be made. We are proud that we did what we did.’”

Vasquez.rick@stripes.com
Twitter: @vmfiles

Students and staff from Charles Drew Model Elementary School in Arlington, Va., pose for a photo with 332 Fighter Group, 100 Fighter Squadron fighter pilot Lt. Calvin Spann and his wife, Gwenelle Jonson, on Feb. 24, 2015.
RICK VASQUEZ/STARS AND STRIPES

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