Photo of Captain Leon "Woodie" Spears, USAF, retired
(From the collection of Maureen O'Neil)
Leon "Woodie" Spears was a U.S. Army Air Force officer during World War II, serving with the 301st Fighter Squadron, 332nd Fighter Group. His P-51 Mustang airplane was nicknamed "Kitten," having been named by its previous pilot, Lt. Charles McGee, because of the way that its engine purred.
Spears would later fly with the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War. One of the tragedies of his life was that his younger brother, who had not served in World War II but afterward became an Air Force pilot, was killed in air combat over Korea.
|Booker T. Washington, founder|
of the Tuskegee Institute
The Tuskegee program to train African-American combat pilots was part of a series of "experiments" during World War II to find out whether African Americans could meet the same training and combat fitness standards as troops of other ethnicities (mainly white). The pilot training program was established at the traditionally African-American technical school, the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), which had been founded on July 4, 1881 near Tuskegee, Alabama, by Booker T. Washington.
The pilot training program was run on a quota system. Quotas have been turned on their head since the 1940s. Nowadays, if someone is said to have gotten into a program on a quota basis, it is generally assumed that either the standards might have been relaxed on behalf of minority applicants or that, out of all the applicants from multiple ethnic groups, if equally qualified, a conscious effort might have been made to admit minorities in greater proportion than their occurrence in the general population. On the contrary, the quota system used in the 1940s was intended to eliminate as many minorities as possible by forcing them to meet higher standards than their white counterparts. It has been said that better pilots were washed out of the Tuskegee program than were graduated by the whites-only pilot training programs.
The notion that African Americans might not be fit for combat seems an astonishingly foolish premise to us in the twenty-first century, but it was believed by enough people in high places that the various World War II-era projects to train African Americans to fight in infantry, armored, and air units were often in danger of being scuttled, none more so than the Tuskegee program, even after the first squadrons were deployed in Africa, and then in Italy. The general ignorance of the significant part played by African Americans in every U.S. conflict persists up to today and was responsible for the prejudice that led war planners during World War II to reinvent the wheel with regard to the training of African Americans for combat.
|Members of the all-black 332nd Fighter Group in Italy|
|Gen. William W. Momyer|
Among the youngest African Americans to become a fighter pilot during World War II, Spears entered the war only in late 1944. But he saw action. He and Lieutenant James Mitchell together shot down a German He-111 bomber and shared credit for the victory.
There is a reason why the 332nd never lost a plane that they escorted over enemy territory, and there is a reason why they never produced an ace pilot (one who has single-handedly shot down at least five enemy aircraft). They are both the same reason: The dictate of the unit's commanding officer, Colonel (later General) Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., who was the son of the first African-American general in the United States Army. He was a stickler who insisted that the first African-American fighter group in history was going to do everything by the book. This meant that he forbade members of any bomber escort operation under his command to break away from their protective formation around the bombers and go off to engage in aerial duels with German fighter pilots who were trying to shoot down the Allied bombers. Whether he used the term or not, Davis appears to have regarded this activity as "hot-dogging," the quest for personal glory at the expense of the official mission of guarding the bombers.
|Col. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., leader|
of the 332nd Fighter Group
Davis, a West Point graduate, had a good tactical reason for his approach. It was a common enemy ploy to lure glory-seeking American and British pilots away from their charges and then swoop in and destroy the unprotected bombers. Davis would not allow his men to fall for this trick, and, consequently, his group had a low rate of loss among the bombers that they protected, but also a low rate of enemy aircraft shot down in combat. The 99th did have a remarkable success when they became the first air unit to sink an enemy naval vessel by using only their on-board canons and machine guns; however, "ground victories," no matter how successful, did not count toward ace ratings.
In any case, Davis' approach paid off. The 332nd became the most requested escort unit by bomber pilots.
Toward the end of the war, Spears was shot down over German-occupied Poland. Listening to the engine after being hit the first few time, he knew that his plane would not make it home. His preference would have been to land in Soviet-held territory, but he had a little problem.
Even fifty years later, Spears still went over in his mind what he did that day and how he could have saved his plane but ultimately had to wreck her. If he had used his controls differently, when he was at 32,000 feet, he might have been able to glide further into Russian-held territory and land among allies of the United States. Due to inexperience, he kept making moves that lowered his altitude prematurely. His problem then was that the Russians mistook him for a German.
"You see, when the P-51 Mustang is flying directly at you it looks like an Me-109 from certain angles. While I was flying down this river I could feel shells hitting the plane. I said to myself, well, I'm on this side of the river so the shells got to be coming from those Russians. Once they saw that I was an American they stopped firing at me. As I remember, I saw myself coming toward this runway. I said to myself that if I let the wheels down I could probable make a pretty good landing. I decided not to land because I did not want the enemy to use the plane. As I was in the process of putting the wheels up I hit the ground. I did not have enough power to work the hydraulics."**
It was not just any runway but one dotted by planes with obvious German markings. What was worse was that, in turning a wheel landing into a crash landing, Spears damaged his foot. He was bleeding and could barely get out of the plane under his own power.
|A restored P-51 with the all-red tail that was the trademark of the 332nd FG|
Help of a sort came in the form of a German car full of armed men who trained their guns on Spears. Taken prisoner by them, Spears later recalled that he was treated fairly well. He received adequate medical attention so that his wound eventually healed after he was returned to his own side.
"You're going to lose this war," he said as he taunted one of his guards who spoke good English.
"Perhaps," said the guard. "But I will go back to being an auto mechanic in Stuttgart. You will go back to being a black man in America."
"I couldn't argue with that," said Spears fifty years later.
Spears was not imprisoned for long. The Germans were soon overrun by Soviet troops who liberated Spears. He was awarded a Purple Heart.
After serving in Korea in the 1950s, Spears settled in California, married a U.S. Post Office official and ended up working as a security guard, but he always enjoyed lecturing on aviation, especially to young people.
I visited Woodie in the hospital in about 1996. I gave him a book entitled "Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can't
Get a Date" [1992, 1996, 2012] by Robert X. Cringely (the pen name of Mark Stephens). Woodie was fascinated by computers and particularly enjoyed Cringely's conceit that computer enthusiasm was similar to earlier generations' fascination with aviation.
Woodie told me a remarkable story when I visited him. He said that he went into the hospital convinced that, this time, he was going to be carried out. His condition deteriorated. Then one morning, he awoke to find his physician hovering about his hospital room. He looked at the clock, and it was 6 A.M.
"What time did you get up to be here this early?" asked Woodie.
"I woke up at 4 A.M.," said his doctor. "I had this terrific idea for how to treat you, and I couldn't wait to get here and try it."
Woodie asked himself a challenging question:
If my doctor is willing to get up at 4 A.M. to come and try to save my life, what right do I have to give up on myself?
After this incident, Woodie recovered. He would live another dozen years, dying on May 12, 2008.
|Gen. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.|
**This quotation is from an interview with Dwayne Holt. Woodie said something very similar to me in a conversation in the 1990s.