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This Day in History: Calvin Spann, Tuskegee Airman

On this day in 2015, Lt. Calvin J. Spann passes away at the age of 90. Decades earlier, he’d been one of the original members of the Tuskegee Airmen.

“The Tuskegee Airmen overcame segregation and prejudice to become one of the most highly respected fighter groups of World War II,” the Airmen’s website notes, “They proved conclusively that African Americans could fly and maintain sophisticated combat aircraft. . . . [Their achievements] paved the way for full integration of the U.S. military.”

And Spann was right in the thick of it.

Spann had wanted to fly, even as a kid. The aviation comic strip The Adventures of Smilin’ Jack had sparked his imagination. When he had the opportunity to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Forces, he seized it.

Spann and the rest of the Tuskegee Airmen would go on to distinguish themselves during World War II. As for Spann himself, he flew 26 combat missions, but his most memorable experience came on March 24, 1945.

“We were chosen to escort the bomber to Berlin, and that was the longest mission we ever flew,” Spann explained. “It came close to six hours and most of us were just about out of fuel.”

The trip was 1,600 miles from Ramitelli, Italy, to Germany. It was an “exceedingly long mission,” as Spann would later describe—and a “privilege to go.” The bombers were to destroy the Daimler-Benz manufacturing plant. Both Spann and his squadron commander, Capt. Roscoe Brown, would engage German ME-262 jet fighters during that mission. The Tuskegee Airmen shot three planes out of the sky that day.

“It was like taking the last breath out of the enemy,” Spann’s biography concludes, “that’s how important that mission to Berlin was, and shortly after that mission was flown, World War II did end.”

Unfortunately, Spann couldn’t find a job as a pilot after the war. Desegregation was coming, but it hadn’t happened yet.

“He didn’t let it discourage him,” his daughter, Carla, would later say.

Spann found a job in a chemical factory. Once there, he was promoted to factory supervisor. Then he became a sales rep, the owner of a restaurant-bar, and a real estate broker.

During all this time, he didn’t speak of his war experiences. His daughter didn’t even know what he’d done until she was in high school.

“He was just my dad. He was Uncle Calvin to everybody else in the community. I didn’t grow up thinking I had some hotshot hero dad. I just had a dad,” Carla said.

But Spann had learned the value of perseverance, so he taught his daughter to pursue her dreams. “He never let me limit myself on anything I wanted to do or anything I wanted to be,” she concluded.

Carla is now Dr. Carla Spann, a dentist in Texas.

Spann eventually began speaking about his military experiences. What did he credit with his success when addressing young people?

“It came from determination to prove somebody wrong,” he said. “You have some things that people tell you. You are going to show them that you can do it. That’s determination. . . . What they thought I couldn’t do, I could do.”

Mere months before his passing, Spann attended a Black History Month event with Benjamin Drew, an astronaut who flew aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery.

“We stood on the shoulders of the accomplishment of people like the Tuskegee Airmen,” Drew told the crowd, “so that today we no longer have to carry the words first or only as part of our accomplishments.”

“They flew airplanes. They broke boundaries. They proved that it didn’t matter what color you were. You could play any role in the military,” Carla would later agree.

Her father, she concluded after his passing, was “short in stature, but great in character.”

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