Tuskegee airman Leon 'Woodie' Spears dies
Patricia Yollin, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, June 2, 2008
Leon "Woodie" Spears loved being a Tuskegee airman. As a member of the legendary World War II group of African American pilots - the first in U.S. military history - he flew 68 combat missions spanning two wars.
However, when he traveled around the country decades later to talk about his life with the 332nd Fighter Group of the U.S. Army Air Forces, he drove his Dodge pickup truck and avoided planes whenever he could.
"He said he didn't trust any other pilots," Shirley Spears said of her husband. "He was a nervous flier. When he flew to Hawaii, he had white knuckles."
Mr. Spears, who lived in Hayward, died of a heart attack on May 12 at the age of 84.
Les Williams, a Tuskegee airman who knew Mr. Spears for at least 60 years, said, "He was always telling the public about us. He was a very charismatic, articulate person."
His life provided reams of material for the lecture circuit, where he put in 44 appearances last year alone and gave talks using his "Dare to Dream" theme.
Born in Colorado in January 1924, Mr. Spears grew up near the Pueblo Municipal Airport. In one of his speeches, he recalled hearing the drone of a plane as a 6-year-old boy and watching it land and taxi.
"I thought, right then and there, 'My God. I don't care what happens, that's what I'm going to do. I've got to fly.' "
In 1943, he succeeded, as a student at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. His flight lessons, however, were accompanied by relentless racial prejudice, especially from his instructor.
"Woodie would be called the n-word every day," his widow said. "When he finished training school, that same instructor pinned his wings on him and hugged him."
Phil Schasker, public affairs officer for the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc., said, "They were highly motivated because they had to fight two wars."
Schasker said black pilots had to confront the enemy abroad plus widespread doubts at home that they were competent enough to handle complex equipment.
"In the beginning, the bomber pilots they were escorting were often from the South," Schasker said. "Initially, they didn't know these were black guys flying. All they knew was that they never lost an airplane."
After graduating from flight school and being commissioned a second lieutenant in 1944, Mr. Spears was sent to Italy. Piloting P-51 Mustangs, with the red tail markings of the 332nd Fighter Group, he flew 50 missions - and shot down one Heinkel He 111 medium bomber. On his 51st mission, in March 1945, his plane was hit by a German flak burst at 32,000 feet. Mr. Spears bailed out and survived, but was taken prisoner by the Germans and later the Russians.
During the Korean War, which started in 1950, he flew 17 more combat missions. On one reconnaissance flight, his younger brother, George, a jet pilot serving only that day under his sibling's command, was "killed right in front of him," Schasker said, when his plane was knocked out of the sky by enemy anti-aircraft artillery.
"It just devastated Woodie," he said. "For that reason, he returned to the United States."
Mr. Spears retired as a captain. During his career, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart and several Air Medals. After the war, he tried to get a job with the airlines, his wife said, but couldn't. He worked for the U.S. Postal Service for 35 years, as a railway mail clerk, carrier and station manager.
As an ambassador for the Tuskegee Airmen, he made the elite unit come alive again, even for those who knew nothing of its history.
"Nobody loves what he does as much as I do," Mr. Spears said in a video that can be seen on YouTube.
"He had an electrifying personality," Schasker said. "He was honest. But he didn't dwell on the bad things."
Last year, he was among the Tuskegee Airmen who received the Congressional Gold Medal from President Bush in Washington, D.C. He also attended the Gathering of Mustangs and Legends in Columbus, Ohio.
At a memorial in Hayward on May 21, two vintage P-51 fighter planes did a flyover after the funeral, which drew more than 300 people.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Spears is survived by his son, Stephen Spears of Oakland, nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Another son, Sheldon, died in 1986.
Anyone wishing to donate in Mr. Spears' name can write a check to the Summer Flight Academy and send it to: Tuskegee Airmen Inc., William "Bill" Campbell Chapter, P.O. Box 8814, Emeryville, CA 94662-0814.