By Donald V. Watkins ©Copyrighted and Published (via Facebook) on May 7, 2017; Republished on November 11, 2022
A VETERANS DAY TRIBUTE When I began my senior year at Alabama State College Laboratory High School in September 1965, I noticed this stunningly beautiful girl in the tenth grade. Her name was Natalie S. Lehman. Natalie and her brother, Paul D. Lehman, III, were new to our small all-black school in Montgomery, Alabama. They had attended a racially integrated school in Massachusetts the year before. I could tell by the way Natalie dressed and carried herself that she came from a very distinguished family. My father was president of Alabama State College at the time and I had met a lot of distinguished men and women in our home on campus. The President’s Mansion was where black dignitaries stayed while visiting Montgomery during the turbulent civil rights movement of the 1960s.
I made it my business to meet and befriend Natalie. I developed an instant crush on her and she eventually became my girlfriend that school year. Shortly after I befriended Natalie, I offered to drive her home after school. She accepted my offer. This is when and where I met Natalie’s mother, Jeraldine Sylvia Lehman. Upon meeting Mrs. Lehman, I instantly knew I had entered an elite strata of black society. Like Natalie, Jeraldine Lehman was strikingly beautiful, polished, well spoken, very cordial, down to earth, and super smart. I learned from Natalie that her father was a Lt. Colonel in the Air Force. In 1965, he was attending the foremost U.S. leadership college for air and space education -- the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery. He was also working on his Master of Science degree in International Affairs at George Washington University in Washington, DC, while attending the Air War College. He received his Masters Degree in 1966. After a couple of hours of chatting with Natalie and her mother in their home, the door opened and this tall, handsome, distinguished looking man entered the room. He was Lt. Colonel Paul David Lehman, Jr. He looked like a natural born leader and had a commanding presence in his pristine military uniform. Over the course of the school year, I spent a lot of time with the Lehman family. I rode with them to Maxwell Air Force Base on several occasions and watched white airmen salute Lt. Colonel Lehman. I could not believe my eyes. At a time when whites in Montgomery were violently opposing the integration of public schools, lunch counters in downtown stores, and movie theaters and were openly calling blacks “niggers” and “coons”, white airmen on the Base were standing at attention and saluting a black Lt. Colonel. In May of 1966, the Lehman family and I went our separate ways in life. I graduated from high school and left Montgomery to attend Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. Natalie and her family moved to Silver Springs, Maryland, where her father would head the ROTC Program at Howard University and groom the next generation of black Air Force generals. We lost touch with each other, but I never forgot about Natalie Lehman and her family. In 1995, HBO released a blockbuster movie titled, “The Tuskegee Airmen”, starring Laurence Fishburne and an all-star cast. This movie told the true story of how a group of African-American aviators and support crews overcame racism in the military to become one of the finest U.S. fighter groups in World War II. The movie was America’s first introduction to the Tuskegee Airmen. After my brother, Dr. Levi Watkins, Jr., M.D., died in April of 2015, I received a message of condolence from Paul D. Lehman, III, via Facebook. Shortly thereafter, Paul reconnected me with Natalie. It was the first time I had spoken to her in 49 years. During one of our many “catch-up” conversations, I learned, for the first time, that Lt. Colonel Paul D. Lehman, Jr., was one of the now-famous Tuskegee Airmen. I was floored. In 1965, fate had brought me face-to-face with one of the Tuskegee Airmen who changed the course of U.S. military history. The encyclopedias and school history books of this era had robbed me (and millions of Americans) of any knowledge of the “Tuskegee Airmen” and their positive contribution to military history and American society. Paul David Lehman, Jr., who was born on October 4, 1922, enlisted in the United States Army in Los Angeles, California in November of 1942. When the Army divided functionally into three autonomous forces, Ground Forces, Services of Supply, and Army Air Forces, Lt. Lehman opted for aviation cadet training at Tuskegee Army Air Field, Tuskegee, Alabama. Moton Field at Tuskegee was the focal point for the training of African-American military pilots, navigators, bombardiers, ground crews, and support staff during World War II. Afterwards, Lt. Lehman attended one of the pioneering navigator bombardier training areas at Hondo, Texas. Later at Lockbourne Air Force Base in Ohio, Lt. Lehman served as Post Exchange Officer while maintaining his flying status in B-25 bombers. In 1950, after the desegregation of the armed services, Lt. Lehman entered additional navigation training at Mather Air Force Base in California. Sent to Korea during the Korean War, he flew approximately 68 missions. In 1952, after the war, Lt. Lehman was promoted to Captain, and assigned to Fairchild Air Force base in Spokane, Washington with Strategic Air Command’s (SAC) 57th Air Division. Capt. Lehman earned an aeronautical rating of Senior Aircraft Observer, and later in June of 1957, he earned the rating of Senior Navigator. His coursework included training in Principles of Guided Missiles and Nuclear Weapons Delivery Operations. Capt. Lehman transferred to Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts where he served as a navigator on top-secret B-36 and B-52 bombers with SAC. In 1960, he received the aeronautical rating of Master Navigator. After his promotion, Major Lehman continued with the 99th Bombardment Wing. His positions included: Assistant, OIC Air Weapons; Chief, Air Weapons Section; and Commander 24th Munitions Squadron. He was soon promoted to Lt. Colonel, and Commander, 24th Munitions Maintenance Squadron, Special Weapons. I knew Lt. Colonel Lehman was special when I met him in 1965, but I did not grasp the nature and magnitude of his stature in the military until 50 years later. Lt. Colonel Lehman retired from the Air Force after serving 27 years. On August 7, 2001, Lt. Colonel Paul D. Lehman, Jr., died in Los Angeles as he had lived for 78 years – a national hero. On March 29, 2007, President George W. Bush stood at attention, held his straightened right hand to his brow, and saluted Lt. Colonel Paul D. Lehman, Jr. (posthumously) and the other Tuskegee Airmen in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol during a ceremony in which the President and members of Congress awarded the Airmen the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award given by Congress. In giving his salute, President Bush wanted to "offer a gesture to help atone for all the unreturned salutes and unforgivable indignities" the Tuskegee Airmen endured during their military careers. With this top-level governmental action, American history was officially corrected and Lt. Colonel Paul David Lehman, Jr., took his rightful place in the annals of military history, along with the rest of the Tuskegee Airmen.
[For a related article on the Tuskegee Airmen, please read "Tom Cruise, Meet the First Top Gun Winners," published on October 24, 2022.]