On January 14, retired U.S. Army Major Nancy Leftenant-Colon, the first black nurse in the Reserve or active-duty Army nurse corps, was present at Arlington National Cemetery to witness the full military honors accorded to her brother, U.S. Army Air Forces 2nd Lt. Samuel G. Leftenant. The honors came tardily but at long last so that at least one person is left alive who can recall the sacrifice Samuel Leftenant made for his country.
On April 12, 1945, Samuel Leftenant of Amityville, New York, was on escort duty for a bombing run. He was a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen who formed the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the United States Army Air Forces. They often flew P-51 Mustang fighters dubbed ‘Red Tails’ because of the distinctive colorful markings on their tail assemblies. The name also applies to the navigators, bombardiers, mechanics, instructors, crew chiefs, nurses, cooks and other support personnel for the pilots. Leftenant had graduated from the Tuskegee aviation training program in September 1944. He was assigned to the 99th Fighter Squadron and deployed to Italy.
It was while he and 2nd Lt. James L. Hall Jr. were escorting bombers enroute to Germany, near Sankt Veit, Austria, that their two planes collided. Hall was able to bail out from his damaged Mustang and became a prisoner of war. As for Leftenant, 1st Lt. Wendell M. Lucas reported that “(Leftenant) transmitted that he could not keep his plane up very much longer, and asked for instructions." In response, "Maj. (William) Campbell instructed him to fly as far east as possible. ... Plane seemed to be under control." Sadly, Leftenant was never seen alive again. He vanished near a place called Klagenfurt.
Leftenant's name is found on the Tablets of the Missing at the Florence American Cemetery and Memorial in Italy. According to the Federal government, Leftenant was awarded an Air Medal and a Purple Heart for patriotic service.
Leftenant and Hall were among the group of black American servicemembers who were simultaneously fighting against the National Socialist enemies of the United States, and bigotry back home. The U.S. military was racially segregated at that time, but President Franklin Roosevelt at least saw the upside of presenting a united front for the American people who were facing the direst threat to their liberty until then. America could not be allowed to appear to borrow a page from the racist ideology espoused by German Nazis, who exterminated millions of innocent people who did not fit their ideal of a master race.
Meanwhile, Leftenant’s sister, Nancy, was facing her own challenges back home in America. She joined the Army in 1945 and became the first black member of the Regular Army Nurse Corps. Later, she served as an Air Force flight nurse and continued to make history as the only woman to hold the presidency of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. (1989-91).
Nancy Leftenant recalls her military service years with fondness. Describing what prompted her to volunteer, she said "I saw a picture of an Army nurse with her cape. She looked so good --straight and I tall. I wanted to do my part." As she progressed in her training, the military recognized her merits. The military recognized the quality of one’s work, she said, rather than focusing on skin color as paramount. During her military service, she had to endure the legally-enforced racial segregation she found in the American South, where she sometimes had to drive hundreds of miles to stay with relatives since many public lodgings for forbidden to black people, even those wearing the U.S. military uniform. She considered herself a nurse first, however, above any racial classification. In 1965, she retired from the Air Force and moved back to New York. She eventually married.
In 2009, Leftenant participated in the promotion ceremony for Brig. Gen. Stayce Harris, the first black woman to command an operational flying wing of the Air Force.
But perhaps the greatest honor was to receive the flag of the United States during the memorial ceremony in honor of her fallen brother, Samuel. On the morning of January 14, she was joined by her surviving sisters, Clara Leftenant-Jordan (80), Mary E. Leftentant (87), and Amy M. Leftenant (82), at Arlington as Air Force jet fighters streaked overhead in salute. A horse-drawn caisson came, bearing a ceremonial coffin, empty save for the American flag. With the sisters present, a rifle party fired a salute, and bugler sounded taps not far from Samuel Leftenant’s tombstone, where there is no grave.
The ceremony gave closure for the fallen aviator’s family.
Also present at the Arlington memorial was Samuel’s friend, George E. Hardy, who was only 19 years old in 1945 while serving alongside the rest of the Tuskegee airmen. It was shortly after 3 p.m. on April 12, 1945, and four weeks before the Second World War finalized in Europe, 2nd Lt. Hardy glanced off to his right and saw something sparkling near Leftenant’s Mustang. Hardy realized that Leftenant’s plane had collided with Hall’s, while shreds of aluminum chewed off by a propeller scattered in the airstream. Both Hall and Leftenant were able to bail out. But Leftenant vanished.
More than 400 Tuskegee Airmen served in combat during the war, serving as bomber escorts for missions from North Africa, Sicily and the Italian mainland.
Samuel and Nancy Leftenant were among the 13 children of Eunice and James Leftenant. They had come originally by boat from South Carolina to New York, where James worked as a laborer for the State of New York. They built their own home with scrap lumber, which had three bedrooms: one for the parents, one for the boys, and one for the girls. They raised chickens, turkeys, and hogs for the table. They were poor, but proper. Eunice insisted on good table manners at their nightly family meal.
Nancy described her brother as “lovable” and the “apple of my mother’s eye.” Eunice went gray overnight when news came of Samuel’s death, just three months after entering into action. Nancy was in the sixth grade at the time.
As for the reasons for her family’s patriotic service and sacrifice, according to a report in the Washington Post she said “This was our country. We had to protect it. We wanted to be a part of this, and we were.”