ARLINGTON, Va. – A full military honors memorial service was conducted Thursday for 2nd Lt. Samuel G. Leftenant , 70 years after his plane crashed over Austria on April 12, 1945. Leftenant was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first group of African-American military pilots to fight in World War II.
Friends, family and fellow Tuskegee Airmen joined the Army’s Old Guard for an emotional ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. Air Force Chaplain Lt. Col. Steven Tillet presided over the ceremony, and four F-16 planes from the 187th Fighter Wing based in Alabama flew over the cemetery in the missing-man formation.
Dressed in bright red coats, symbolizing the red tails in the original P-51 fighter planes they flew, several members of the East Coast chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen showed up to pay their respects.
“I wouldn’t have been able to be in the Air Force for 23 years if it wasn’t for him,” Edward Harbison, 56, an engineer from Fairfax, Va., said. Though he didn’t know Leftenant, Harbison grew up hearing all about the original Tuskegee Airmen.
After three rifle volleys, Army Capt. Craig Morin presented an American flag to Leftenant’s eldest sister, Nancy Leftenant-Colon, 94, who was accompanied by four of her younger siblings. Leftenant-Colon, from East Norwich, N.Y., was the first black nurse with the Army Reserves. She was stationed with the Tuskegee Airmen in Columbus, Ohio, after her brother died, and worked there until 1949.
After the memorial service, guests left flowers at the tombstone erected for Leftenant. There was no burial service, as his body was never found. His remains may be buried in an unmarked grave in Europe.
Samuel Gordon Leftenant, 61, a medical doctor in Olympia, Wash., the airman’s oldest nephew and his namesake, hopes that modern technology will help identify more remains in the future. He said the memorial was meant to allow the family to say goodbye and to give his aunts some closure.
“There are over 8,000 sets of remains buried in Europe, but they haven’t been identified. There’s still an effort, but not yet for Sam,” he said.
Pictures of a young Leftenant were on display during a reception after the service at Arlington’s Women in Military Memorial, along with letters, keepsakes and a model of one of the red-tailed P-51 plane flown by the Airmen.
Reach reporter Karina Meier at email@example.com or 202-408-1491. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
Download photos: Tuskegee.zip