By Karen Zautyk
BELLEVILLE — If you drive past the intersection of Stephens and Academy streets, you will notice that a third name has been added to the street sign there.
The gold lettering on a blue background reads: Leonard R. Willette Way. Placed there Saturday, Feb. 24, by the Belleville Historical Society, it honors a local man who made the supreme sacrifice in the service of his country, despite the discrimination rampant in it against members of his race.
Leonard R. Willette, who was black, had lived with his family at 137 Stephens St. (the house is still there), and was only 23 when he died in combat just a bit more than seven months after earning his pilot’s wings. He was one of the celebrated Tuskegee Airmen, an elite corps of African-Americans organized during World War II, when the American military was still (shamefully) racially segregated.
Michael Perrone, president of the BHS, noted that 15,000 men were members of the corps, trained primarily at their base in Tuskegee, Ala., but only 1,000 — Willette among them — served as pilots. The others were bombardiers, navigators and such, or worked as mechanics and on the ground crews. Of the 1,000 pilots, Perrone said, 66 were killed in action.
Willette’s date with destiny came Sept. 22, 1944, as he was piloting a P-51 Mustang, one of the famous Tuskegee “Red Tails,” escorting a flight of B-17 bombers on a run to Munich, Germany. His plane, at an altitude of 21,000 feet, was losing oil pressure and he radioed his flight leader that he would have to bail out.
According to a story in the St. Louis Post Dispatch, Willette’s wingman, who had turned around hoping to escort him back to their airfield in Italy, saw the plane “slowing and gliding” below. He tried, and failed, to radio Willette’s position, and when he looked down again, he “saw the aircraft disappear through a break in the clouds.” The time from the first distress call to the crash was only three minutes.
For this detailed account of of the tragedy, credit goes to Dylan Almendral of Santa Ana, Calif. —author, historian and curator of the American Legacy Museum. You can also credit Almendral with bringing 2nd Lt. Willette’s story to the attention of the BHS.
Yes, the Historical Society has listed the officer on its military Sons of Belleville Honor Roll, but the in-depth history of the man and his family were not known until Almendral — who is writing a book about Willette — contacted Perrone a couple of months ago, looking for photos and any details the society had.
This sent Perrone scurrying to the Newark Public Library to seek out pictures and stories from 1940s issues of the Newark Evening News, Star-Ledger and other publications. And it was Perrone who found Willette’s 1939 Belleville High School yearbook photo.
The background info that Almendral has collected tells the tale not only of an extraordinary man,but an extraordinary family.
The hero pilot was one of six children born to Lawrence Sr. and Leonora (Boyd) Willette. Lawrence Sr. was a graduate of Wilberforce (Ohio) University and entered the U.S. Army to serve as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 370th Infantry Regiment in World War I. (This, too, was an all-black unit, embedded with the French Army, which was not as bigoted as the American.)
And, at a time when only a minimal fraction of African-Americans attended college, Leonora also earned a degree, from Oberlin College in Ohio.
In the family, Almendral told us, “there was an emphasis on academics, art and leadership.” And, he added, the father also had all the kids into physical fitness.
Leonard and elder brother Lawrence Jr., for instance, would run rounds around nearby P.S. 1 [now gone] every day, and the family “would go swimming three times a week in Cheesequake Lake.”
Leonard Willette’s academic abilities won him both acceptance into N.Y.U. and (virtually unheard of for a black man) an appointment to West Point. But Almendral noted, Pearl Harbor changed it all, and Willette enlisted with the Tuskegee Airmen.
When the pilot crashed, Almendral said, “It was in a very isolated part of Germany.” He noted that Willette’s body was recovered by the Germans, the Red Cross was notified, and the pilot was buried in a cemetery in the town of Rechtmehring, Germany.
However, “2nd Lt. Leonard Robert Willette is memorialized at: Plot J, Row 18, Grave 17, at the Lorraine American Cemetery, St. Avold, France.”
And now, in his hometown, too.
One strange sidelight to this story: According to news reports, the National Archives last year began noticing that certain World War II artifacts were missing from its collection. In June, investigators executed a search warrant at the Maryland home of a French researcher/historian, Antonin DeHays,33, and reportedly found stolen identification tags and other items.
An AP story noted: DeHays “stole at least 291 dog tags and 134 records, including personal letters, photographs and small pieces of U.S. aircraft downed during the war, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Maryland said.” He pleaded guilty last month and faces up to 10 years in prison when sentenced in April.
Apparently, the thief sold the majority of the items on eBay and elsewhere. But in one case, he is said to have “traded a Tuskegee Airman’s dog tag to an aviation museum in exchange for a chance to sit in a Spitfire aircraft.”
That dog tag was said to be Willette’s.