Watkins Glen: Prendeville thankful for USA's military

As Prendeville Races this Fourth of July Weekend at the Glen, He Remembers the Contributions of America's Military Heroes WATKINS GLEN, N.Y., July 3 - Firestone Indy Lights driver Andrew Prendeville knows it's a small world. He also realizes...

As Prendeville Races this Fourth of July Weekend at the Glen, He Remembers the Contributions of America's Military Heroes

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y., July 3 - Firestone Indy Lights driver Andrew Prendeville knows it's a small world.

He also realizes it's a better one thanks to the courage of American military heroes like Spann Watson and his own late grandfather, Edward Prendeville.

Andrew Prendeville will drive RLR/Andersen Racing's Best Friends Animal Society No. 5 in two Firestone Indy Lights races at Watkins Glen International in Watkins Glen, N.Y. on Saturday as part of that track's Fourth of July festivities. His events, the Corning Duels, are part of the Camping World Grand Prix IndyCar Series weekend.

On another patriotic holiday, Memorial Day, he was honored to have retired Lt. Col. Spann Watson and his son, Weyman Watson, as his guests when he competed in the Firestone Freedom 100 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 23 prior to the Indianapolis 500 two days later.

Spann Watson, now 91, was one of the original Tuskegee Airmen who helped America win World War II and also end racial segregation in the U.S. military.

The Tuskegee Airmen were the first all-black aviation unit in the United States military. Formed in July 1941, its members trained at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Ala., from where they got their name.

The military had just begun to be integrated at that time. A prevailing idea of that day's society was that blacks were not capable of being pilots, a notion the Tuskegee Airmen were determined to prove false.

America was not doing well in the war at the time. It was losing white pilots and their navigators at an alarming pace. When the Tuskegee Airmen were finally given a chance in 1942, they were assigned to escort bombers flown by white Americans in order to protect them. The 332nd Fighter Group, which the Tuskegee Airmen's 99th Fighter Squadron later fell under, ended up flying 1,578 combat missions without the lost of a single bomber, changing history both politically and socially.

Watson was one of the Tuskegee Airmen's approximately 450 pilots who went overseas, and one of only eight that successfully fought the German elite Luftwaffe over the Mediterranean Sea on July 8, 1943, marking the first time American black pilots fought in air combat. He completed more than 30 combat missions, including flights over North Africa, Italy and Southern Europe. In all the Tuskegee Airmen were credited with damaging or destroying 409 enemy aircraft, garnering 744 medals, including 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses.

Prendeville has a love of history, but the Tuskegee Airmen's story is even more personal for him. His paternal grandfather, Edward Joseph Prendeville, was one of the white airmen that the Tuskegee Airmen protected.

"He was a navigator on a B-24 bomber in World War II," Prendeville explained of his grandfather, who was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. and raised his family in New Providence, N.J. "He was credited with 49 missions flown, including Ploesti twice.

"He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross on his deathbed in 2004 when I was racing at Sebring," Prendeville continued. "The reason why he was awarded this was for his last mission. He was the lead navigator when, at the time, bomber groups were making the final turn, then dumping tinfoil out of the planes to deflect the German radar. Then they'd proceed to the target, straight ahead.

"The Germans had caught onto this, and made adjustments. My grandfather made the call to dump the foil first and then make the final turn, which would make sense today, but on that mission every plane came back because of it.

"After the war he went on to raise nine kids, worked for a construction company, and helped build a number of the buildings in New York City," Prendeville added.

Watson was inspired to try to learn to fly on July 4, 1927 when he witnessed Charles Lindbergh landing his famous Spirit of St. Louis at New Jersey's Teterboro Airport, just 19 miles from where Andrew Prendeville would be born 54 years later in Summit, N.J. Lindbergh had become a national hero about six weeks earlier when he became the first person ever to fly solo nonstop between New York and Paris.

The U.S. military rejected Watson 15-20 times before he was finally accepted. When he finally got to fly he not only distinguished himself in World War II, but he went on to teach others to fly. He worked for the Federal Aviation Authority for 27 years as an equal opportunity specialist and an air traffic specialist, commuting to Washington, D.C. from his home in Westbury, Long Island, N.Y. He is also credited with helping hundreds of minorities gain employment in commercial aviation. With the rest of the Tuskegee Airmen, he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in April 2007, a little more than a year before he met Prendeville at IMS.

(Incidentally, Andrew Prendeville's maternal great-grandfather, Eric Dixon, aka "Gramps," was also a military man. Born in Hanover, N.J., he was in the Army in World War I and the Navy in World War II. After that he worked in the Summit, N.J. area for years, although he also spent some time out West.

"My great-grandfather was an air photographer in World War I," Prendeville noted. "Basically he hung out of bi-planes and took photos of the enemy lines, so he was one of the first spy planes.")

With all this in common, Prendeville jumped at the chance to be Watson's host at IMS in May when that idea was presented by Junious Matthews, the PetStop manager of Prendeville's Racing Laps for Best Friends program (see racinglapsforbestfriends.com) and a friend of Watson's son, Weyman. (Prendeville encourages race fans to make donations to the not-for-profit Best Friends Animal Society through that Web site.)

"After I got to know Junious and Weyman, I talked to them about what my grandfather had done," Prendeville said. "My uncle told me that the Tuskegee Airmen escorted my grandfather's bomber unit multiple times.

"When Junious and Weyman told me that Spann had always wanted to go to the Indy 500, I said I'd love to meet him, and I jumped at the chance to have him as my guest at the track," Prendeville continued. "He said he'd wanted to go to the Indy 500 since 1937. He's 91 years old now, and that was his first time at the Speedway. Having him at our garage was a big deal for me. He was like a kid in a candy store. And if the Tuskegee Airmen hadn't existed, I probably wouldn't have had the opportunity to race."

Prendeville said he enjoyed his conversations with Watson, and he'll never forget one thing Watson said.

"He told me that driving race cars looks like it's more difficult than flying fighter planes," Prendeville said. "I responded, 'Well, Spann, getting shot at is a whole different ballgame.'"

Watson was very impressed with his first trip to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

"I've visited many flying shows, and I thought we had the best show with the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds, until I had a chance to go to Indy," he said by telephone on Tuesday. "The greatest show now for me is the Indianapolis 500. I sure hope to go back someday, and to take somebody else who has never seen it before. I read about it, but until you see it, you don't realize how amazing it is."

Watson was most impressed with the drivers and cars; the layout of the city and the track; and the crowd.

"The layout of the city was most attractive," he said. "The layout of the track was too. I was impressed with how the city, the county, the state, the businesses and the organizers of the race all work together. All roads lead to the track on Race Day morning. Any organization that can make that many people move in one direction in such an orderly fashion is impressive."

He was particularly complimentary to the police officers involved. "When we went to the track in the morning, there were one, two, three or even four officers at every intersection," he noted. "Three days I was out there, and I didn't see one policeman with a bad attitude. Everyone was polite, courteous and helpful."

Watson said he's followed the Indy 500 since he was a teenager, but the speeds of today's cars still impressed him.

"In 1934 or 1935 when I was young, the speeds were just over 100 miles per hour," he noted. "Now they're out of sight.

"And they tell me all the cars in the Indy 500 had Honda engines," he continued. "None blew up or caught on fire. I've always been an airplane engine man, so I was impressed with them. I listened to the sounds of the cars, and I liked the way they were screaming. It seemed to me that there was still some more [power] to go, so that was quite something."

Being someone who stands for equal opportunity for all, he was also impressed that three women competed in this year's race. "I thought that was a grand thing," he said.

Watson is always happy to meet people like Prendeville who appreciate his contributions to our nation. In honor of both his guest and his grandfather's memory, Prendeville wore his grandfather's wings on his driving uniform during the Firestone Freedom 100 over the Memorial Day weekend.

"Now and then we run into people like Andrew who say that they might not be here today if it wasn't for what we did to help their relatives," Watson said. "I just tell them I'm glad to see them; I'm glad they're here too; and how wonderful it is the progress our country has made.

"When we finally got a chance, we did the job, and we're glad about it," he continued.

"Everybody has an opportunity to get an education and find employment and make a good life for themselves here," he added. "We can all seek prosperity and happiness. The law is on everybody's side. I'm glad to have helped make that a reality.

"This is our home, and I'm proud of it," he said.

-credit: ap/restart communications

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Series Indy Lights
Drivers Andrew Prendeville