Remembering a Belleville 'Red Tail' Pilot

As a new film premieres to tell the tale of the Red Tail pilots, we must remember the Belleville son who perished in battle in skies over Germany 66 years ago.

In advance of Friday's release of "Red Tails," a movie telling the story of an elite group of Tuskegee Airmen, we remember a Red Tail from Belleville.

(Jan. 18, 1945) -- Flight Officer Leonard R. Willette, 22, was declared killed in action this week. 

Willette had been listed as missing in action since Sept. 22.

He is the son of Newark Police Lt. and Mrs. Lawrence Willette, of Stephens Street, Belleville.

The young man enlisted in the Army Air Corps while a student at New York University. He entered the service from New Jersey.

He refused an appointment by the late Senator Barbour to West Point in order to get into active combat more quickly.

Willette received his wings in February 1944, at Tuskegee Army Air Field, Ala.

He was a P-51 Mustang pilot based in Italy with the famed 99th Fighter Squadron, 322nd Fighter Group, under command of Col. Benjamin O. Davis.

According to W. F. Holton of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc., Leonard Willette graduated from Class 44-B-SE, on February 2, 1944.

Holton says records show that Flight Officer Willette was reported missing in action September 9, 1944, while participating in a combat mission to Munich, Germany.

His last known position was 10 to 15 miles North of Lake Chiem, Germany. He was flying is P-51, Mustang which he named "Wrong Woman."

One of the pilots of the 99th received a radio message from Willette, stating that he was having engine trouble and thought he would have to bail out.

He was at 30,000 feet and losing altitude and his oil pressure was decreasing rapidly.

When the pilot, Lt. Saunders, last saw Willette, he was disappearing through a hole in the clouds at about 20,000 feet.

A second pilot who was leading the mission, Herman Lawson, was flying at 30,000 feet when he received Willette's radio call that he would have to bail out. The time was 12:33 p.m. on Sept. 22, 1944.

Second Lt. Willette, was awarded the Air Medal with oak leaf cluster, and the Purple Heart, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with 1 Bronze Service Star, WWII Victory Medal, WWII Lapel Button.

He is also survived by a brother Pvt. Lawrence Willette Jr. at Tinker Field, Okla.

He is memorialized at: Plot J, Row 18, Grave 17, at the Lorraine American Cemetery, St. Avold, France.

On Jul. 19, 1941, the Army Air Force began a program in Alabama to train black Americans as military pilots.

Primary flight training was conducted by the Division of Aeronautics of Tuskegee Institute, the famed school of learning founded by Booker Taliafero Washington in 1881.

Once a cadet completed primary training at Tuskegee's Moton Field, he was sent to nearby Tuskegee Army Air Field for completion of flight training and for transition to combat type aircraft.

The first classes of Tuskegee airmen were trained to be fighter pilots for the famous 99th Fighter Squadron, slated for combat duty in North Africa.

Additional pilots were assigned to the 332d Fighter Group which flew combat along with the 99th Squadron from bases in Italy.

By the end of the war, 992 men had graduated from pilot training at Tuskegee, 450 of whom were sent overseas for combat assignment.

During the same period, approximately 150 lost their lives while in training or on combat flights.

Additional men were trained at Tuskegee for aircrew and ground crew duties, flight engineers, gunners, mechanics, armorers, etc. Others were sent to Texas and New Mexico for training as navigators and bombardiers.

Two Nutley sons also served as Tuskegee airmen, Victor L. Connell and Edward Jenkins. They both returned safely to New Jersey.

For more information, and links, visit Bellevile Sons Honor Roll by Anthony Buccino.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Patricia Page Peerzada June 17, 2012 at 03:42 AM
Thank you Mr, Buccino for posting this info. We are relatives of Leonard Willette. Sister, Naida Willette Page, Niece, Patricia Page and grand-niece, Aidaa. We did not know of this memorial. If you have any other info or pictures we would love to see them.
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