Veterans Day flyovers, speakers, more planned at Alameda’s USS Hornet
By Lou Fancher
When retired Marine veteran Leon Watkins rises to his feet as keynote speaker Nov. 11 at the USS Hornet Sea, Air & Space Museum’s Veterans Day event, he will stand representing multiple generations of unsung African American military troops and heroes.
Watkins, 61, is the co-founder with retired Navy veteran Larry Thompson of The Walking Ghosts of Black History, a re-enactment organization dedicated to preserving and presenting the history, culture and significant contributions of Black military men and women from the Civil War to the present day. In partnership with the Hornet, their organization’s recently opened “African Americans in the Military” exhibit is on the aircraft carrier’s second deck. All guests are invited to view the exhibit and speak with Watkins after the ceremony.
Also included in the annual commemoration are additional guest presenters, special tributes, a performance by Concord High School’s Ladies First barbershop ensemble, two flyovers by the Hornet’s official Memorial Squadron and a wreath toss off the fantail to honor all veterans.
After graduating from Kennedy High School in Richmond, Watkins entered the U.S. Marine Corps and from 1980 to 1986 served as an official Marine photographer. Transitioning at age 28 to civilian life, he crossed over to the film industry and said he remains astonished at his immediate good fortune of having been cast as the flag bearer carrying the national colors with the Massachusetts 54th Regiment in the motion picture “Glory.” He said the experience entirely changed his life and inspired The Walking Ghosts of Black History organization and his mission to foster awareness and understanding of the profound Black contributions to U.S. military history.
“Being a military brat, second generation, I can’t remember in my K through 12 education any lessons dealing with a regimental aspect of African Americans in the military,” said Watkins. “If we don’t know where we came from, we can’t dictate where we’re going. By exposing the history, it strengthens the leadership model of what comes after me and after the current generation of active military members. If you can reach one person, that’s a start. The Walking Ghosts are not here to glorify war. We’re here to share knowledge of a culture.”
Watkins said he never expected to work on a film of such historical and personal significance as “Glory.” “The movie ‘Glory’ was so monumental. To work on something that took the producer four years just to raise the money to make, to be given the flag to carry, I feel proud. It means the history I dispense and the (period-specific) uniforms I wear must be accurate. Every time, I am representing those who’ve come before me.”
He said this is why it was important to have images in the exhibit of the first African American male and female members of the Marines and U.S. Navy along with informational panels that Watkins said are “essential and provide information about what they had to endure.” In the future, he intends for items like Marine Corps uniforms and equipment and virtual monitor displays to highlight and replicate the timeline of African Americans in military history.
“It’s beyond gratifying,” Watkins said of the exhibit, community events and school appearances made by Walking Ghosts. “I’m fortunate to be able to share the knowledge and have people look at what I represent as a Black nonactive-duty veteran.
“Integrity, professionalism, honor to duty, having been a Marine: I carry all of that. The pride I got from having gone through boot camp and serving on the fleet is what I bring to the world. I sleep, eat and drink this. The greater glory is sharing it with an audience that wants to receive it.”
As a nonpartisan organization, Watkins said the goal has been and remains to show a more complete history, build understanding and make a better world.
“The military is committed to serve and protect,” he said. “I’m proud to be the 1% who provides the blanket of freedom for the 99% who sleep underneath it.”
Longtime Hornet docent Richard Keefer spoke first and most passionately about freedom during a separate interview. Reading a quote posted in his office, the 81-year-old former Naval aviator who served for seven years on aircraft carriers similar to the Hornet chokes up, almost unable to speak the last few lines.
“I feel honored to have served, privileged,” Keefer said upon completing the reading. “I reflect on my seven years and wish I could have accomplished more for the nation. The average citizen appreciates what we do. None of us want to go to war, but we try to protect our freedoms and people thank me for defending their rights.
“On Veterans Day weekend, I call everybody I used to serve with and say ‘hello.’ At the Hornet, I make sure there’s a fresh flag on the flagpole every couple of months. I want to see it fly high when everyone takes pictures.”
As a docent, Keefer said the most important storytelling fills the void in people’s understand of what service personnel actually do.
“They have no clue what the environment is like, how there might be people you don’t like but have to work with anyway,” Keefer said. “Also the joys, the best experiences you ever have in your life, the lifelong relationships that made you want to be part of a team.
“I add stories that are personal about danger and the terrible emergencies when you thought you were going to die and you leaned on your training. About how you come through it, reflect, look in the mirror and say, ‘I didn’t know I could do that, but I did.’ ”
Keefer includes information about the physical experience of being “catapulted airborne” in a plane that is seven times the weight of an average car and accelerates off the short flight deck to 175 mph in two seconds.
“Landing sometimes happened at night, and that just made it harder,” he said.
Keefer said that relating their lives to the life of a naval aviator causes visitors to marvel at aviators’ skill, laud young people in the military today and appreciate the contributions of all veterans to the freedoms and rights they hold dear.
Watkins is working on a short film about the trial after the Port Chicago disaster near Concord in July 1944 that killed 320 sailors and civilians including more than 200 Black troops. He said he discovered vital documents in national archives, including a directive from Navy commanders stating that anyone not properly trained in handling munitions or loading and offloading them was not to be part of the ammunition loading work parties.
“They didn’t post the memo in the Black barracks. It said in the documents that naval command thought Black soldiers couldn’t read and wouldn’t understand it if they could read. After the explosion the Black men who refused to follow orders to handle munitions were charged with mutiny, put on trial and convicted. The Bay Area is our home front, and the fact we run into people who don’t know this history is why I continue to share it in schools and with the community at large.”