Nancy Leftenant-Colon (1921- present) “We aspired to be pilots, nurses, mechanics—whatever—anything that would prove our merit amongst the fighting forces for this country,” --Nancy Leftenant-Colon
When speaking to Nancy Leftenant-Colon, the hope in her voice is undeniable. The strength she imparts upon her words is infectious, and her overall optimism is humbling. As an ambitious woman of character, she has a message to spread and a story to tell; a story she has lived and breathed with courage, service, and integrity. It is a story she hopes will inspire a generation into action. When she retired in 1991 from the Tuskegee Airmen Organization, after having served as the organization’s first female President, Nancy’s sister teased her by saying, “Now maybe you can talk about something other than the Tuskegee Airmen.” In retrospect, it was an impossible suggestion. Nancy had been proudly immersed in the Tuskegee Experience for the past fifty years, and the legacy she had gained had left an indelible mark on her entire life. Nancy grew up in Amityville, New York with her mother, father and twelve brothers and sisters. Her mother Eunice was the daughter of a freed slave, and her father James was the son of a southern slave. Both her parents, having grown up in a very racially segregated south, knew their children would not have an opportunity at a decent education unless the family moved north—where at least the segregated school systems provided better books and salary-based teachers for their black students. Nancy’s studies in New York proved to be very beneficial, but it was outside of the classroom where she learned some of her most valuable lessons: respect, discipline and the importance of family. Nancy and her siblings were personally instructed in these values by their parents. With their steadfast advice and encouragement, Nancy’s parents became the role models for their children’s success. The family ate every meal together, went to church every Sunday, and Nancy was always reminded to treat herself and others with respect—even if others were not always willing to give it back. At age twenty-one, Nancy graduated from the Lincoln School of Nursing in New York. World War II was raging in Europe, and her dream was to become a nurse in the United States Armed Forces. In 1942, this was a very brave ambition for any woman— but especially for one of African American descent. Nancy had her reservations about trying to enter the military, but she wanted to be a part of the war effort like her brother, Samuel Gordon Leftenant, a Tuskegee Airman and member of the legendary 99th Pursuit Squadron and one of six members of the Leftenant family who would serve in the military. The main obstacle standing in her way though was that black nurses were not permitted to sign up for the Armed Forces. In 1944, Nancy went to visit her brother at the Tuskegee Army Airfield in Alabama to gain his perspective on the problem. While there, she spoke to several members of the nursing staff and toured the airfield hospital. Afterwards, her brother asked her if a career in military nursing was really what she wanted. Nancy was absolutely certain. Her brother’s advice to her was this: “Always remember the things mom and dad taught us.” It was a simple way of telling Nancy she could do anything she put her mind to; her parents had already given her the tools to succeed.
By January of 1945, Nancy was growing impatient to enter the war effort. Once she received her nursing certification from the state of New York, she marched into an Army recruiter’s office, slapped her diploma down on his desk, and told the recruiter she wanted to be an Army nurse. Nancy refused to take no for an answer, and the Army relented—allowing her to sign up as a reservist due to a shortage of white nurses. Despite this discriminatory technicality, Nancy was thrilled to have the opportunity to prove herself. She then traveled to Cape McCoy, Wisconsin to endure six weeks of grueling basic training. By mid-March, her hard work had paid off: Nancy became one of the first black nurses accepted into the Army Reserve Corps. Soon after, however, tragedy put a damper on her achievements. On April 12, 1945, Samuel Gordon Leftenant went missing in action after his plane was involved in an accident over Germany. A year later, he was declared dead. Like the other Tuskegee Airmen, Nancy’s brother had entered the military to fight injustice—not just the injustice present overseas, but also the racial injustice he faced at home. Though greatly saddened by his death, the spirit of her brother’s cause only strengthened Nancy’s resolve to be the best she possibly could be at everything she did. Directly after boot camp, Nancy was sent, along with thirty-six other black nurses, to her first post at Fort Devens Army Hospital, in Framingham, Massachusetts. This was an unusual assignment because, like the rest of society during World War II, the army was a strictly segregated institution. Black nurses had traditionally been sent to Fort Huachuca, Arizona where they would only work on injured black troops. Due to the nursing shortage however, Nancy had literally become part of an “integration experiment” to determine if black nurses were as capable as their white counterparts. She and the thirty-six other black nurses knew the integrity of their race was at stake, and their collective goal was to prove they were the best military and medical personal on base. The white nurses at Fort Devens did not make this easy for them. Nancy and her compatriots were constantly scrutinized and harassed. When the white nurses would speak to them, they told the black nurses they were “problem children” and no one wanted their help. Sometimes Nancy found herself smiling on the outside when she was really crying on the inside. She could have easily quit, but she fell asleep every night in the segregated barracks she shared with the other black nurses, four to a room, always thankful to be living her dream. In spite of the hostility they received, the women still managed to persevere. There was a great deal of work to be done on base, and the black nurses only worked harder to make up for the negative attitudes plaguing them. Nancy was working twelve hour days, six days a week, minding a ward of forty or more patients with only the aid of an orderly and a German prisoner of war. The patients ended up being the unifying denominator between the black and white nurses. Skin color was not a factor for the patients, and they treated the black nurses with respect. While Nancy was working, she didn’t notice her color unless she looked down at her hands. Her skin did not define her service as a nurse, and she chose to focus instead on fulfilling her responsibilities to her patients. Although her first experience as an army nurse was less than desirable, Nancy’s assignments were not always full of opposition. While she was stationed at Lockbourne Army Air Base in Columbus, Ohio, President Truman issued Executive Order No. 9981—a move which ended the concept of racial discrimination in the armed services.
The government was finally willing to admit it had been wrong about the inferiority of the African American community in the military. The exceptional abilities and achievements of black servicemen and women had caused the government’s experiments with integration to backfire, and for the first time, black servicemen and women had the opportunity to advance their careers. Nancy was no exception. She applied for regular status, and because of her outstanding leadership and service as a reservist, she was soon appointed First Lieutenant in the Regular Army Nurse Corps. From that point on, her ambitions could not be grounded. A few years later in 1947, when the Air Force became a separate entity from the Army, Nancy applied to become one of the first black flight nurses for the new institution. However, it wasn’t until 1952—five years after Nancy had submitted her first application—that the Air Force finally granted her request to begin training as a flight nurse. President Truman’s Executive Order No. 9981 had encouraged military integration, but it provided for no means of its enforcement, and some officials did not believe the Order applied to the new establishment of the Air Force. So for five years, Nancy’s flight nurse application had remained at the mercy of racist views—but as always, she persevered. Unfortunately, it would not be the last time she would have to face obstacles in her path. Nancy was transferred to Gunther Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama with four other white nurses to receive her flight nurse training. Nancy had already become good friends with these other nurses while working with them at Lockbourne Army Base, and the women were thrilled that they were all going to be transferred together. The white nurses wanted to make a road trip out of the journey to Alabama, since none of them had ever ventured into the south before. They insisted that Nancy join them, blissfully unaware of the severe segregation and racism that was present in the south. Nancy knew accompanying them would be unthinkable, but she did not know how to explain to the other nurses that she would not be able to eat with them in the same restaurants or even stay in the same hotels with them. Having spent most of their lives surrounded by northern society, Nancy’s explanation would have surely made no sense to them, and she did not want the realization to adversely affect their relationship. To avoid the difficult situation, Nancy told the other nurses she could not join them because of family obligations. She made the trip to Alabama alone, staying at a friend’s house in Columbus, Ohio before driving straight through to the air base. As hard as Nancy tried to avoid a difficult situation with her friends, her efforts proved futile. When she finally joined up with the other women in Alabama, one of the nurses made reservations for lunch. Nancy knew she would not be able to eat with them, but she had still not found a way to rationalize this to her friends. She reluctantly accompanied them to the restaurant that afternoon. At first, the maitre d’ said he did not have their reservation. Nancy’s friends became confused, and insisted they had made the reservation themselves that very morning. Finally, the maitre d’ said what Nancy had been most dreading to hear. Looking directly at her, he said, “We can’t serve her.” The other nurses refused to eat at the restaurant without Nancy, so they went back to the officer’s club at the air base instead to have lunch. While the women still remained friends afterward, Nancy resented the subtle ways that southern racism had changed the dynamics of their relationship. The other nurses had been made consciously aware that
Nancy was different from them. Deep down, she knew they were embarrassed; by their own naivety and what had happened as a result. Nancy did not have very much time to spend dwelling on the incident however. A few months later in 1953, her new flight nurse duties took her overseas to Tachikawa Air Force Base, Japan. She spent three years serving there during the Korean War. It was Nancy’s responsibility to supervise the assigned medical technicians in converting the troop and cargo planes into functioning hospital wards for the out-going transportation of patients and supplies to the designated military hospital at Tachikawa. Patients were routinely evacuated from all patient pick-up points located throughout Japan, Okinawa, Taiwan, and Korea. In 1954, she helped evacuate French Legionnaires from Vietnam during the savage battle at Dien Bien Phu. Her job was to get the wounded to a safe base alive—which was no easy task. Enemy forces had overrun and closed the only available airstrip, and Nancy’s rescue crew found themselves under heavy artillery fire as they approached the battle scene. Nevertheless, they daringly managed to rescue many soldiers from the midst of the dangerous combat zone. Flight nursing was Nancy’s ultimate goal, and it was indeed her forte. She loved the duty and relished the freedom she had in making important decisions on her own. Despite the ever-present danger and demanding hours asked of her, Nancy’s dedication to the Air Force and to her patients was unwavering. She was attentive to detail in every aspect and managed the delegation of tasks to her nursing staff with unparalleled calm and finesse. Using the simple strategy of teamwork and intuition, she banded her flight crew together toward a common goal of success. Nancy was truly a born pioneer, and by using her exceptional leadership abilities she played an integral part in saving the lives of many wounded soldiers. After retiring from flight nursing and the Air Force in 1956, Nancy returned to hospital duty in her home state of New York. While serving at Griffis Air Force Base, she quickly advanced to the rank of Major. Nancy’s combined work ethic, self-discipline and dedication commanded an aura of admiration that was unknown to many women during the 1950’s. Her fellow corpsmen were proud to work under her direction. Nancy made them feel competent and good about themselves and their duties. She could get good work out of the laziest of personnel, and her ward was always immaculately clean and orderly. In no time at all, she become a well-respected figure throughout the air base. In her leisure time, Nancy found a soul mate in Captain Ruth Danz—also an army nurse stationed at Griffis. Although they rarely worked together, they enjoyed each other’s company immensely in their off hours. In the short year they spent together, the two women formed a lifelong friendship. So close was their bond that they vowed to never let racism defeat their friendship—regardless of the fact that Ruth was white and Nancy was black. In an interview, Ruth explained why their distinct exterior differences never proved to be an obstacle to their friendship: “We picked our friends by character, not color.” Of Nancy’s character, Ruth observed, “She always held her head high. She had every right to; she was the best [there was]. Everyone knew it and had the utmost respect for her.” Only a year passed before Ruth and Nancy were separated from each other for the first time. Ruth was shipped out to an air evacuation base in Frankfurt, Germany, and Nancy was sent to Wiesbaden, Germany to fill a head nurse position. Despite being
deprived of her best friend, Nancy’s devotion to her patients in Germany remained unfailing. Ruth Filippone, a woman who was critically injured in Pakistan and flown to Wiesbaden air base for treatment, remembered Nancy as “…the most wonderful and caring person I’ve ever met. She saved my life.” It was Nancy’s habit to leave such a positive impression on all her patients with her soothing and skilled bedside manner. It took Ruth Filippone two months to recover completely from her injuries, and in that time, she became another of Nancy’s close friends. Happily, Nancy and Ruth Danz were eventually reunited after a lengthy intermission in their relationship. They were stationed together for awhile in Frankfurt until their return to the United States. Even today, distance has not weakened their friendship, and their fondness for each other only continues to grow. Almost fifty years later, Ruth travels from her home in Texas, and Nancy travels from her home in New York to meet frequently in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where both women have relatives. Nancy was a very well-traveled individual by the time she retired from the military in 1965. She had served in numerous foreign countries throughout the Pacific region and at military installations across the United States, including Alaska. The ranks and positions she held were of high esteem, but most importantly, where ever she went, Nancy always reached out to her patients, friends, and co-workers with a caring and compassionate hand. She inspired everyone around her to not only live, but to live with a purpose. Shortly after she returned to her hometown in New York, Nancy married Captain Bayard K. Colon, an administrative officer of the Air Force Reserves. But, unfortunately, the marriage was short-lived: Bayard died of a sudden heart attack in 1972. She was ultimately left childless and alone, but she never re-married. Instead, she put all her love into a new career as a school nurse at Amityville High School, becoming an inspiring role model for its students. For thirteen years, Nancy went to school at 5 am to get head start on her work so she would have time to talk to the children during the day. She would take time to share her experiences and stories with them, and would always lend an ear if a student were seeking advice. Sometimes she’d suggest, “I really think you should talk to your parents about this,” but they replied that they never talked to their parents. It bothered Nancy deeply that these children did not always feel comfortable going to their families for help or encouragement. In some cases, she became a kind of surrogate parent to many students, always instilling confidence and ambition in them; fulfilling her belief that it takes a whole community to raise a child. Nancy loved to talk to children, and her influence extended far beyond her office at school. Once, when she was visiting Ruth Filippone in California, they saw a young girl shining shoes as they were walking down the street together. Nancy did not hesitate to hop up in the chair and begin speaking to the girl for a very long time, reassuring her that she could do anything she set her heart on. Nancy always stressed the importance of doing your best and never giving up. Perhaps children responded so well to her attitude because it embraced their youthful excitement, energy, and enthusiasm. Nancy was teaching children to be confident in themselves and to believe in their dreams—no matter how impossible they appeared. She was leaving a little bit of her legacy behind with every child she came in contact with.
It has been said that caregivers often give too much of themselves in taking care of others. Nancy could certainly be considered the embodiment of this precept. Even after her retirement from Amityville High School, she remained committed to the Tuskegee Institute Inc. In her service as the organization’s national treasurer from 1978 to 1987 and as First Vice President from 1987 to 1989, Nancy continuously applied the leadership skills she had gained from her years spent in the Army Reserve and Air Force. She became Tuskegee Institute Inc’s first female President and served in this capacity from 1989 to 1991. Nancy’s undying devotion and enthusiasm has not gone unnoticed. In honor of her leadership, she earned the Intrepid Leadership Award from the Intrepid Sea-Air Space Museum Foundation in Manhattan in 1999. This award is presented to individuals and organizations whose determination, dedication and outstanding moral character have contributed to the greater development of our nation. In addition, Nancy is the recipient of many other distinguished awards, including the Nassau County Community Service Award, 100 Black Men; Nassau-Suffolk Counties Service Award, and the Big Brothers/Big Sisters “Pass it On” Award. President Clinton presented Nancy with a special congressional honor granted by the Commemorative Committee for World War II and the Legislative Black Caucus. She has also received awards from the Kappa ETA Chapter of the Chi ETA Phi Sorority Inc. In 1991, Tuskegee University bestowed upon her an Honorary Doctorate of Humanities Degree, and in 1998, the College of Mount Saint Vincent in Riverdale, New York bestowed upon her an Honorary Doctorate Degree of Humane Letters. But the reward Nancy considers most important to herself is the satisfaction she receives on a daily basis from inspiring others to set out and reach their goals; always encouraging individuals to find their inner strength and use it. Her mantra is: “The sky’s the limit. Whatever people want to do, I say, set your goals, and go for it.” Nancy has become a valuable and irreplaceable member of society. Her message is essential. Still today, she continues to lead people at the very young age of eighty-three. Nancy has been open in expressing her disappointment with the fact that so little has been recorded to detail and promote the experiences of the Tuskegee Airmen and women since their legacy began over fifty years ago. She has been waiting a long time to tell her story, but Nancy has never seen herself as a victim. No matter how ignorantly she was treated, underlying her actions was always a deep belief in the goodness of human nature—best exemplified through her positive, compassionate attitude toward all people and her confidence in camaraderie. She never wavered in her hope of eliminating injustice. Nancy’s story is for everyone; her zest for life is contagious. In her future years, she hopes to continue traveling the world, most likely leaving a distinct, hopeful impression behind where ever she goes. Does Nancy have any regrets? Confidently she’ll reassure you, with the determination of all her youthful vigor: “Absolutely and positively not!”
A oral history of Nancy's life