Years after the war ended, when Nancy Leftenant-Colon was an Air Force nurse in Germany, she would study the faces of black men she saw on the street, hoping that one might be that of her lost brother, Sam.
A U.S. Army fighter pilot, and one of the famed African American Tuskegee Airmen, Samuel G. Leftenant , 21, went down in his P-51 on an escort mission over Austria in 1945. Neither he nor his plane were ever found.
At first he was listed as missing in action. Then, in 1946, he was declared dead.
But his parents, James and Eunice, and his 12 siblings always hoped that someday he would turn up. Nancy thought maybe he had been knocked on the head and forgot who he was, and that one day she might spot him in a crowd.
All this was long ago. Her brother never came home. And Nancy is now 95.
On Thursday morning, she and her surviving sisters, Clara Leftenant-Jordan, 80, Mary E. Leftentant, 87, and Amy M. Leftenant, 82, gathered in Arlington National Cemetery to finally give Sam his goodbye.
As Air Force jet fighters streaked overhead in salute, the sisters assembled before an elegant horse-drawn caisson that arrived to the sound of a single muffled drum and the cadenced step of an Army casket team.
The caisson carried a silver ceremonial coffin that was empty, except for an American flag.
And the family sat not far from Sam’s memorial tombstone, beneath which there is no grave.
But a rifle party fired a salute, a bugler sounded taps, and 70 years after Samuel G. Leftenant, of Amityville, N.Y., vanished into the mountains near a place called Klagenfurt, his family could let him go.
“We need to have closure,” Clara Leftenant-Jordan, of North Babylon, N.Y., said Wednesday. “I’m the youngest, and I’m 80 years old. We really would like to put an end to it, to say goodbye, because we haven’t.”
“We always think that we will see him, that he will come back to us,” she said in an interview. “I have dreams that I might see my brother again. I realize that the likelihood of that isn’t going to come.”
On April 12, 1945, four weeks before World War II ended in Europe, Lt. Leftenant and fellow P-51 pilot Lt. James L. Hall Jr., his flight leader, were escorting a formation of American bombers on a mission to Germany.
They had left Ramitelli air base in Italy. Fellow Tuskegee pilot, and Leftenant’s buddy, George E. Hardy, 19, of Philadelphia, was flying another P-51 nearby .
It was Leftenant’s third mission, his family said. He had been overseas less than three months.
Shortly after 3 p.m., Hardy glanced off to his right and saw something sparkling near Leftenant’s fighter.
Hall’s plane and Leftenant’s plane had collided, and “the prop chewed part of the other airplane, which caused all this aluminum” to fly off, Hardy said.
Hardy, who is now 90 and was present Thursday, said he saw Leftenant’s aircraft start to go down but couldn’t stop to help and witnessed nothing more. “Last I saw of him,” he said.
Hall and Leftenant both bailed out. Hall was captured and held as a prisoner of war until the war ended, according to the Leftenant family. But Sam was never seen again.
All three were among the more than 900 black fighter and bomber pilots who were trained at the segregated Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama.
They were African American men from all over the country who fought racism and oppression at home, and enemy pilots overseas. The tail sections of their P-51s were painted a distinctive red.
More than 400 served in combat abroad, flying patrol and strafing missions, and serving as bomber escorts from bases in North Africa, Sicily and Italy.
Hardy said he and Leftenant were classmates at Tuskegee, graduating on Sept. 8, 1944. “His mother pinned my wings on when I graduated,” he said.
On Sunday mornings, in the house Eunice and James Leftenant built out of scrap wood on North Washington Avenue, the children were summoned by the strains of the Wings Over Jordan choral group on the radio.
They rose, gathered in the living room on their knees, while their father led prayers. Then they all piled into the family’s Essex automobile and drove to nearby Bethel A.M.E Church, on Albany Avenue.
After church, the children chased rabbits in a nearby cemetery.
The Leftenants were a large and close family. James was the son of freed slaves and worked as a laborer for the state of New York. Eunice smoked a pipe and was as good with a hammer as anybody.
They had migrated by boat from Goose Creek , S.C., and built the family homestead on Long Island in 1923.
They were poor. James Leftenant would tell the children that all he had to give them was the family’s good name.
The Leftenants raised their own chickens, pigs and turkeys. The only store-bought items were flour, rice and lard.
Family dinner was nightly — “feet under the table” at 6, Nancy said. Her parents sat side-by-side and questioned the children about their day.
The house had three bedrooms — one for the parents, one for the girls, and one for the boys, the sisters said in a joint interview in a Washington hotel Wednesday. There was an outhouse and, in the beginning, no electric lights.
Sam was the seventh of the 13 children, the family said, and one of six boys — all of whom served in World War II.
“This was our country,” Nancy Leftenant-Colon, of East Norwich, N.Y., said. “We had to protect it. We wanted to be a part of this, and we were.”
Sam “was a lovable individual,” she said. “He was the kind of person that you really liked to be around. He was the apple of my mother’s eye. We realized that after he was lost. . . . She turned gray over night.”
Amy Leftenant said she was walking home from school on the day the telegram arrived saying Sam was missing. She was in sixth grade. As she neared home, a local storekeeper standing outside said: “I heard your brother got killed today.”
She started to cry. “When I got home, all the shades in the house were pulled down” and flowers had been sent, she said. “Smelled like a funeral parlor.”
“I pulled up all the shades and threw the flowers in the trash,” she said. “Life had to go on. I always thought that Sam would come back. Always.”
Thursday, after the service, as mourners gathered in the Women’s Memorial, near the cemetery, an old black-and-white photograph of Sam was up on a poster.
He’s wearing a fur -lined aviator’s jacket, helmet and goggles in the picture. He is young and handsome and looks like a man at peace.