1 of 3
Photo by Andrew Richards
Lula Simms, 96, discusses her life in the 1940s when she was married to a Tuskegee pilot, 2nd Lt. Beryl Wyatt. She holds the photo of her second husband, Leland Simms, who also served at the Tuskegee Institute.
2 of 3
Lula Simms, 26 at the time, sits with her daughter, Elizabeth, and husband, 2nd Lt. Beryl Wyatt. The 1943 family photo was the last one taken of Wyatt. He shipped overseas to Italy shortly thereafter.
3 of 3
Leland Simms sits in military uniform. Leland was Lula’s second husband, whom she married after her first husband’s death in World War II.
It was a time when classic cars were in style, letters still were a popular medium for communication and factories were making ammunition for the war effort.
In 1943, a 26-year-old Alton woman found happiness studying in Kansas to be a teacher, marrying an Army pilot and settling down with a new baby daughter.
Four months later, her life would be forever changed and a new chapter in her life’s book begun, one she might not have foreseen.
Remembering the past
Now that retired teacher of 51 years from the Alton School District, Lula Simms, 96, of Alton, sits in her home on Tremont Street, telling her story about life back in the late 1930s and early ’40s.
She said she met Leland B. Simms, of Bonners Springs, Kan., in 1939 while attending a community college in Quindaro near Kansas City, where she was studying to be a teacher.
Simms said they dated for two years before she moved in 1941 to further her teaching education at Kansas State Teachers College of Pittsburg, now called Pittsburg State University.
She said she and Leland had stopped dating shortly thereafter because she “heard gossip that he was dating another girl.” Simms met a “very attentive” man by the name of Beryl Wyatt at a picnic the teachers college was hosting.
“I guess I decided I loved him more,” Simms said of her decision, at the time, to try to forget about Leland and date Wyatt.
“We would go everywhere together and do everything together,” she said of her and Wyatt’s relationship. “He was a very nice, wonderful fellow.”
They soon married and had a daughter, Elizabeth.
But that happiness would be short-lived.
The war begins
In 1941, Leland and Wyatt moved to train at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where Wyatt would become one of the many Tuskegee Airmen – a group of African-American aviators who escorted American bomber planes throughout Europe during World War II - and Leland would work as a typist, or “an office man,” at the institute.
Wyatt “was a pilot before he went to Tuskegee. He had already trained to fly,” Simms said. The U.S. government “had him sign a statement saying if the United States had a war, he would volunteer.”
Simms said the two men knew each other because they accidentally met in Tuskegee, and that “Leland used to tease me about Beryl.”
“They were alright,” she said when asked if they were friendly toward each other.
Simms continued to study to be a teacher during the war, but Wyatt often would send for her when he was training.
“Anywhere he went, he would always send for me,” she said, adding she would let Wyatt’s mother watch Elizabeth while she caught a train to see him wherever he was stationed.
Simms said the last time she saw Wyatt was right before he boarded a train in his hometown of Independence, Kan., to go overseas. The year was 1943.
She said she did not remember the moment after he left, but was told by Wyatt’s mother that she cried and told Wyatt’s mother, and his brother and sister, a chilling prediction.
“I cried and told them this would be the last time I saw him,” Simms said.
Unfortunately, that prediction came true in April 1944. Wyatt, 29, a second lieutenant in the 332 Fighter Wing of the Tuskegee Airmen squadron, was on an escort mission in Europe when his plane took heavy enemy fire.
When he tried to land his damaged P-39 Airacobra, he crashed just short of the runway.
Simms said she received a wire that his plane had been shot down and that Wyatt was lying injured in a hospital in Italy.
Three days later, she received another wire — this time it informed her of his death as a result of his injuries. He posthumously was awarded the Purple Cross, which was given to Simms.
“It was a mixed feeling,” she said of how she felt upon receiving the second wire. “I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to live without him, but God knew I cared.”
Simms ended up marrying Staff Sgt. Leland Simms in 1946 after they reconnected in Alton when he came back to offer his condolences on Wyatt’s passing.
They had two children, Peggy and Cynthia, and were married until Leland’s death in 1997 at age 80.
Simms went on to serve 51 years in the Alton School District as a teacher, and the rest is history.
She said she still remembers the “very friendly” man she was married to for that two-year period during one of America’s most turbulent times.
“If you had met Beryl, you would have thought you would have known him all your life,” Simms said.