'They had to fight to get into the fight:' One of the last Tuskegee Airmen recalls their battle for equality

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Former Tuskegee Airmen and retired Lt. Col. Harold Brown.

Photo: Melanie Rodgers Cox/U.S. Air Force

CATAWBA ISLAND TOWNSHIP, Ohio — While the controversy over whether transgender personnel can serve in the military rages on, there are a few people who experienced exclusion in the armed forces when it was more of a matter of black and white.

Literally.

Harold Brown remembers.


He recently sat in his kitchen with a scenic view of a backyard marshland near Lake Erie, and talked about what it's like being one of the last of the famed Tuskegee Airmen fighter pilots, serving in an all-black aviation unit formed during World War II when racial segregation was the norm in the military and the nation.

While he talked, his gaze rose from the nearby water and reeds to the sky, where it all began when he was a child watching the flight of a plane overhead and asking, deciding, "Why not me?"

Pride and sadness

The man who once piloted fighters before and after the war, who later became an educator and avid golfer, who saw the legacy of the Tuskegee Airman rise from obscurity to national prominence, bears his distinction with unabashed pride, and a little sadness.

Only 11 of the 355 Tuskegee Airmen single-engine pilots who served in the Mediterranean theater during World War II, as Brown did, are still alive, according to Tuskegee Airmen Inc. Only two of the 32 Tuskegee pilots who were POWs, as Brown was, are living.

"Well it's nice to be around," Brown, 94, said with a faint smile. "But other than that, it's also tough to see the few number of guys that are left, because you remember so many."

An 'experiment' and a challenge

He still tells their story, largely through public appearances for his 2017 book, "Keep Your Airspeed Up."

That story, according to Brown, includes the role that the Tuskegee Airmen played in prompting this nation's post-war transition from segregation. As he noted, "we were in the forefront of integrating this country."

Brown said the Tuskegee Airmen served as an example of what black men could do, contrary to a 1925 U.S. Army War College report concluding that the Negro "sub-species of the human family" was cowardly, incapable of higher learning and lazy.

The Tuskegee project was an "experiment" backed by President Franklin Roosevelt and then President Harry Truman to train black recruits to fly and maintain Army Air Forces' combat aircraft.

The Tuskegee Airmen included an estimated 14,000 pilots, navigators, bombardiers, maintenance and support staff, who started training in 1941 at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and other facilities.

A commitment to success

"Perhaps our greatest legacy is all the things that we overcome to become Tuskegee Airmen," Brown said.

One of those obstacles was to overcome a common expectation of military and political leaders, according to Brown.

"It was felt that this big experiment was going to fail and fall flat on its face. They'll never make it as pilots," Brown said.

But among some of the Tuskegee Airmen, "that was really one of our biggest motivations, that we cannot fail, we just can't," Brown said.

Laying the groundwork for civil rights

Marsha Bordner, Brown's wife and co-author, said writing the book was important because "I believed then and I believe now that the Tuskegee Airmen changed the course of history, and I didn't want that story to be lost.

"They laid the groundwork for the civil rights movement, with the military first," she added. Although the military probably had good economic reasons for discontinuing the use of separate bases and units for separate races, "that beginning [of integration] had to start someplace first, and it started with the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II," Bordner said.

Air Force Brig. Gen. Leon A. Johnson, president of Tuskegee Airmen Inc., said the Tuskegee Airmen achieved a "double victory": fighting the enemy overseas and prejudice and discrimination at home.

He noted that the actions of black officers of the 477th Medium Bombardment Group to integrate a segregated officers club at a base in Indiana in 1945 set the stage for President Truman to desegregate U.S. military forces three years later.

He described the Tuskegee Airmen as "determined individuals who, like all Americans, wanted and were eventually allowed to fight to protect and defend the American way of life. Unfortunately, they had to fight to get into the fight.

"What the Tuskegee Airmen did is not black history, it's not military history, it's American history," he said.

Rude awakenings and quotas

Brown was due for some rude awakenings in helping make that history. After being accepted for flight training in Alabama, the Minneapolis-born aviator who had experienced little overt discrimination in Minnesota, was advised by his mother about how to be deferential to whites down South.

He soon discovered that meant riding in blacks-only railway cars and, outside the base, sitting in the back section of movie theaters called "Negro Heaven," and using separate restrooms and drinking fountains.

What particularly galled Brown during training were the seemingly arbitrary quotas set for how many pilots would be allowed to complete the program.

"So many decisions were based not upon what we accomplished, not upon our basic skills, but a quota system," Brown said. "It was that kind of unfairness that just seemed to follow us every place we went."

Flying around racism and prejudice

Overseas, the Tuskegee pilots had to fly their fighters to a white base for pre-mission briefings, and Brown recalled that prejudice extended to the enemy, in propaganda posters depicting the black pilots as gorillas piloting the distinctive red-tailed Tuskegee planes.

But Brown said, "When I came in, all I wanted to do was fly. I wasn't thinking about doing anything special, anything that would be remembered, anything that would influence anything to happen in this country.

"It wasn't until my later years that I began to look upon what we had done, what we had accomplished and what it had led to."

Brown said he handled the racism and prejudice mostly by avoiding it – keeping to black communities whenever he ventured off base.

"I never had what I would classify as a difficult situation," he said. "I just did not put myself into a position where I would be embarrassed by it."

Deal with it, don't give up

Brown said people often ask how he could fight for a country that treated blacks as a second-class citizens but gave them a first-class opportunity to get killed in combat.

"It was something that we all thought about, and we all had pretty much the same thinking," he said. And that thinking was, "Wait a minute. We're only second-class citizens if we allow ourselves to be. We don't have to act like it, we don't have to behave like it, we don't even have to accept the idea."

Brown said he adopted that attitude not long after he first set his sights on a flying career as a sixth-grader.

As he recalled, "I was teased about it from other guys: 'Hey, they won't even let you wash an airplane, let alone fly it, ha-ha-ha.' But I never gave up on that dream. I said, 'Hey, when I'm ready, everything will have changed.'

"So when I ran into a problem, I motivated Harold Brown," he said. "Because there were numerous things that I ran into and I had a choice: I could either whine about it, get pissed off about it and give up on it, or I could follow my passion. I think this was going on with most of the [Tuskegee] guys: 'OK, it is what it is, deal with it. Don't give up on it.'"

The Tuskegee Airmen stayed strong through the bonds of camaraderie and the feeling that they were something special: pilots, a rarity for blacks in those days.

"If there was any hard part to it, it was the things that you ran into off the [Tuskegee] base. The little nastiness," Brown said. "I can remember going to bases and enlisted white men would never salute me. Those kind of personal things. But again, it is what it is, so you deal with it."

Tuskegee Airman visits Red Tails at the 187th Photo: 42 Air Base Wing/Public Affairs

Protecting the bombers

There was another war to be fought as Brown became part of the 332nd Fighter Group, flying P-51 Mustang fighters from bases in Italy.

The Fighter Group's primary role was to protect American bombers flying to their targets.

"You join up [with the bombers], fly your mission, eager beaver, you were hoping that you would run into enemy aircraft," Brown recalled. "We always used to say if enemy aircraft come up, that's 'DFC Day,' Distinguished Flying Cross Day. We're going to get some victories."

Brown said the pilots were aware of the risks but ignored them. "We generally thought we were invincible. 'No, they'll never shoot me down, I can out-fly any of them.' "

But sometimes fate had a way of taking control, such as the time when Brown tried to shoot down one of Germany's new jet fighters, the ME 262, and the enemy aircraft led him on a treetop-level chase straight into a "flak trap," where anti-aircraft guns on the ground riddled Brown's plane and he had to crash-land.

Similarly, on low-level strafing missions, "You know there's a risk involved, but that's in the back of your mind," Brown said. "You're strafing ground targets, blowing up locomotives and all the rest of it, and it isn't that you enjoy doing it, but you're doing your job."

One of those strafing runs resulted in Brown getting shot down again. He parachuted to safety but was soon surrounded by a mob of enraged German citizens, carrying ropes, who took him to what he later described as a "perfect hanging tree."

A German constable saved Brown from the mob and the irony of traveling thousands of miles to be threatened with lynching. The pilot was taken to a multinational POW camp where a popular joke among the captured Tuskegee aviators was that the prison was the first time they had experienced integration.

Due to the common belief among both the POWs and the Germans that the war would end soon, there were no escape attempts.

Food, however, was always in short supply, and at one point, Brown compiled a dream list of "Food I must eat" upon gaining his freedom — a moment of liberation that eventually came a little more than a week before the war ended in Europe with Germany's defeat.

Flying bigger, faster

After the war, Brown stayed in the newly integrated Air Force and rose through the ranks as he flew bigger and faster aircraft.

He flight-tested jets in Korea during the Korean War, despite a mishap during his first solo in a jet when the cockpit blew off when the plane was 30,000 feet in the air, taking part of the plane's rudder with it. Brown managed to land the aircraft.

He shrugs off the incident, saying, "It's just one of those things. So I had an explosive decompression, lost the canopy, knocked the rudder off the aircraft. So, it was still flyable, so, no big deal, really."

He flew B-47 jet bombers for the Strategic Air Command during the Cold War but eventually was forced to retire (by regulations).

Brown said he had reached the point, anyway, where "I wasn't losing interest in flying, but I thought there's got to be more to life than just pushing a handful of throttles."

From pilot to educator

He earned a degree in mathematics at Ohio University and taught at the Columbus Area Technician School (now Columbus State Community College), later becoming vice president of academic affairs.

After retiring in 1986, he met his future second wife while he was doing consulting work at Clark Technical College in Springfield where she was vice president of academic affairs. She later became president of Terra State Community College in Fremont until 2012. They were married in 2010.

Fame, acclaim as the nation changed

In 1995, the HBO movie "The Tuskegee Airmen" brought renewed fame to these historic aviators, and a flurry of recognition and accolades followed, including a Congressional Gold Medal awarded to the group in 2007.

Brown and other Tuskegee Airman were invited to the inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009.

The changes Brown once confidently predicted that would enable a black man to fly have continued over the years, he said.

"I always hoped that the country would change and, of course, the country has changed," he said. "What I have seen during my lifetime, from a little 17-year-old kid who graduated from high school, went through flight training and the rest of it and stayed in until I retired, there's just no comparison.

"Are there still problems? Sure, there are still a few problems out there," he said. "But even with the problems, we aren't anyplace close to where we were 70 some years ago. It's a whole new world."

Looking back on a fortunate career

In looking back on his time with the Tuskegee Airmen, Brown said, "Those were the best years of my life. I wouldn't trade it for nothing in the world."

The thing he misses most about the Tuskegee flying days is the camaraderie of pilots. "We were all very close and supportive of each other," he said.

"I was fortunate. I did look death just as straight in the face as you could look at it, but I survived," he added.

His mother once wanted him to become a pianist, and he took a few lessons before the urge to fly took hold. Nowadays, he's swapped a joystick for a keyboard. Mother wasn't too far wrong.

One last flight

His last flight came two years ago when he went to the nearby Liberty Aviation Museum airfield in Port Clinton to fly a PT-17 Stearman biplane, the same type of aircraft he first flew when training for the Tuskegee Airmen.

"I had a great time, greased the landing in, and I said 'That's it, no more flying for me,' " Brown recalled.

©2019 The Plain Dealer, Cleveland. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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