• Harold Brown was born in 1924 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
• From sixth grade on, he wanted to become a military pilot.
• Many people told him he could not be a military pilot because he was Black.
• Harold believed the U.S. Army would one day begin training Black pilots and he would qualify.
• Harold graduated from high school in 1942 and that summer, applied for Army flight training.
• Harold was accepted and reported to Fort Snelling, Minnesota in December 1942.
• He earned his silver pilot’s wings at Tuskegee Army Air Field (TAAF) in May 1944.
• He was sent overseas to Italy in October 1944.
• In March 1945 during a mission, debris from an exploding locomotive disabled his plane.
• He bailed out, was captured and became a Prisoner of War (POW) in Germany.
• Gen. George Patton liberated Harold and thousands of POWs in Germany in April 1945.
• Harold returned home to Minnesota in June 1945. He was not yet 21 years old.
BOOK RECOMMENDATION: Keep Your Airspeed Up: the Story of a Tuskegee Airman by Harold H. Brown and Marsha S. Bordner (2017)
MOVIE RECOMMENDATION: Red Tails (2012)
STORY by Judith Stanford Miller, WWII Home Front editor
Editor’s note: The following story is based on an in-person interview with Harold Brown on May 28, 2020.
PORT CLINTON, Ohio – Harold Brown, 95, had a lifetime of adventure in the air and on the ground before he was 21 years old. He was laser focused on becoming a military pilot since he was in sixth grade.
He was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1924. He doesn’t know why he “caught the flying bug” so early. He did not attend an air show or see a military plane, Harold said during a May 28, 2020 interview. The interview took place at his home in Port Clinton, Ohio.
Harold pursues his dream
The bug he caught was a good one. It became his dream. Harold pursued his dream as doggedly as a pursuit plane locks on to its target. However, he first had to convince his mother of his dream. She wanted him to become a pianist. Harold saw himself sitting in a cockpit, not on a piano bench. His mother relented after Harold defiantly sat on a piano bench with his hands folded for one hour instead of practicing.
To be ready to become a military pilot, Harold earned $35 by working. He spent it all on flying lessons. His mother was very upset but he never gave up his dream. His next flying lesson would be as an Army Air Forces aviation cadet.
Many people told Harold his dream was unattainable because of his skin color. He surprised everyone. At a young age, Harold figured the Army Air Corps would soon begin training Black pilots. The world would catch up to his dream, he thought. He was correct.
America prepares for war
In 1939, the U.S. Congress authorized the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP). In January 1941, Harold’s hunch that the Army would one day train Black pilots came to fruition. The Army announced Black aviation cadets would be trained in Tuskegee, Alabama in cooperation with the Tuskegee Institute, a college for Black students founded by Booker T. Washington in 1881.
In March 1941, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited Tuskegee and asked to take a ride in a plane. Chief Alfred C. Anderson, head flight instructor who came to Tuskegee in 1940 to manage the CPTP, took her for a ride in his plane. A photo of the two appeared in newspapers across the country. In Harold’s book, he says the exact impact of her ride is difficult to determine but most Tuskegee airmen “believed Eleanor was the conscience of the President.” (Keep Your Airspeed Up, p. 35)
In June 1941, the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) was created.
In summer 1941, the USAAF began training its first class of Black aviation cadets. The United States entered World War II (1939-1945) after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. The Army needed thousands of pilots.
In March 1942, five aviation cadets earned their wings to become the first Black USAAF pilots.
At that time, Harold was weeks away from high school graduation and 1,200 miles from Tuskegee.
Harold’s dream comes true
Harold graduated from high school in June 1942. That summer he took the required written and physical tests. He had to take the tests to attend Army flight school. Of 104 men who took the written test, Harold had the fifth highest score.
In December 1942, he was told to report to Fort Snelling in St. Paul, Minnesota. He had to first enlist in the Army. Then he would begin his pilot training.
“At last I had been selected for flight training! I was over the top with excitement.” (Keep Your Airspeed Up, p. 46)
From Minnesota, Harold traveled to Biloxi, Mississippi for six weeks of basic training. From Biloxi, cadets were sent to Tuskegee for flight school. Harold first attended classes at the Tuskegee Institute for four months. Then he began 40 weeks of pilot training as an aviation cadet at the Tuskegee Army Air Field (TAAF). There were four, ten-week sessions (Preflight, Primary, Basic, and Advanced). The air field was near Tuskegee Institute.
Aviation cadets were always fearful of “washing out” of the program. In Harold’s class, cadets were told there was a quota. Only 30 of them could graduate. Regardless of skill, a few cadets would be washed out. An officer took Harold aside. He told him to make sure his shoes were always shined and his uniform was pressed. And Harold should not give an instructor any reason to select him for a “check” flight.
On May 23, 1944, Harold earned his silver wings as a cadet in Tuskegee class 44-E.
“I remember that day fondly. Here I was, nineteen years old and a brand-new, freshly minted second lieutenant. I had wings on my chest. I was the hottest thing ever to say good morning to the sun, or so I thought.” (Keep Your Airspeed Up, p. 70)
Eventually, 992 Black pilots earned their wings at Tuskegee. Approximately 14,000 people worked there. They were airplane mechanics, doctors, and nurses to name a few of the jobs to support the Tuskegee Airmen training.
Tuskegee Airmen deploy overseas during World War II
Of the 992 pilots, 355 deployed overseas during WWII. They earned many Distinguished Unit Citations for their excellent performance. Black pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group painted the tails of their P-47s and P-51s red. They became known as the Red Tails. Bomber pilots protected by the Red Tails began calling them the Red-Tail Angels.
The Red Tails flew four different airplanes during the war: the P-40 (Warhawk), P-39 (Airacobra), P-47 (Thunderbolt) and P-51 (Mustang). Harold really enjoyed flying the P-51 Mustang.
“Flying the P-51 was just plain fun. On my first flight in the P-51, I performed every aerobatic maneuver I knew; I really wrung the aircraft out. After a couple more flights, I was fully prepared to fly my first combat mission. Of course, I didn’t know everything about the aircraft on my first combat mission, because I had only had about five hours of flying time in the P-51. However, as I gained more flying time, becoming more knowledgeable and comfortable in the P-51, it became abundantly clear to me that the P-51 was the finest combat aircraft fighting the war, especially among the conventional aircraft with reciprocating engines (propellers). (Keep Your Airspeed Up, p. 85)
Harold deploys to Italy
The Allied D-Day invasion took place along the coast of Normandy, France on June 6, 1944. It was two weeks after Harold became a full-fledged Army Air Forces pilot.
After graduating, Harold reported to Walterboro, South Carolina. He took 60 hours of combat fighter training in the P-47. The plane was called “the Jug” because it looked like a milk jug.
In August, Harold took a Liberty Ship from Hampton, Virginia to North Africa. Once in Algeria, he boarded another ship bound for Naples, Italy. He would be flying missions out of Ramitelli Air Field. It was northeast of Naples. The entire trip overseas took more than 50 days.
The D-Day invasion had been successful. Allied troops were pushing Nazi infantry soldiers, the Wehrmacht, back into Germany from the west. Soviet Union troops were pushing the Wehrmacht back into Germany from the east.
In the skies, Allied bombers and fighters were continuing their missions to defeat the German Air Force, the Luftwaffe. Allied airmen were also destroying war infrastructure on the ground in Germany. Airports, refineries, ammunition storage sites, and railroads were all targets.
While their main task was to protect Allied bombers, at times the Red Tails engaged the enemy.
The Red Tails also conducted missions to disable locomotives and trains on the ground.
Harold becomes a Prisoner of War (POW)
On March 14, 1945, the Red Tails were flying a special mission to target trains near Linz, Austria. It was Harold’s 30th mission. It would be his last.
As they were returning to base in their P-51s after a successful mission, they noticed one large locomotive still intact. Harold had ammunition left. He said he would get it. The locomotive blew up directly under him as he strafed the train. Debris hit and disabled his plane. He had no choice but to turn the plane over and bail out.
He knew he would land in enemy territory. But he thought he could get to Russian lines if he could evade capture. Russia was an ally. However, his plan quickly ended after landing in knee-deep snow in the Alps. Two skiers with rifles took him to a village. Thirty-five very angry people began yelling at him in German. He didn’t understand German. But he knew they intended to kill him.
Harold said he began talking to himself to figure out what to do. As they were taking him to a tree to hang him, a local constable intervened. He aimed his rifle at the crowd as they backed into a tavern and barricaded the door. At midnight, the constable took him to a neighboring village. Harold was now a Prisoner of War (POW) in German hands. He was 20 years old.
He was taken to Nuremberg where he was interrogated. After a few weeks, Harold and thousands of other POWs were told they would be walking 80 miles to Moosburg. George Iles was a POW there. George was Harold’s good friend and classmate from Tuskegee class 44-E. Harold was shocked to see George. George had crashed two weeks before Harold. Harold thought George had made it to Switzerland.
German guards divided about 10,000 POWs in groups of 200. Each group had one or two guards. One day while at a farm, George and Harold picked dandelions and cooked the greens. Other soldiers could not believe they were cooking weeds but Harold and George knew the secret. The yellow flowers had to be removed before cooking!
With his baby face, Harold was chosen to barter with local residents to exchange cigarettes for food. Harold kept a journal while walking and noted the towns he passed through. He was so hungry he also wrote about the food he would eat when he returned home.
On April 12 while walking, they learned President Roosevelt had died. They arrived in Moosburg on April 18, 1945.
Gen. George Patton liberates thousands of POWs at Moosburg
On April 29, 1945, General George S. Patton and his 14th Armored Division liberated their POW camp. American tanks knocked down barbed-wire fences. Then Gen. Patton addressed thousands of American POWs from the hood of his jeep.
Harold just happened to be standing close enough to witness Patton’s arrival. He vividly recalls the scene.
“Then Patton came roaring in. He was a big man, about six feet, two inches tall, a real warrior, a real soldier. Patton knew there was a big prison camp in Moosburg and he loved publicity, so when he came into the camp, his jeep was spotless. Somewhere out there along those dirty roads his staff had managed to find enough water to clean and shine that jeep. He was in tan breeches and knee-high cavalry boots, and wore two pistols on his sides. His suit looked like it was just freshly pressed and he had those four stars across his helmet.” (Keep Your Airspeed Up, p. 150)
Patton talked for about five minutes. Then he said he was on his way to Berlin to get Hitler. Hitler was a dictator who ruled Nazi Germany.
On May 8, 1945, Germany surrendered. WWII in Europe was over.
Harold returns home
Harold returned to Fort Snelling on June 28, 1945. He and seven other POWs from Minnesota were awarded the Purple Heart. He spent 60 days at home in Minneapolis. He was not yet 21 years old.
“I have often been asked if I had any idea at that time, when I had just returned from the war, what my legacy as a Tuskegee Airman would be. The answer is ‘No.’ After all, I started the process of entering the military at seventeen and came home at twenty. A legacy was the last thing on my mind. I never thought for one second that I was doing something wonderful, that our successes would have the impact that they did. Only years later I realized our actions impacted what eventually happened back here.” (Keep Your Airspeed Up, p. 159)
- perseverance: (noun) – quality of character that does not give up; keeps working to achieve a goal
- doggedly: (adverb) – without letting up, very focused and dedicated
- defiantly: (adverb) – with defiance (noun form), going against norms, rules or commands to hold to one’s position or action
- unattainable: (adj.) – not able to be attained, done or achieved
- authorized: (verb) – given approval by a person or group; authorization (noun form)
- strafed: (verb) – sprayed bullets on a target from a plane flying at low altitude
- legacy: (noun) – a group of actions that defines a person’s life, usually after that person dies
- When did Harold Brown decide he wanted to be a military pilot?
- What did Harold have to do before being accepted as an aviation cadet in the U.S. Army Air Corps?
- How did Harold Brown show his mother that he was set on becoming a pilot one day?
- Where did Harold train to become an Army Air Forces pilot?
- Where was Harold deployed during World War II?
- What happened to Harold on his 30th mission?
- Read the headline again. How was Harold’s time as a pilot defined by excellence and extraordinary perseverance?
- When everyone around him told him he could never become an Army pilot because of his skin color, what kept Harold pursuing his dream?
- What lessons from Harold’s life are timeless and apply to everyone today?
Keep Your Airspeed Up: the Story of a Tuskegee Airman by Harold H. Brown and Marsha S. Bordner, 2017, ISBN: 978-08173-1958-8
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