At 16 years of age, Harold Brown saved $35 from his job at a soda counter, went to the airport in Minneapolis and signed up for flying lessons. As a child, he had fallen in love with airplanes. His goal was to become a military pilot.
The year was 1941. Segregation tested the spirit of African Americans. “At that time, they were not going to allow guys like us to become military pilots,” Brown said from his Catawba Island home. A political battle over the matter had heated up, and in March, President Roosevelt stepped in and issued an order that allowed African Americans into military flight training programs.
Brown was one of the first to sign up. He breezed through his exams, completed basic training in Biloxi, Miss., and headed for the Tuskegee Institute. From there, he went to the Tuskegee Army Air Field, graduating in May 1944 as a single engine pilot and a 2nd lieutenant.
By that fall, the pilots in Brown’s class were ready to head overseas. His goal was about to become reality.
As a member of the 332nd Fighter Group, Brown flew ground and combat missions during World War II. His squadron holds a special distinction: They formed the now-famous Tuskegee Airmen, the first group of African American military aviators in the U.S. armed forces.
The 332nd Fighter Group was tasked with protecting bombers in-air. “The first thing we were told was that our assignment was to protect the bombers and bring them all home safely,” Brown said. “We had our orders and we followed them very closely.”
Among the original 450 Tuskegee Airmen, only 40 survive. During commencement on May 12, Heidelberg graduates will have the privilege of hearing Brown’s extraordinary story, which includes capture as a POW.
Brown’s first combat mission was on June 6, 1944. On his 30th mission, as he piloted his beloved P-51 Mustang fighter on a strafing mission over a German village, he was forced to bail out at 1,000 feet when enemy fire targeted him. “We had had a great day. We shot up everything,” Brown remembered. He had been bombing boxcars below. Someone on one of the boxcars returned heavy fire, badly damaging his aircraft. He suddenly found himself in the foothills of the Alps, confronted by an angry mob from the village he had been strafing.
The young airman was scared. “I just knew I was going to die that morning. The only question was how they were going to kill me.” A local constable stepped in and changed Brown’s fate.
Brown survived that ordeal, returning home at age 20, still too young to vote. He remained on active duty for 23 years, serving in Japan and Korea and ultimately with the Strategic Air Command until his retirement as a lieutenant colonel in 1965.
“I wouldn’t change anything – except being shot down,” Brown joked. “It was a fantastic experience.” As a Tuskegee Airman, “I do feel very special.”
The plight of the Airmen was a well-kept secret, with no mention in history books or elsewhere for about 40 years. A 1995 award-winning HBO documentary, simply titled “The Tuskegee Airmen,” brought their adventures to light. The George Lucas film, “Red Tails,” hit the theatres in 2012. Today, a memorial dedicated to the Airmen, their instructors and ground support personnel stands at Walterboro Army Airfield in South Carolina.
But Brown’s distinguished career was far from over. After his military service, he embarked upon a second career in higher education. He completed master’s and Ph.D. degrees and was employed by Columbus Technical College, now Columbus State Community College, as professor, department chair and dean.
He spent his last 12 years at CSCC as vice president of Academic Affairs, during which time the college’s enrollment grew from 67 to more than 13,000.
Brown will have some specific messages for the Class of 2013 about using the skills they’ve acquired – similar to those he honed in the military – to help them find their place. “And then I’m going to talk to them like Lt. Col. Brown and give them a couple of orders,” he joked.
During commencement, Heidelberg will present Brown with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.
It is richly deserved.
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