By JAN LARSON McLAUGHLIN
BG Independent News
During World War II, black pilots weren’t allowed to fly with whites in the U.S. Army Air Force. When they returned from war, those same black pilots weren’t allowed to fly commercial airlines.
As a Tuskegee Airman, one of the first places Dr. Harold Brown experienced true integration was in a German prisoner of war camp.
There, he starved behind the barbed wire right along with the white POWs.
Brown, who now lives in Port Clinton, flew 30 missions as a fighter pilot before being shot down over Germany. He spoke Friday during Bowling Green’s annual Dr. Martin Luther King program that had been delayed due to bad weather earlier this year.
Brown, now 93, is the focus of the book, “Keep Your Airspeed Up,” written by his wife, Dr. Marsha Bordner. The book follows her husband’s life as a black man growing up in America, as one of the famous Tuskegee Airmen, and as a college administrator.
Brown’s parents fled Alabama during the great migration of black Americans headed north in search of less segregated lives. They ended up in Minnesota, where Brown grew up in a neighborhood of people who were Jewish, Swedish, Polish and Latino.
It was there that Brown’s dream to fly was born.
“When I was in the sixth grade, I woke up one day and decided I wanted to fly airplanes,” he said. He began building models and repeatedly read a library book on flight. “I almost memorized it,” he said.
At age 16, Brown saved up $35 and took flying lessons. Other kids ridiculed his dream.
“They won’t even let you wash an airplane, let alone fly an airplane,” he was told.
But it turned out his country needed him at age 17, when WWII started. Even then, the rules were different. Brown passed the test for the reserves – which protected white men from the draft.
“I had to wait and sweat it out,” he said.
When he told his mom that he was headed to Mississippi for military training, “it got interesting,” Brown said. His parents had fled that part of the country, where segregation was the tradition and the law. His mom warned him how to behave, with plenty of “Yes mams” and “No sirs.”
It didn’t take Brown long to realize his mom was right, when he encountered different services for “white” and “colored” people as soon as he got off the train.
“This is what Mom was talking about,” he said.
There, Brown was trained as part of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen.
“We were the best kept secret in the Air Force. Nobody ever heard of us,” he said. The tragedy is now that many people know about the black fighter pilots, few of the men are still around to be recognized, he said.
“The number of us are dwindling so rapidly,” Brown said.
The Tuskegee Airmen were trained on a segregated base in Alabama.
“I can’t think of a better example of encouragement for a youngster,” he said. “They rose above all the obstacles. Now we’re in some of the history books.”
Brown flew 30 missions as a fighter pilot. One of his first scares came when he couldn’t give up his pursuit of a German fighter and his plane ran out of fuel. He was forced to land on a broken up airstrip. He tore he plane to pieces, but got out safely, he said with a smile.
He wasn’t so lucky the next time when he was shot down, and parachuted out over Germany. He was captured and taken to a German village, where the townspeople were ready to kill him.
“I knew I was going to die that day,” Brown said.
But then the village constable stepped up and shielded him from the crowd. Brown spent the next eight days being escorted to a German POW camp. On one portion of the trip, his train was strafed by American planes.
At the German POW camp, Brown was approached by a Jewish soldier who feared that his religion would be revealed. He advised the man to just keep quiet, and pointed out that unlike him, Brown could not go undetected.
“I can’t hide like that,” Brown said, pointing to his skin.
However, the camp proved equally horrible to all.
“The first time I was integrated was in a prisoner of war camp,” he said.
The soldiers were fed “something called soup” once a day, plus got one loaf of bread to divide among seven men. The men were excited to see bean soup one day, only to find the beans hatching into bugs.
“I closed my eyes and started eating,” Brown said.
Brown entered the camp weighing 128 pounds and left it with his ribs poking out.
“We would always talk about food in camp,” he said. “Chow mien was one of my favorites.”
Brown and his fellow soldiers were liberated by General George Patton’s troops. After coming back to the states, Brown became a B-47 instructor pilot, and spent 23 years in the military. Then in 1965, he decided he wanted a new career in education.
“I thought, there’s more to life than pushing a handful of throttles,” he said.
Brown went on to become academic vice president of Columbus State Community College, the largest two-year college in Ohio.
He fielded questions Friday about the racism that he tolerated 75 years ago.
“It is what it is,” Brown said.
As an airman at Tuskegee Institute, he was able to avoid confrontations often encountered in civilian life. He recalled leaving the base once to go to Georgia, where he was expected to step off the sidewalk for white people.
“I looked at myself as a first class citizen. You are only a second class citizen if you look at yourself as a second class citizen,” he said. “This is my country, too.”
Brown was also asked about the progress he has witnessed.
“I know it isn’t perfect yet,” he said. “But today is much better than it was.”
And he still has hopes. The country has the capacity to change, he said – though it may not happen as fast as many want.
“I probably won’t see it in my lifetime,” he said. “But I am still convinced that it will happen.”
(A story will follow on the Drum Major Award presented by the Bowling Green Human Relations Commission at the Martin Luther King Jr. tribute.)