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Triumph over adversity: The Tuskegee Airmen

September 2016

On 27 August 2016, retired United States Ar Force Lieutenant-Colonel Harold Brown, a former member of the famous Tuskegee Airman, spoke to a crowd of 200 people about his days with the Red Tail Squadron.  LCol Brown completed ground and combat missions, strafing enemy targets and protecting bomber aircraft on bombing missions.

LCol Brown was taking part in the first ever Canadian stop of the Tuskegee Airmen travelling exhibit called Triumph over Adversity:  Rise Above, a popular attraction that tells the story of the ground-breaking air force squadron.  The exhibit features a the film telling the story of the Tuskegee pilots and a restored P-51 Mustang, complete with the distinctive red tail, that the Tuskegee pilots flew while accompanying bombers during the war.

The Tuskegee Airmen, named after the nearby town of Tuskegee, Alabama, were the first black military aviators allowed to serve in the United States Army Air Forces during World War II.   Prior to WWII, black Americans were still prohibited from serving in combat units and were still racially segregated.  Ghe only jobs for blacks in the military were non-combat labour positions.

Officially, the Tuskegee Airmen formed the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the United States Army Air Forces  The name also applies to the navigators, bombardiers, mechanics, instructors, crew chiefs, nurses, cooks and other support personnel for the pilots.

The pilot training program was conducted at Morton Field and Tuskegee Army Airfield from 1941 to 1945.

LCol Harold Brown decided in high school that he wanted to be an army pilot.  With WWII still in its early years, Brown applied for pilot training as soon as he graduated.  However, his school friends teased him that because he was black, they wouldn’t even let him wash the planes, let alone fly them.

Brown was indeed accepted for pilot training under the Tuskegee program in December 1942.  Graduating on 23 May 1944, Brown received his wings and a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant.  HE then spent an additional 90 days undergoing fighter training and then he was posted to 332nd Fighter Group, stationed in Ramitelli, Italy.

The job of the squadron was to protect bombers of the 15th Air Force, one of six fighter groups charged with escorting the bombers into and out of Germany, Austria and southern Europe.  The 332nd Fighter Group flew the P-51 C Mustang with its tail pained a distinctive red, giving the squadron their nickname, “The Red Tails.”

Brown’s flew his first combat mission on 6 June 1944.

In an interview with Marsha Bordman on the Serving our Seniors web site, Brown recalls, “Initially the bombers didn’t know who was flying “The Red Tails” (a nickname for the planes flown by the Tuskegee Airmen). In time, the bomber pilots were saying things like: “Man, these guys stick with us, they don’t leave us; they pick up stragglers, find them, and bring them home.” When they learned who we were, most of the bombers pilots were happy, but there were a few who would still rather take their chances than have us. But it was overwhelmingly the other way. They started calling us the “Red Tailed Angels”, because we lost so few bombers.”

It was on his 30th mission over Austria that LCol Brown’s P-51 Mustang was shot down.  Brown bailed out and was taken prisoner, spending the last 2 months of the war in POW camp south of Nuremberg.  While the crash of his aircraft wasn’t fatal, how Brown was captured almost did turn fatal as he was confronted by an angry mob of Austrian citizens who were determined to exact some revenge on the young airman as they knew he was the one who had just been strafing their village.  Before he could be harmed, a local constable intervened and took Brown into custody.

Advancing American troops lead the Germans to evacuate the 10, 000 prisoners, including Brown, to Stalag Luft VII-A, north of Munich.  On 29 April 1945, General Patton’s forces arrived at the prison camp and freed the imprisoned airmen.

Brown remained in the Army Air Forces after the war ended, seeing it break-off into a separate service, the United States Air Force, in 1947.  He rose up through the officer ranks, retiring as a Lieutenant-Colonel in 1965.

LCol Brown went on to earn a Ph.D. and retired from Columbus State Community College as Vice-President of Academic Affairs in 1986, after 21 years with the college.

On 29 March 2007, surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen were personally awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.

At 92, Brown is still as energetic as ever, periodically doing speaking engagements at schools and museums, telling his story and those of the Tuskegee Airmen.  While at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum, Brown was so energetic and full of stories about the war, he didn’t realize he had gone over his allotted speaking time and had to be stopped by the show presenters.  If he hadn’t been stopped, LCol Brown would probably have kept going for another hour or two about his experiences.  The audience seemed more than eager to hear what he had to say about an important chapter in American military history.

Sources:  http://www.servingourseniors.org/retired-colonel-harold-brown-89-years-old-tuskegee-airman/, http://www.thespec.com/news-story/6868092-former-tuskegee-airman-harold-brown-visits-cwhm/, information supplied by Bill McBride, Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum, www.redtail.org.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/triumph-over-adversity-the-tuskegee-airmen/

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