Tuskegee Airman Shares the Secret to Living Your Dream

Harold said, “My engine was damaged, my oil pressure went to zero, temperature went to maximum, all of the coolant came out right across my windshield – so I knew there was only one choice.”

MARCH 1936

“I was 11 years old,” he said, “and as I describe it, I had a love affair with an airplane. What caused it, I have no idea. One day, I wound up loving airplanes. It was almost as if I was born to fly, really.”

Harold Brown had one dream — to be a military pilot. But for an African-American boy in 1936, that was out of the question. Since World War I, Black men had been prohibited from enlisting and training as pilots. But Harold was raised in a family who taught him that every dream was worth chasing.

He said, “I always had the belief that everything would change. And that's what I said, ‘By the time I'm ready, everything will change.’ And that’s precisely what happened.”

In December 1938, President Roosevelt unveiled the civilian pilot training program in hopes of boosting general aviation. And for the first time, a select number of African-American men were given a chance to fly.

Announcer 1: “We interrupt this program to bring you this important bulletin from the United Press.”

Announcer 2: “September 1, 1939, Germany attacks Poland.”

Announcer 3: “Hitler’s all-out attack on Poland makes the long dreaded European war a certainty.”   

JULY 19, 1941

For 2 ½ years, Harold and the rest of America carried on as usual. Then, under executive order, the U.S. Army Air Corps activated the first squadron of all Black pilots. They became the Tuskegee Airmen.

“The big news was that I could apply and I could take my shot at it. And at least I would get a chance,” Harold remarked.

That same summer, a sixteen-year-old Harold took a job as a soda jerk with just one thing in mind.

I saved up $35 and I took those $35 and bought me five flying lessons. On the first flight, I was sloppy – all over the sky. But by the fifth flight, I was quite comfortable. I said, ‘Oh man, this is really Grade A, yeah, I’m flying an airplane.’”   
Then, the war came to america.


Franklin D. Roosevelt: “No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people and their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.”

America declared war on Japan and joined the Allied Powers in Europe. And when Harold graduated from high school in June 1942, he took the Tuskegee flight school entrance exam and passed.

“I was selected. I'm in, he sighed. “That was my dream. I was going to become a pilot – crash, no! I’m not going to crash. Uh-huh. I'm invincible. Nothing will happen to me.”

Harold earned his wings and the rank of 2nd Lieutenant in May 1944. He was shipped to Ramitelli, Italy, where he joined other Tuskegee Airmen of the 332nd fighter group – a segregated, all-Black unit known only by the red rudder on their P-51 Mustangs.  

“The bomber boys never heard of us,” he shared. “All of a sudden they knew that a new fighter group had come in and they had red tails. And they said, ‘Who are these red tail guys?’”  

But it was their performance in the air that stood out the most.

Harold recalled, “We had the best record in terms of losing bombers to enemy aircraft of any other fighter group in the 15th Air Force. All of a sudden they said, ‘Boy, these are the greatest guys in the world,’ not knowing who was flying those airplanes. And they started calling us the Red Tail Angels; then they start requesting us. ‘Who's our escort today? Is it the Red Tails? No, it's not them. What? It's not the Red Tails?’ They wanted the Red Tails.”

On March 14, 1945, Harold and 19 other Red Tails took off for Linz, Austria, on a strafing mission.

“If you see something, shoot it up,” he said. “And we looked and we said, ‘Look what we got.’ Locomotives all up and down, the steam coming from them – just like throwing a fox in a briar patch. And we had one heck of a day.”

It was Harold’s 30th and last mission of the war. That day, as he targeted one remaining train, he flew a little too close.

As Harold described, “I got that locomotive, it lit up like a – oh, just like a Christmas tree. And just as I pulled up to pass over the locomotive, that's when it blows.”
“I was caught in some of the explosion,” he continued. “I pulled the aircraft up, rolled it over, I jettisoned the canopy, pulled the chute, the guys were circling me to make sure that I was okay, then they head for home. I landed in that snow –
I have never been so lonely in my life. Twenty years old, up in Germany, looking like this. And I said, ‘What has happened to me?’"

Moments later, Harold surrendered to two civilian policemen who escorted him to the very town he and his squadron had just attacked.

“I got a mob in front of me,” he remembered. “They’re upset. They’re angry. Invincibility – it doesn’t exist. They had one thing on their mind and they were going to kill me. And that was when this one constable, stepped in front of me, put a round in his rifle, and kept them from killing me. I thought it was nothing less than a miracle.”

The constable pulled Harold into a pub and barricaded the doors. The next day, he was put on a P.O.W. train to Nuremberg. Not long into the ride, Harold heard a familiar sound — the roaring engines of P-51s.  

He said, “We said, ‘Our guys, oh boy…’ Then we realized, ‘My God, they're going to strafe the train.’ Hearing those 650 calibers going off, tearing that train apart, you're hollering and screaming, there's no place to run, and you could hear the engine speeding up, the guy's trying to get to a tunnel. And I'm saying, ‘Come on, keep it going! Get to that tunnel!”

APRIL 29, 1945

The train reached the tunnel safely, and traveled on to Nuremberg. But with the steady advancement of Allied troops, the city was soon evacuated, and Harold was sent to a Stalag in Moosburg. Soon after, Nazi soldiers abandoned the camp, and Patton’s tanks rolled in freeing over 100,000 prisoners.

“He comes in, and if you can imagine, this mob of people hollering and screaming, ‘Yay! Patton! Yay, Patton!! Go get 'em, Patton!’ Course, I was just as happy. Look what I just came through. You realize somebody, somebody had to be looking out for you; somebody had to be taking care of you. And there’s only somebody in the world who I know is capable of doing that – God. I don’t know how else it could have happened.”

Germany surrendered on May 6th, 1945, and four months later, Japan followed. Harold and his fellow Red Tails returned home heroes, having helped bring an end to the war and racial prejudice in the military. Their final victory came in 1948, when President Truman officially ended segregation within the armed forces.

Ronald Reagan: “It was never easy for these men. They were pioneers, and no pioneer has it easy. They fought lies. They fought heart break, and they won.”

After flying 23 years in the Air Force, Harold retired as Colonel. He has since earned a doctorate, served as an administrator at Columbus State Community College, and co-authored his autobiography with his wife Marsha. These days, at 93, he travels all over the U.S. sharing the lessons of the Tuskegee Airmen and how one dream can change everything.

He shared, “With hard work, perseverance, never quitting, having confidence that you can win, overcoming obstacles. And you can be successful. You can overcome anything. Dream. Aim as high as you want in your dream, and then go after it. When things are tough and whatnot, just think of the Tuskegee Airmen. If we could do it, you can do it.”

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