During two half-hour sessions Friday morning at The Ohio State University at Marion campus, WWII Tuskegee Airman Harold Brown, Ph.D., inspired Marion County high school students with his tails of being a P-51 Mustang fighter pilot, his time as a prisoner of war (POW), and the role he helped play in breaking racial barriers.
Leaning against the lectern, Brown, now 95 years young, said to the gathering of high school students, “Many have not heard of the Tuskegee Airmen.” Then he asked, “How many of you have heard of them?” Not many of the 100 or so high schoolers in attendance inside the auditorium at Morrill Hall raised their hands.
“Life was really good, you know,” Brown said. “I lived out my dreams.”
Brown said until recently, the Tuskegee Airmen were the best-kept military secret ever.
“No one ever heard of us,” he said. “There was no recognition. We weren’t in any of the history books, and then all of the sudden, people had heard of us.”
Brown said the popularity still continues to grow over the Tuskegee Airmen, but “unfortunately, as it continues to grow the number of us is dwindling, so practically there is no one left and that’s probably the tragedy. We’ve lost so many of the guys that had never heard of the notoriety that we’ve now acquired.”
Brown added he couldn’t think of a better example of encouragement for “youngsters” than the Tuskegee Airmen and everything they had gone through.
“Here you have a group of guys totally rejected that want to fight in the war, who hit one obstacle after the other, but they started training us down in Tuskegee, Alabama,” he said. “Then, there is all the racial stuff going on down there — it was always something.
“They all rose above all the obstacles, and we’re in some of the history books now, which is kind of nice,” Brown added.
Brown said he was shot down during one of his missions, captured, and spent some time in a POW camp. He said it was probably the most interesting two months of his life.
“I was fortunate. I was only a POW for the last couple of months of the war,” he said. “I was captured on March 4 and liberated on April 29 by (General George) Patton. It was the shortest period of time that I had more great experiences then I had throughout my whole military career.”
Brown opened up the floor for questions from the high schoolers, to which one student asked if he had any funny stories from his past that he could tell. Brown chuckled.
“You’re a very polite crowd of high schoolers, and I don’t think I can tell you the most interesting stories about my life, so for someone of your years, there are no stories,” Brown said.
But his wife, Dr. Marsha Bordner, who helped him field the student’s questions, reminded him of the time that he was a POW and ate weevil soup, which she thought wasn’t an off-color story he could tell.
“What kept us alive was the International Red Cross dropped in a food parcel once per week to all of the prisoners of war,” he said.
Brown said prisoners were fed soup every day from something that was the size of a garbage can.
“They called it soup. It was more like water, and occasionally, you would get a few beans in the water,” he said. “One particular day they brought in some beans and we were all so happy about it, but looking closely, the beans were breaking open and inside every bean was a weevil, dead, and floating around on top.”
Brown said he looked at his friend, who asked him, “‘What do you think Harold?’” Brown said he told him that he wasn’t sure about eating the soup that day, but when his friend brought up the fact that weevils were protein, they both dug in.
“We were the first to grab a bowl of it,” he said. “I just kind of closed my eyes and it wasn’t really that bad as long as I wasn’t looking at what I was eating.”
Another question from one of the teenagers was, “I understand that you guys broke racial barriers. Where did you get the courage to stand up to that?”
Brown said back in those days “it was what it was.”
“I didn’t know of any other kind of lifestyle,” he said. “There were things that I could do, there were a lot of things that I couldn’t do. It was something that I knew my entire life. It was nothing new to me, it was just more of the same.”
One student wanted to know, “What inspired you to join the Air Force?”
Brown said that when he was “a little snotty nose kid in the sixth grade,” he told his mother that he wasn’t taking piano lessons anymore and that he wanted to fly airplanes.
“I don’t know how it happened,” he said. “It just happened.”
Brown said he went into the military at age 17, remaining there until he was 40.
“I spent 23 years in the military, retired as lieutenant colonel,” he said. “I was in SAC (Strategic Air Command) right before I left the military. I was an instructor, and the more I thought about it, there was more to life than pushing a throttle handle.”
Brown added that throughout his entire military career, he had done a lot of instruction.
“I was an instructive pilot throughout my whole career,” he said. “That’s when I decided that I wanted a career in education at the post-secondary level.”
After retiring from the military, Brown went on to earn a Ph.D. before retiring for a second time, this time as vice president of Academic Affairs at Columbus State Community College.
Contact D. Anthony Botkin at 740-413-0902. Follow him on Twitter @dabotkin.