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'I Just Wanted To Fly': A Tuskegee Airman Reflects On Pioneering WWII Squadron

Craig Huntly Collection

During World War II, the pilots who became known as the Tuskegee Airmen were the first black enlisted men to serve as military pilots in the U.S. armed forces. The U.S. Army Air Corp created the segregated flight training program after the NAACP sued the military in an attempt to integrate the corps.

Ultimately, more than 900 pilots served with the Tuskegee units including more than 350 Airmen who served overseas during WWII. The fliers, nicknamed “Red Tails,” or “Red-Tail Angels," earned a reputation for successfully protecting U.S. bombers from German fighter aircraft. 

More than seven decades after the close of the war, memories are etched in the minds of surviving Tuskegee Airmen, including 93-year-old Harold Brown. The retired Air Force lieutenant colonel was scheduled to make a public appearance at Gaston College Tuesday. He stopped by WFAE's studios on Monday and spoke with All Things Considered host Mark Rumsey.


Harold Brown fell in love with airplanes as a kid. He remembers building model planes from around the end of the sixth grade. Planes, and flying, became Brown’s passion. At age 16, he saved $35 to buy his first handful of flying lessons. Before his 20th birthday, Brown was accepted into the military flight training program at Tuskegee, where he arrived with his spirits flying high.

Tuskegee Airman Harold H. Brown tells a war story from WWII, during an interview with WFAE's Mark Rumsey; Brown and his fellow-flier had just skirmished with a German military plane.
Harold Brown talks about the U.S. military strafing mission in Austria in March, 1945 in which his plane was damaged by debris from an exploding train locomotive; Brown parachuted from his plane and became a German POW at Nuremburg for the final weeks of the war.

Harold Brown: The very fact that I was selected, I was on cloud nine, and that was all-important because that was the first step. I can recall all too well leaving Minneapolis, Minnesota, this very integrated city, where I was very well protected. I had no idea what segregation was like, although my parents had come from Alabama. My mother then sat down and started preparing me to go south. ‘Now listen to me, Harold’ – and I was kind of poo-pooing to myself, ‘Aw mom, c’mon, you know.’  And, ‘No, no, Harold, you listen to me, and listen very carefully – there are ways you have to behave.’ And, it went on from there.

Mark Rumsey:  And so once you’d made that transition into the actual flight training program, you were full-tilt in the military. What was the racial climate like once you were on the inside of that complex?

Harold Brown: Well, everything was segregated. We never went into the little town of Tuskegee. It was a very rigorous program. We were right on the base, so we didn’t see anything that was any different. Granted, we had white instructors and the base itself was segregated. I happened to meet one of the flight instructors, a guy by the name of Dawson, who went to the University of Minnesota. He befriended me. One day he said to me, ‘Harold, we have washed out better pilots than we’ve graduated in other white schools.’ That says it all.

Credit Mark Rumsey
Retired Lt. Col. Harold Brown with wife and co-author Marsha Bordner at WFAE studios.

Mark Rumsey: Do you see yourself and your colleagues in that program – your peers as the Tuskegee Airmen – as being civil rights pioneers?

Harold Brown: I answer that this way. I was nothing but a young kid, 17 years old, when I first went in. I never looked upon myself as being out really doing anything other than just flying. I just wanted to fly. I never thought I was doing anything important. I never thought that one day [it] would be looked up, or I would be looked upon as, ‘Boy, I was one of the early pioneers.’ That was the last thing on my mind. It wasn’t until I became a little older and older, and the whole significance of it really became rather apparent. There is no way in the world that Truman would have integrated had the 332nd Fighter Group been failures. We were expected to fail. The whole thing was called the Tuskegee Experiment, really. And no one -- the military in particular was just waiting for it to fail. It didn’t fail. We were extremely successful. And had we not been successful, I cannot see Truman doing what he did and integrating the way he did. And after that happened, I thought, boy, there’s no question the Tuskegee Airmen were in the forefront of the civil rights movement.

Tuskegee Airman and retired Air Force Lt. Col. Harold Brown was scheduled to be at Gaston College in Dallas, North Carolina for a presentation and book-signing beginning on Tuesday.  The book, published last year, Keep Your Airspeed Up: the story of a Tuskegee Airman," was written with Brown's wife, Marsha Bordner. 

Mark Rumsey grew up in Kansas and got his first radio job at age 17 in the town of Abilene, where he announced easy-listening music played from vinyl record albums.