Harold Brown, Tuskegee Airman Who Faced a Lynch Mob, Dies at 98

Harold H. Brown, who as a teenager overcame racial prejudice in the American South to become an Army Air Corps fighter pilot during World War II — a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen — only to be downed over Austria and face a lynch mob of vengeful villagers, died on Jan. 12 in Huron, Ohio. He was 98.

His death, at a nursing home, was confirmed by his wife, Marsha Bordner.

Dr. Brown flew 30 missions during the war in Europe and later served in the Korean War. He spent 23 years in the military before retiring, earning a doctorate and becoming a college administrator.

He was one of the last surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen, a group that included 355 pilots who served in segregated units operating from the war’s Mediterranean theater after beginning their training at the historically Black Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Fewer than 10 are still living, according to Tuskegee Airmen Inc., an organization dedicated to preserving their legacy.

After taking off from Italy at dawn on March 14, 1945, Dr. Brown, a second lieutenant at the time, was piloting a P-51 Mustang strafing a German freight train near Linz, Austria, when the locomotive exploded, hurling shrapnel into the engine of his single-propeller plane.

With only seconds before his plane lost power, he bailed out and parachuted to safety. But he landed not far from his target, where he was apprehended by two armed local constables and was soon surrounded by a furious mob of some two dozen Austrians whose town he and his comrades had just attacked.

“I was met by perhaps 35 of the most angry people I’ve ever met in my life,” Dr. Brown said on the PBS podcast “American Veteran.” “There’s no doubt murder’s on their mind.”

“It was clear that they finally decided to hang me,” he recalled in a memoir, “Keep Your Airspeed Up: The Story of a Tuskegee Airman” (2017), which he wrote with his wife. “They took me to a perfect hanging tree with a nice low branch and they had a rope. I can still visualize that tree today.

“I knew at that moment I was going to die.”

But he was rescued from the vigilantes by a third constable, who threatened to fire on the crowd to protect Dr. Brown as a prisoner of war.

The two men barricaded themselves in a bar overnight before Dr. Brown was jailed. He shared a cell with crew members from a downed bomber, one of whom was Jewish (as Dr. Brown’s great-grandfather had been) and was worried that he would be singled out by his captors.

Dr. Brown urged the Jewish crew member not to reveal his religion — a tactic that was not available to Dr. Brown himself.

“Here I am scared to death,” Dr. Brown recalled. “I said to him, ‘Keep your mouth shut.’ I said, ‘I don’t have a way and they hate me as much as they hate you.’”

Dr. Brown was turned over to military authorities and served six weeks in prison camps until being liberated when the war ended.

Dr. Brown posed for a photo after returning from World War II.

Harold Haywood Brown was born on Aug. 19, 1924, in Minneapolis to parents who had fled racial prejudice in Alabama. His father, John, was a supervisor for Archer Daniels Midland, the food processing company. His mother, Allie (Heath) Brown, worked as a maid.

An aviation buff since the sixth grade (his classmates nicknamed him Lindbergh), Harold refused to continue practicing the piano as his mother hoped he would. Instead he saved $35 in earnings as a soda jerk to take seven flying lessons.

After he graduated from high school in 1942, he applied to join the experimental program that had been established to demonstrate that Black people could qualify as airmen. But he flunked the physical because he weighed four ounces below the 128.5-pound minimum for his height.

Taking his doctor’s advice, he regularly drank a concoction of ice cream, malt and an egg. He was retested, weighed in at 128.75 and was accepted as a Tuskegee Airman.

Traveling to the South for the first time, he felt the effects of Jim Crow discrimination outside the segregated Army base where he trained. At 19, on May 23, 1944, he graduated from flight school as a second lieutenant with the 332nd Fighter Group and shipped off to Italy.

One of 32 Tuskegee Airmen captured during the war, he was imprisoned at a camp near Nuremberg, which the Germans evacuated as American troops advanced. He was then transferred to Stalag VII-A, north of Munich. An armored division led by Gen. George S. Patton liberated them on April 29, 1945.

When he returned to the South and to Fort Patrick Henry in Virginia, Dr. Brown recalled on the “American Veteran” podcast, “we got off the boat, everything was the same. Patrick Henry was still a segregated base, no changes, no nothing, just the way I left it.”

During the Korean War, Dr. Brown was stationed in Tokyo and flew missions from bases in South Korea. He later served as a flight instructor at Tuskegee Army Airfield in Alabama and at Lockbourne Air Force Base near Columbus, Ohio, which by then was integrated, and qualified as a Strategic Air Command B-47 bomber pilot.

He retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel in 1965.

“The first time I was integrated was in a P.O.W. camp,” Dr. Brown said. “I lived in an integrated base in the military, leave the base and went home to a segregated civilian life.”

After his military service, he earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Ohio University and a master’s and doctorate in vocational-technical education from the Ohio State University. He became an instructor and chairman of the electronics department at Columbus Area Technician’s School, which was later chartered as Columbus State Community College. He retired from academia in 1986.

“I’ve always had a passion for learning, for setting goals and achieving them, for being as good or better than others in like circumstances around me,” he wrote in his memoir.

In 2007, he and other Tuskegee Airmen were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. In 2020, he was inducted into the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame.

In addition to his wife, Dr. Bordner, a former president of Terra State Community College in Fremont, Ohio, he is survived by a daughter, Karen Jackson, from his marriage to Maxine Gilmore, which ended in divorce; a stepson, Jonathan Bordner; and two grandsons. Another daughter, Denise Brown, died before him.

The Tuskegee Airmen knew they had to be as good as their white counterparts, if not better. “It was felt that this big experiment was going to fail and fall flat on its face. They’ll never make it as pilots,” Dr. Brown told The Plain Dealer of Cleveland in 2019. “That was really one of our biggest motivations, that we cannot fail.”

The Tuskegee Airmen’s success was credited with accelerating the integration of the armed forces.

“What the Tuskegee Airmen did is not Black history,” Dr. Brown told The Plain Dealer. “It’s not military history. It’s American history.”

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