Tuskegee Tough

By Jack Barger ‘01

Lt. Col. Harold H. Brown Awarded Honorary Doctorate at University of Findlay

Much of this story was adapted from the book “Keep Your Airspeed Up: The Story of a Tuskegee Airman,” written by Harold H. Brown and Marsha S. Bordner, and published by University Alabama Press in 2017.

WORKING TOWARD GOALS UNDER VARIOUS types of adversity is something that college students across the globe are familiar with. It’s no different at University of Findlay, where meeting due dates, studying for many hours, and making their way through social life are all things that students manage on their way to a degree and a meaningful life and productive career.

The challenges Lt. Col. Harold Brown faced during his early life and military career, however, were far different. For his bravery, Brown, one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, was presented with an honorary doctorate from UF at the 2019 Veterans Day ceremony on campus.

“We are deeply pleased to have conferred an honorary doctorate upon Harold Brown,” said University of Findlay President Katherine Fell, Ph.D. “As a Tuskegee Airman, he demonstrated unparalleled bravery and dedication to our country, and we thank him for his sacrifices and service.”

The Tuskegee Airmen were the first black military aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps, a precursor of the U.S. Air Force. The men flew more than 15,000 missions in Europe and North Africa during World War II, and were awarded many Distinguished Flying Crosses. Their heroism encouraged the eventual integration of the U.S. armed forces.

At age 16, and while a junior in high school, Brown was able to save $35 – a lot of money in 1941 – to take flying lessons. “My mother went berserk,” he said. “She thought I threw the money away.” His dad, he continued, came to his defense, explaining to his mother that it was Harold’s money that he worked hard for, and that he should be able to spend it how he wanted. He began the lessons, and “the kids used to tease me and call me Lindbergh,” he said. “They said ‘they won’t even let you wash a plane,’ but I told them that by the time I’m ready, everything will have changed. And that’s precisely what happened.” The lessons turned out to be priceless, as they inevitably helped him in earning a shot as a military pilot during World War II.

As a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, Brown flew many missions, but the one that he remembers most clearly is one that caused him to come face-to-face with his own mortality. He was shot down at low altitude on a mission during the war, and had to eject. “I was up in that chute all by myself. Twenty-years old, in Germany, looking like this,” he said. He was captured by some Germans upon landing and taken to a village where, he recollected, “it was very clear what their intentions were. I knew I was going to die that day. I couldn’t see a way out.” But from somewhere among the throngs of people surrounding them came a constable who stepped in front of Brown, put a round in his rifle, and saved him from certain death. “We barricaded ourselves in a pub down the road, and when it was clear, he took me to another village and turned me over.”

In 2007, the Tuskegee Airmen, as a group, were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest and most distinguished civilian award. The U.S. Congress gives this medal to individuals or groups for exceptional service to our country. The courage and insight that came from the Tuskegee experience carried on for Brown after the United States was liberated from the war and he returned stateside. As a Tuskegee, he said, he had a choice to remain in the military, and, since his goal had always been to be a military pilot, he decided to do just that. “I was also highly motivated,” he said. “I was determined I was not going to be second best. I was, and am, goal-driven. The military has a very clearly defined hierarchy of rank, so my plan was always to be moving up.”

Brown’s military tenure included a significant role with Strategic Air Command, flying in 20 types of aircraft, and spanned over two decades in the service. Upon retiring from the military, he took up a career in higher education, and as he spent much of his prior career as a military pilot instructor and a few years as an electronics instructor in the Air Force Training Command Navigator School, he said that the transition was “fairly easy.” He continued his involvement in higher education with Columbus Area Technical School/Columbus Tech, Clark Technical College, and Gaston College.

In a life that has been filled with setting and achieving goals, Brown has been continuously striving to better himself. Now, at the age of 95, Brown, who along with his wife Dr. Marsha Bordner, has made presentations at over 100 venues, has achieved yet another from UF. Referencing a previous presentation at the University, Brown said that one of the couple’s favorite venues is Findlay. “It is so easy to see why Findlay is soaring under Dr. Fell’s tutelage. Our event was overflowing with people who care about history and military service. The feeling of patriotism in that auditorium was palpable. Receiving this honorary doctorate is the icing on the cake,” he said.

Brown, in the book he co-wrote with his wife titled “Keep Your Airspeed Up: The Story of a Tuskegee Airman,” said that, in these golden years of his life, he has been struck by one consistent theme, one that can be of help to college students and others alike: constantly setting goals for oneself. “As soon as I had successfully achieved one goal, I would immediately set another one, which again would require meaningful effort, plain old-fashioned hard work, and flat out stubbornness to refuse anything less than a successful outcome. For whatever traits that have been instilled in me by my parents,” he said, “there was always the idea that failure was not an option.”