When Dr. Harold Brown was young, he dreamed of flying. So, he worked hard as a “soda jerk,” making ice cream sodas at the local drugstore every afternoon to save up enough money for flight school. Eventually, he amassed a grand total of $35…enough for seven lessons.
It was the early 1940s.
While Harold didn’t know it, hundreds of young men like him were all doing the same thing. Teaching themselves to fly, so that when their country called, they would be able to answer.
That call came on December 7, 1941. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, over 134,000 Americans rushed to enlist.1 Harold was no exception. As soon as he graduated from high school, he applied to join a new, recently activated unit of airmen.
But there was a major obstacle to overcome – Harold and many of these other pilots were Black.
Due to the racial attitudes of the day, many in the military did not believe Black people could make good pilots. During World War I, all African-American pilots were rejected from serving. In 1925, a War Department report suggested Black soldiers were “cowardly, incapable of higher learning, and lazy.”2 Even by 1940, the U.S. Census counted only 124 Black pilots in the United States.
Despite this prejudice, many, like Harold, had participated in civilian pilot training programs, and were eager to show what they could do in service to their country. So, after sustained public pressure, the War Department finally created an all-Black unit called the 99th Pursuit Squadron. (The 100th, the 301st, and the 302nd squadrons would come online later in the war.) The pilots began training at facilities in Tuskegee, Alabama, where they were joined by thousands of other African-Americans, all training to be navigators, bombardiers, flight surgeons, mechanics, and engineers.
These were the legendary Tuskegee Airmen.
From the start, nothing was easy for these trailblazers. They were spat on and laughed at. Abused and humiliated. Passed over for promotion. Denied entry into nearby clubs, movie theaters, and restaurants. Forbidden to train with white pilots. Local laundries sometimes refused to wash their clothes. One Black lieutenant was court-martialed after trying to enter the base Officer’s Club. Most of the airmen experienced segregation and poor treatment just getting to Tuskegee. Perhaps worst of all was the constant expectation they would fail. As Harold later described it: “It was felt that this big experiment was going to fail and fall flat on its face. ‘They’ll never make it as pilots.’ That was really one of our biggest motivations – that we cannot fail. We just can’t.”2
Things weren’t any better in Europe. Harold and the other pilots would have to fly from their base to a “white base” just to receive their orders. And they would see enemy propaganda posters depicting them as gorillas or apes…as people somehow less than human.
Despite these conditions, the Tuskegee Airmen became one of the most elite groups in the entire American military. After their combat missions began in 1943, the records followed. Number of enemy aircraft destroyed. Number of sorties flown. Number of missions completed. Their ability to protect bomber formations from harm became the stuff of legend. (There is a story that the Tuskegee Airmen never lost a bomber. That’s not quite true – records indicate at least 25 bombers were shot down – but this was a much higher success rate than other units, which lost an average of 46 bombers.3)
And, of course, they gave their lives in service to our country. At least 66 of the Tuskegee Airmen were killed in action, while another 32 were captured as POWs.3 That includes Harold, who was shot down in Austria and nearly murdered by an angry mob.
When the Tuskegee Airmen returned home after the war, they came home to a country that was still in the grip of segregation. Despite being ace pilots, many who left the military were prevented from flying commercially and had to turn to other jobs. But without realizing it, they had changed the military. They had changed the country.
Because of their example, the Tuskegee Airmen helped prove to the nation that it didn’t matter what color your skin was. When it comes to serving your country, all that matters is what’s in your head and in your heart. Courage, commitment, self-sacrifice…these are qualities that transcend any sort of category. They were qualities the Tuskegee Airmen showed every day. Qualities that helped lead to the desegregation of the military in 1948…and, eventually, the end of segregation everywhere.
When World War II ended, there were nearly a thousand pilots who trained at Tuskegee. Today, in 2023, there are less than 10.4 Harold himself passed away in January at the age of 98. But, as we prepare to celebrate another Veterans Day, I think it’s important to remember the Airmen and their legacy. Like all veterans, their choice to serve was not an easy one. It was filled with danger and difficulty. But because of their decision – because of their courage, their commitment – they not only helped win the war…they helped shape our country. And that is what makes Veterans Day so important. It’s a chance to truly give thanks to the men and women who not only defended our nation but made it what it is today.
As Harold once said: “I always hoped that the country would change…and, of course, the country has changed. Are there still problems? Sure, there are still problems out there. But even with the problems, we aren’t anyplace close to where we were 70-some years ago. It’s a whole new world.”2
A whole new world. A world that the Tuskegee Airmen – and all our veterans – helped make for us.
On behalf of everyone at Minich MacGregor Wealth Management, we wish you a happy Veterans Day…and a heartfelt “Thank you” to all who serve.
1 “14 Interesting Pearl Harbor Facts,” Pearl Harbor Tours, https://click.mmwealth.com/e/877382/blog-facts-about-pearl-harbor-/bq6zqg/3744071557/h/PCwSZhbr4OGDqG34eO0jepsakDhStmAQCAjnyBLlL9Y
2 “Harold Brown, one of the last Tuskegee Airmen, recalls battling for victory,” The Plain Dealer, https://click.mmwealth.com/e/877382/-for-victory-and-equality-html/bq6zqk/3744071557/h/PCwSZhbr4OGDqG34eO0jepsakDhStmAQCAjnyBLlL9Y
3 “Tuskegee Airmen,” History.com, https://click.mmwealth.com/e/877382/s-world-war-ii-tuskegee-airmen/bq6zqn/3744071557/h/PCwSZhbr4OGDqG34eO0jepsakDhStmAQCAjnyBLlL9Y
4 “Harold Brown, Tuskegee Airman Who Faced a Lynch Mob, Dies at 98,” The NY Times, https://click.mmwealth.com/e/877382/ed-a-lynch-mob-dies-at-98-html/bq6zqr/3744071557/h/PCwSZhbr4OGDqG34eO0jepsakDhStmAQCAjnyBLlL9Y