After blowing up a German cargo train and crash landing in Austria during World War II, Tuskegee Airman Harold Brown thought it was the end. A mob of more than 25 furious villagers took the young Minneapolis man to a tree, and indicated they planned to hang him.
A local constable armed with a rifle intervened and held off the mob, sparing Brown's life. He survived six weeks as a prisoner of war, then went on to live 78 more years in an impressive career that, along with his fellow members of the all-Black 332nd Fighter Group, helped bring an end to segregation in the U.S. military.
Brown died Jan. 12 at age 98 in Ohio, where he had lived for many years, after growing up in Minneapolis and graduating from North Community High School in 1942. He is survived by his wife, Marsha Bordner, and a daughter.
He also was one of the last living among the Tuskegee Airmen. In an interview, Bordner said she hopes Brown's persistence in his quest to become a pilot, and the impact of his fighter group, is never forgotten.
"Their story changed the course of history, it led to the desegregation of the military, so it couldn't be lost to time," said Bordner, who co-wrote a 2017 book with Brown about his life.
Brown was born in 1924 in Minneapolis to parents who had migrated from the American South. As a teenager he worked as a soda jerk, saving up $35 selling soda and ice cream to help pay for flying lessons. There were very few Black pilots at the time, and some people held the stereotypical belief that Black men were not intelligent enough to fly a plane, Brown wrote in his memoir.
But Brown was always laser-focused on becoming a pilot, and never let slights or jokes get in the way of his goals.
"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 book.
He passed the tests to join the U.S. Air Corps at 17 and traveled to Alabama for training. There he noticed heightened segregation. Bordner said one of her husband's most impressive traits was his ability to not let discrimination and racism distract him.
"Yes, he had to step off the curb in Atlanta to let the white people walk on the sidewalk, and he could have been bitter, but for him it was eyes on the prize always," Bordner said. "Most of the Tuskegee Airmen were exactly the same way."
As a pilot Brown would serve as an escort for bomber aircrafts, and fly in more dangerous strafing missions in which he destroyed grounded targets.
His final strafing mission in 1945 led to the crash in Nazi-occupied Austria, after shrapnel from a destroyed train hit his plane. He was forced to parachute out, and spent subsequent weeks as a prisoner. In the book, Brown described showing other prisoners of war how to cook dandelion stalks to go with the meat and potatoes they scavenged.
Brown went on to serve in the Korean War, and retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1965. He was honored at the White House in 1998 along with the other Tuskegee Airmen.
Upon leaving the military Brown got his doctorate from Ohio State, and later served as the vice president of academic affairs at Columbus State Community College.
Groups focused on educating people about the Tuskegee Airmen praised Brown for his passion for talking with children about his experiences. He would travel the country to do so, tying in motivational messages, said LaVone Kay, of the Red Tail Squadron with the non-profit Commemorative Air Force.
"He just gave up so much of himself to the children, and he really wanted to inspire them," Kay said. "He really wanted them to pursue education. That was always a key message he shared with the kids."
Gregory Edmonds, president of the Ohio Memorial Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen, said he could tell Brown enjoyed speaking with students and helping them reach their potential.
"He was a great man and had a life well-lived," Edmonds said.
An open-to-the-public celebration of Brown's life is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. March 4 at the Liberty Aviation Museum in Port Clinton, Ohio.