How the Tuskegee Airmen inspired a young boy from Albany
Willis Brown was six years old when America was brought into World War II in 1941. His family was living in Albany, New York, and inside the local paper, the Albany Times-Union, there would be an insert of the national edition of the Pittsburgh Courier, an historic African-American-owned newspaper that was, as Brown called it, “four pages of black news.”
It was in this section of the paper that he first read about the famed Tuskegee Airmen, the pioneering all-black bomber group that rose to fame for their fearlessness and peerless combat record. This was when he first realized he wanted to be a pilot, a decision that led him to flight school, Viet Nam, and a 27-year career with American Airlines.
Brown was 10 when the war concluded, but his interest in airplanes didn’t wane, and his first step was to build model versions of the planes he loved. His mother, a school teacher who worked in a munitions plant during the war, told him he’d have to earn the money to buy the airplanes himself.
His first attempt to earn money, shining shoes in the financial district in Albany, was frowned upon by his father. One day he felt himself lifted up under the arm and carried for a full block before his father said anything.
“When dad did speak it was to be in your best interest to listen,” Brown said. “He told me he didn’t want me to be shining shoes on the corner of State Street and Pearl.”
Brown next applied at Uncle Red’s Sanitary Barber Shop, where he would shine shoes and sweep up the shop on Friday afternoons after school. The shoeshine money he could keep and the duties at the barber shop earned him a dollar a day.
“I had never held a United States greenback in my hand,” Brown said.
After his first day, he took his earnings to the local hobby shop where he promptly bought a model of the P-51 Mustang bomber, just like the Tuskegee airmen used to fly.
When he got home, his mother was aghast. “You spent your money on a toy!” she said.
“It’s not a toy,” Brown told his mother. “It’s an airplane, and I’m going to be a pilot someday.”
“You probably will,” she said.
“That was the beginning of my aviation career,” he remembered almost 75 years later.
He graduated at the top of his class after his family moved back to Moultrie, Georgia, and he enrolled in Howard University in Washington, D.C., where a number of Tuskegee Airmen were instructors. He was going to major in electrical engineering. This was 1955.
At that time, Howard cost $1,000 a year. Under the advice of his mother, he got a job at a local restaurant, the restaurant in the Kennedy-Warren apartment building, because he would be guaranteed at least one free meal a day. That, along with a cheap breakfast and lunch, kept Brown going all through school.
He immediately enrolled in the Reserve Officers Training Corps.
“I wanted to go Air Force ROTC,” he said.
In his second year he was given his first ride in a plane by Lt. Col. Charles Dryden, a Tuskegee Airman. Col. Clarence “Lucky” Lester was also one of his instructors. It was Lester who famously shot down three German bombers during one mission over Germany as part of the 332nd Fighter Group. The rooming house where Brown lived during school was owned by a man he knew only as Mr. Inge, and who was a mechanic with the Tuskegee group while they were stationed in England.
Brown was graduated from Howard in 1960. He deferred flight school for a year in order to put his electrical engineering degree to good use, and found employment at Curtiss-Wright Corporation in East Patterson, New Jersey.
A year later, he was on his way to flight school at Williams Air Force Base in Chandler, Arizona, and then found himself flying a radar ship out of McClellan Air Force Base from 1962 to 1965.
Then Brown was called up to serve in Viet Nam. He flew with the 309th Air Command.
“Our job, when there was a battle, was to be in touch with the platoon leader on the ground when they were out of ammo and pallet-drop ammo as close to where they were as we could get,” said Brown. “I’d ask where the ‘hot spot’ was” — the location of the enemy — “and drop the ammo. I would always say, ‘We’re dropping a pizza, and you’re going to love it!’”
Brown remembers one mission in particular when, after flying 20 missions in one day, he was asked if he could do one more. There had been three 50mm North Vietnamese guns found in a tactically important location, and he needed to fly in another mission.
Brown said that every seventh round from these guns was a tracer round, designed to pierce the metal of the plane’s fuselage. Judging from where the rounds were coming from, Brown noticed from the air that the placement of the guns formed an icosceles triangle.
“Tracers will kill your ass,” he said, “But it tickles me to this day that even when I was getting shot at, all I could think of was math.”