Before graduating from Minneapolis North High School in 1942, Harold Haywood Brown squirreled away some of the money he earned at his after-school job as a soda jerk at Roseler Drug Store for flying lessons.
"I saved up $35, which was a whole lot of money back then," Brown, 97, said during a recent phone call from his home in Ohio.
Born in 1924 and raised in north Minneapolis, Brown began dreaming of becoming a military fighter pilot in sixth grade and devoured library books on aviation. He ignored the ribbing he got from his older brother, Larry, and their friends. "They all laughed at me, called me Captain Lindbergh and teased me that they wouldn't let me wash an airplane, let alone fly one," he said.
After all, Harold was Black — and the military was still a decade away from desegregation, a monumental change in racial tolerance in the United States that he would help bring about.
"I was the biggest joke to my buddies," he said. "But that wasn't one iota of a problem for me. I was determined."
At 16, his pockets filled with that $35 — nearly $700 in today's dollars — Brown persuaded his uncle to drive him to Wold-Chamberlain Field, the airstrip that would become Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
Flying lessons cost $7 an hour, so he invested in five sessions in a Piper Cub, keeping the aircraft level at 70 mph. After finishing up at North High, Brown applied for flight school, and his love of math and physics helped him land a cadet spot at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama just as the War Department agreed to consider Black aviators to offset a dearth of qualified pilots.
By 1944, Brown was flying for the all-Black 332nd Fighter Group — part of what became known as the fabled Tuskegee Airmen — protecting bombers as they attacked Nazi pockets across Europe.
He nearly died on his 30th mission in early 1945, when he bailed out of his damaged P-51 Mustang after strafing enemy trains over Austria.
"About 40 ticked-off villagers watched me float down in my parachute just after we'd attacked their village and lit up their locomotives like Christmas trees," Brown said. "They were cussing at me and I didn't understand the language, but I could guess what they had in mind."
He credits a village constable armed with a rifle for saving him from the mob. He was sent to jail and then a prison camp for the final two months of World War II.
In 2007, President George W. Bush awarded the Congressional Gold Medal — the nation's highest civilian honor — to the Tuskegee Airmen and their survivors at the U.S. Capitol. Not only did they help win the war, the president said, they "helped change our nation."
The success of the Tuskegee fliers is widely credited as the impetus for President Harry Truman's 1948 move to integrate the military.
"At the time, I was just a young kid of 20 when the war ended, so I had no idea what we'd really done in terms of an historical event," Brown said. "But looking back, we really did accomplish something, didn't we?"
As Veterans Day approaches, it's an especially heady time for Brown, one of just a few surviving Tuskegee Airmen. His memory and hearing both remain bayonet-sharp, and he admits "it's hard to accept that I'm 97 and three years away from 100." He still regularly beats golfers decades younger at courses near his longtime home on Catawba Island along Ohio's Lake Erie shore.
Brown returned last weekend to Minnesota for a COVID-delayed enshrinement in the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame. And he's among the veterans narrating a new PBS documentary series this month, "American Veteran" (pbs.org/wgbh/american-veteran).
He's also written a memoir with his wife, retired community college President Marsha Bordner, titled "Keep Your Airspeed Up: The Story of a Tuskegee Airman," published by the University of Alabama Press in 2017 (tinyurl.com/Flyermemoir).
Brown's parents, John and Allie Mae, both moved north from Alabama to Minnesota around 1910 "when there were only a handful of us around," he said. Minneapolis had fewer than 3,000 Black citizens, making up less than 1% of the city's population.
Brown's father, the youngest of nine, had served as a private during World War I but never talked much about his past.
"How in the world we ended up in Minneapolis is unknown," his son said.
Harold himself retired as an Air Force colonel after 20 years in the military and went on to earn a doctorate and oversee engineering and technology at a technical college. Twice married, he has one surviving daughter.
He's quietly proud of his role in breaking down racial barriers and showing the country that if Black fighter pilots could help win a war, they could do just about anything. Bigotry remains, he said, "but that doesn't hold us back for long."
Case in point: 65 years after flying his first mission in 1944, Brown was invited to President Barack Obama's inauguration in 2009.
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Send him suggestions at email@example.com.