A Tuskegee airman’s bravado

Elder’s skills, along with those of all the Tuskegee Airmen, did indeed prove them wrong. “The white squadrons were turning down jobs and we were accepting whatever we could,” he explained. “Whenever we could become operational, we looked forward to it. And whenever we’d go up, we’d come back just like we went up. Full squadron, we never lost very many pilots.”

And talk about bravery! Or was it bravado? Whatever the quality, Brown had it in spades.

“And I’d fly into anything. I wasn’t afraid, never was,” he said. “I had four 50-calibers on each wing. I didn’t fear anything. I’d fly right into them. Can you imagine a squadron of over 100 fighter planes coming at you, and we are a little over 20 planes? But I had confidence in the potential of our operational mechanics. If they told me the plane was alright, I’d go. I didn’t argue. When they told us our job, I got on my airplane and went.”

How many planes did he take out of commission?

“I don’t know how many aircrafts I shot down. We weren’t concerned with how many. If I was on the tail of another fighter, and I gave him a burst of 50s and saw smoke coming from his airplane, I’d peel over and look for another one. I knew he wasn’t going very far.”

Setting the Red Tails record straight

Elder feels fortunate to have been able to do what he loved — and do it well. “I was in seventh heaven when I was flying. I felt good each time I was up there because my job was to keep any fighter aircraft off my lead man’s way, and if he had a clear shot at what he was shooting at, he didn’t have any problems. I was a wingman, there to give him my full attention and be careful about who got on his tail, that was it.”

Those were great times. Yet, with all the talk of the Red Tails, especially in light of the recent film, Elder was eager to set something straight about the Tuskegee Airmen history.

“They talk about the Red Tails, but we only had one squadron of Red Tails,” Brown clarified. Many do not realize that the Tuskegee Airmen corps was composed of many different squadrons. “I was in the 301st Fighter Squadron. Every one of our planes were yellow nosed with yellow stripes our tails. You heard about that sinking of the German Destroyer? That was done by the 301st, which was a yellow nose. Nobody knows it!”

Loving the military, despising discrimination

Brown speaks highly of the camaraderie he was able to experience as a member of the U.S. military.

“You don’t know what it’s like when you run with a bunch of guys that have one directive in life, to back each other and help, and those guys were there,” Elder said.

Still, he does not feel as though our country gave them the credit they deserved. “I got recognition from my commanders, my flight leaders, and my fellow comrades, and that’s all I got. The country gave us nothing.”

Elder made it to the rank of First Lieutenant, and could have gone farther, but grew weary of the doubts of people in command about his abilities. “I was tired of the handshakes and smiles,” Elder said. “They were quick with that, and they thought they had put it over on us, and they had, on a lot of guys. I didn’t care for it, and they never kept their word. That’s why I left.  I still had to ride the back of the bus, I still wasn’t welcome in their restaurants, and my hometown was still divided. It didn’t make sense,” Brown said of the racism he faced at home even after serving his country.

Brown makes another connection

After seven years in the military, Elder put in for early retirement from the armed forces. He eventually obtained a private sector position with the Boeing Company.

“I couldn’t get jobs in my profession after college,” he told theGrio, “but I was thankful for Boeing because they said, ‘You did a job that few people wanted, and an excellent job. Whatever you want to do in our company, you can do it.’” He was offered a position as a technical illustrator with the company, before moving on to the Northrop Grumman Corporation, which specializes in security operations, some of which involved high-tech airplanes.

Does he ever miss flying? Brown laughed. “Nah! Been there, done that!”

But Elder was moved by another recent encounter. “At the meeting with Jane there was a guy who had been a belly gunner. He told me that whenever he saw us, he knew he was going to get home. He said, ‘Because of you guys, I am here to witness this day.’ After all these years… to meet someone from a bomber crew who said that — can you image?”

A love of flying unites unlikely comrades

Jane Tedeschi and Elder James H. Brown are two very special people united by many things, including fierce determination and a love of flying.  Going into their interviews, I assumed that as minorities in the military, they must have felt like kindred spirits because of that reason alone, but I was wrong. Their respect and mutual admiration was more based on the skills they each shared and the similarity of the services they provided during a time of great national need.  They were there for each other — without even knowing each other — and there for our country.

Their history, and the deepening of our national history their new friendship provides, are both things we can all be thankful for this Memorial Day weekend.

Suzanne Rust is a writer, lifestyle expert, on-air talent, and a native New Yorker. Follow her on Twitter at @SuzanneRust.