:: Harley L. Brown
Harley L. Brown
Lt. Colonel, United States Air Force (Ret.)
Served in World War II in the European Theater
P-51 Ace – 6 Air Victories
Interviewed on 5 May 2002 in the Media Studio, Air Force Village West, Riverside, California
This is an interview with Harley Brown, and I am Jim Champlin, the Riverside History Project interviewer. The interview originally took place at Air Force Village West, Walker Studio, on May 5, 2002. The interviewer was Fred Leiby and was originally on a video. It was transcribed August 5, 2003 at Air Force Village West, as part of the Riverside Veterans History Project, a Riverside Public Library partnership with the Library of Congress.
Leiby: I’m Fred Leiby, Air Force Village West resident, and I have the pleasure of introducing Harley Brown. Harley was an American Ace during World War II and is now a Village resident. Harley was born in Humboldt, Kansas, in 1922. Early on Harley became a "shill" for Air Transportation, he tells me. How did that happen, Harley?
Brown: I lived in El Dorado, Kansas, since the age of one. My uncle, Earl Beach, lived over in Wichita, Kansas, forty miles away. He built his own airplane over there. In fact, Earl and three other people started the Beech Aircraft Company. But again, they weren’t relatives. My uncle was a Beach, and Walter Beech was Beech. Anyway, my uncle built his own plane there. It was a bi-plane with a big huge open cockpit, right under the top wing, and his rudder was on the back, in front of the elevator. But that one Sunday, he’d come over and barnstorm, and, boy, it was crowded in the cow pasture, about two miles south of El Dorado, why, probably hundreds of people would come there from around the farm area. Then El Dorado had ten thousand people living there. It was a big deal to see this little airplane. My folks were selling tickets for a dollar a piece. At this time the airplane would hold six small people. It had two benches that faced each other so you could get six small people in there. Can you imagine six people facing each other, getting air sick?
Anyway, when they didn't have a full load, why, I was just anxious to fly. I’d run out and jump in the airplane every time there was room for me. In the meantime, a lot of the folks were trying to sell tickets. Everyone was talking, and, oh, they’re afraid to fly. This was back in 1926 and folks would point to me and say, “Look at that little kid. He isn’t afraid to fly.” I was just four years old. Of course, at that age, I didn’t know any better. (Laughing) They claimed they sold a lot of tickets on my account. That’s how I came to be the first shill for air transportation.
Leiby: When Harley was twenty years old, he joined the Army Air Corps and managed to get into glider pilot training. After a while, he managed to transfer to the regular air cadet program, graduating as a pilot in Class 44B.
Leiby: What happened after that, Harley?
Brown: I graduated from Foster Field, Victoria, Texas, and after a fifteen-day leave, I went to Sarasota, Florida, for transition into the P-40 aircraft. For two months I was flying the P-40 and got in seventy hours. One of our instructors was a combat pilot back from the war. One day he was giving us a briefing and told us, “Now, don’t ever get into too close a friendship with anyone,” because the average life of a fighter pilot was forty hours of combat. Then he said, “Someone standing on each side of you will either be killed or become a P.O.W.” Boy, that wasn’t very encouraging!
But, anyway, we finished our training and went up to New York, then over to England, to join the 8th Air Force.
Leiby: Harley arrived at a training base in England in July of 1944, for transition training into the P-51 aircraft. He had flown P-40s in the U.S. and, at that time, all the available P-51s were in combat. After completion of transition training, Harley checked into the 55th Fighter Squadron, 25th Fighter Group, at Kingscliff, England.
Leiby: Then what happened, Harley?
Brown: Well, that’s when the big combat started for me. Let’s see, on the 25th of August, I flew my first mission which was over six hours long. We flew up to Pienemunde, Germany. It was so far inland; they didn’t have any aircraft around them for protection. So two squadrons just had a field day. We had to fly top cover in my squadron, so we sat there and watched these guys set up a traffic pattern, going down and destroying all these planes on the ground. When they got low on ammo, why, they pulled out and up, and we made one pass. By then we had to get on back as we were getting short on petrol. During that one pass, I damaged two Stuka dive bombers. So, on this first mission, I cut my teeth on firing at aircraft and got a good start that day.
Then, the next day . . . in fact, for four days in a row . . . I flew four missions, skipped one day, then flew another; five missions in six days. By then I was an old veteran. Well, anyway, I want to mention the third mission, which turned out to be really the toughest mission I flew in all my fifty-seven missions. I started out flying the colonel’s wing, leading the group of the three squadrons totaling forty-eight planes. There was an SOP that new pilots. . . the colonel always had them fly with him, at least one mission . . . so he could check them out, to see what they’ve been doing wrong, and help them, and tell them what they had done wrong. I probably needed a lot of help. (Laughing)
So, we escorted the bombers that day over to Berlin, and when we got there, it was all ground cover from detritus clouds. At that time, they didn’t have radar bombing, so they had to abort to the secondary target, which was a base in Denmark, just ten miles off of the North Sea. The bombers flew over it, laid their eggs and did a beautiful job. When we left, the field was burning, and covered with smoke. As soon as we were over the North Sea, he didn’t need to stay with me any longer. The lieutenant colonel was Sy Wilson, who was a pretty famous pilot. Anyway, he was anxious to get a big kill, because a different colonel flew three days prior and had a big kill at Pienemunde. His group destroyed thirty airplanes, so Sy was anxious. But, his mistake was that he went down to fifteen thousand feet, and just circled the field for about ten or fifteen minutes, trying to decide whether to go ahead and strafe the field. This was a big mistake, because it gave the Jerrys time to get ready for us when they saw us circling. So he told the other two squadrons to fly top cover and he took sixteen of us down. Just before he hit the edge of the field, all hell broke loose! The sky was just like a stone wall of flak and tracers, and the colonel hollered, “Hit the deck!” And, boy, did I hit it! My prop was about two or three feet off the ground, all the way across the base, except when we had to fly over fences and haystacks and such.
The colonel and the element leader were pretty much in the center of the base, whereas the two wing-men were out at the edge, so there weren’t any airplanes for me to shoot at, but I did see three machine gun nests. I could see tracers coming all over my plane, and all over my head. As soon as I saw that, I gave them a good squirt with my six 50’s . . . 50 calibers. Each one shot out eighteen shells per second, making a total of a hundred and eight shells per second, so we could do a lot of damage. As soon as I’d get off a squirt, even a one second squirt, boy, I could see them ducking down behind the sandbags, and they stopped shooting at me. I stopped them from shooting . . . all three different machine gun nests. After I crossed the base, why, I stayed low; so did the colonel. I was about a hundred yards off of him, and after about three to four miles past the base, there was a wood building right in front of me, with lot of radar and radio towers sticking up. So I gave it a spray job. Years later I learned that I knocked it out of commission for three days. I kept low until I reached the shoreline. There were two gun boats there, right in front of me and one in front of the colonel. So we both started firing simultaneously at these gun boats. Then we stayed low for about another ten miles, and then started pulling up.
When we got up to about fifteen hundred feet, the colonel said, “Come over and check me out. I’ve been hit!” So I scooted on over until about ten feet . . . or ten yards . . . from him, and, gee! His plane was riddled! It had big holes all through the fuselage, and just as I was telling him, “Boy, colonel, you’ve really been clobbered,” I saw his engine spitting out fire. His canopy was ejected and he bailed out.
Leiby: Now, this is over the water?
Brown: Yeah. He was over the North Sea then, about ten miles out. His parachute opened, and he went down. I went down and started making a pass over him to see if he was still alive. He had gotten into his dinghy. He waved to me and I wobbled my wings. He was waving at me as I made about two, three or four passes.
Leiby: He was in his dinghy then.
Brown: Yeah. He was in the dinghy, waving to me. He looked good. He didn’t look natural, not smoking his cigar. He was famous for always having a cigar in his mouth. Then, I saw a Danish fishing boat, a couple or three miles away from him, so I went over and circled it, and went back and circled Sy Wilson, and did it two or three times to try and guide them over towards him. Then I was getting low on petrol, so I started off, alone. Flying all alone over there, I started thinking, “Boy, forty-eight of us started out together, and all this excitement.” Then I heard over the radio that they shot down three out of the sixteen . . . our first flight . . . the squadron went over and the Jerrys got three out of sixteen. Then one more squadron came over, and they got one out of that squadron. So we lost four pilots that day. It was a rough day.
Leiby: Four out of forty-eight.
Brown: Yeah. When the rest of the group saw what happened, they didn’t come down. They were spread out all over Denmark, shooting up everything they could find. Boy, here was my third mission and I’m flying home alone and I thought, “Boy, these Jerrys really fight rough!”
Leiby: You heard some more about the colonel later on, didn’t you?
Brown: Yes. In fact, in the ‘80s, I received a letter from a Danish bloke, telling me that he was researching . . . he’d been researching for fifteen years . . . and wanted to know if he could come over and stay with me and interview me, because I was one of the few left at that time, and I was flying on the colonel’s wing. So he wanted to get the word from the horse’s mouth.
Leiby: Oh, he was researching the whole incident of that day?
Brown: Yeah. Later on, when he came over, why, he told me that there was more damage from the bombing of the aerodrome there, and then our strafing everything else . . . there was more damage that one day than the whole war in Denmark.
Leiby: Is that right?
Brown: Yeah. So that’s why he said, “This is probably the only book that gives a view of the attackers and the victims.” So he got both stories. It was a great book, but it’s in Danish! But, anyway, when he was there with me, I got filled in on all that happened. So much happened I didn’t even know about, that day. A very exciting day.
He was telling me what happened to the colonel. As soon as this fishing boat picked him up, the first thing Sy did was he pulled out his 45, and demanded the captain to take him to England. The Captain finally convinced him that they didn’t have enough petrol to get over there. Then he demanded that he take him to Sweden, but they didn’t have enough petrol to get there either. They had to take him back to the shoreline. As soon as they hit the shoreline, the Germans grabbed him and he was a POW for the rest of the war. So poor old Sy didn’t get to tell me what I did wrong that day! (Laughing)
Then the Dane started filling me in and told me what all had happened. That I had knocked out this radar-radio station for three days, and then, as we passed over the shoreline, he said, "To get your attention, I’ll tell you how many bullets were shot at you. Just as your airplane flew over the coastline, there were twelve batteries of machine gun nests. The coast line was well fortified the whole length of the occupied territories. Just as you passed over, there were twelve batteries firing at you." He had the exact number of each shell fired from each battery. Some of them shot three and four hundred, and a couple of them were a thousand to fifteen hundred shells fired at my plane alone! When I read that, it scared the heck out of me! (Laughing) . . . Years later!
Then he said that on the two gun boats, there were seventeen sailors injured and two killed, and one of them was the captain of one of the gun boats.
Leiby: Boy, that was a very effective mission then . . . (Brown: Yeah.) . . . from an American point of view.
Brown: That’s how it turned out. It ended up that we lost four pilots that day. Every mission we’d lose from one to four, but that day it was four. So, it really was the toughest mission I flew . . . for loss of pilots and excitement.
Leiby: Tell me how you were able to shoot down the six airplanes.
Brown: I was lucky in that respect. In fact, I’ve been lucky all my life. On my first dog fight . . . that didn’t occur until the second of November . . . we were on freelance. Our group was free to tool around, go anywhere we wanted. However, if we were assigned boxes of bombers, we had to stick with that box, and if there’d be a fight five, ten miles, or behind us, we’d have to stick with our bombers. We couldn’t leave them. In fact, you’d be court-martialed if you did. So we just sat there, and when we’d hear other fights going on, why, we’d grit our teeth and hope they targeted our bombers so we could get in the fight. (Laughing) Crazy fighter pilots! Always ready for a fight.
Anyway, on November 2nd, when we were at freelance, we were just roaming around. On that particular day, and from there on, for our mission, weather permitting, there’d be over two thousand bombers on one mission, and it was always in a long, straight line. On a clear day you could see like three hundred miles ahead and three hundred miles behind you; as far as you could see in both directions . . . bombers.
Leiby: This was starting in about August of ’44?
Brown: November 2nd, this particular day, we were just tooling around and heard there was a bunch of bogies . . . we always called them bogies . . . until they were identified. There was a whole bunch of bogies flying towards the bombers. It was about twenty, thirty miles ahead of us. We split ourselves over there, and, boy, sure enough, when we got there later on, we found there were five hundred Jerrys in that area and we had to hit them. Not that many of us, only forty-eight. But, anyway, after we got into a fight with them, a couple of other groups who were on freelance, came and joined us. So, by then, with all the bombers and our three groups (three different groups) and over five hundred Jerrys, the sky was just full of planes! And there’s bombers exploding and going down in flame. The sky was so full of airplanes, that we were having several mid-air collisions. Dog-fighting was going on all over. That particular day, I got two ME-109s and one FW-190 destroyed, and then a FW-190 damaged. Our group destroyed twenty-eight that day. I think we only lost two or three pilots so it was a good day. We got a big bunch and only lost one or two pilots. But that was too many.
Leiby: Exactly how did you shoot these guys down?
Brown: Well, it was pretty easy that day. You couldn’t miss. Just look around and bang! There’d be one, either in front of you or close to you, so you just tack on to that one and stay on him until you get him.
Leiby: You’re on his tail, right?
Brown: Yeah. You always wanted to get on his tail ‘cause you didn’t want him on your tail. (Laughing) And we just stayed on it, regardless of whatever they did. Yeah, each dog-fight . . . oh, yeah, you both knew one of you wasn't gonna get home for dinner that night. So you really protected your tail and tried to stay on theirs until you got ‘em. So I’d get one, and then boom! Wham! There’d be another. Like I said, the sky was just full of them. I didn’t have too much trouble getting the three and then another damaged.
Well, the next one then was December 2nd; just before then, they promoted me to flight commander. That meant I had to have twelve pilots under me. I’d flown a few flights leading the squadron.
Leiby: Were you captain by then?
Brown: No. I was a first lieutenant by then. In fact, let’s see . . . the first seven or nine months, I was second, really, and then I made first lieuy, and I was only first lieuy for two months, then I made captain. I graduated from pilot training in February of ’44; in December . . . no, it was January 20th when I made captain, so in less than a year I made captain. Any pilots that didn’t get shot down were promoted fast. (Laughing) Anyway, number 4 . . . I was leading a flight for the first time as a flight commander. I’d led a flight a few times prior to that, but I celebrated that first day by getting one more jerry.
Leiby: As a flight commander, now, you’re in . . . (Brown: In the lead of the four.) You’re the second guy over and the element leader and two wing men . . .
Brown: Two wing men, one on each side. I got one more. I celebrated my first lead as a flight commander officially by getting one.
Leiby: Were you with a group of bombers at that time?
Brown: Oh, yeah. The Jerrys just came up and attacked and made a pass on them . . . (Leiby: And you got on his tail, right?) Yeah. We would have got more, but every time you get on one, when there’s cloud cover, the first thing they do is get into the cloud cover, hoping that you’d lose them. So that was the trouble. We had a lot of chances . . . not a lot of chances . . . but a lot more. I was in dog fights three different times, actually, but I made a lot of pounces between those three times. But then before you'd get in range, they’d duck in the clouds and you couldn’t get to them.
Leiby: What were the advantages the P-51 had over the German fighters, and what advantages did the German fighters have over the P-51s?
Brown: That’s a good question, Fred. Our main advantage, which was great, because we could dive faster than they could.
They were lighter than we were. Both the ME-109s, and FW-190s were lighter and they could out-climb us. But most of the Jerrys, boy, you’d hit ‘em and they’d turn and dive. The first thing, they’d try and split-S, and go down but we would soon get right on them because we were heavier, and then they’d snap roll and do loops and try to get away. But the only way they really could get away from us was by climbing.
So, on January 14th, before I made Ace, and I was one of the 1,242 Ace fighter pilots in World War II.
Leiby: You got World War I . . .
Brown: Yeah. All the wars. And World War I was over a hundred. I don’t know the exact figure, but twelve-hundred-and-forty-two made Ace in World War II, and I heard a figure of fourteen-fifty but that was counting all the other Aces as well as 1,242 in World War II.
Leiby: Well, compared to the Congressional Medal of Honor winners, there were three-thousand-four-hundred-and-fifty-six Congressional Medal of Honor winners and there’s less than fifteen hundred American Aces!
Brown: Yeah. Only 1,242 made Ace in World War II. I didn’t realize how hard it was to make Ace until I tried it. (Laughing) On the 14th of January was my fifth one when I made "Ace" status. And it was my toughest fight by far. But, to begin with, three weeks prior to that, we always, about every third or fourth mission, if we didn’t fire guns, why, we’d fly over the water and test fire our guns to make sure they were all working properly. So, this one particular time I went up . . . I was always experimenting and dilly dallying around . . . so I thought, well, on this one mission . . . well, it was not a mission, I went out on a test fly . . . we just flew around on our own and did what we wanted to do . . . I’ll go up to twenty-five thousand and roll over, and climb on my back. And the airplane responded. But, up until then, too, we never got to practice a spin, because when the first 51s came out, of course, you’d practice them, but they lost so many pilots who weren’t able to recover in time . . . they weren’t high enough and didn’t have the proper techniques. The 51 was hard to get out of a spin, I found out. (Laughing) So, up to that time I’d never spun one. I had spun every other airplane I’d flown. That was one of the first things I learned, how to get out of a spin. So, I went up to twenty-five thousand and did a slow roll. By then I was flying on my back, so when I pulled the trigger, it threw me into an inverted spin, so I diddled around with it for a while and finally got out of the inverted spin. Then I just fell into a regular spin. I kept recovering and the airplane would spin again. So I was fighting those spins for fifteen thousand feet. I went from twenty-five thousand down to ten thousand feet. By then I was down in more dense air, which helped. But the last time, why, I was about to get ready to bail out of that mother! (Laughing)
Finally, at ten thousand I recovered and got it flying properly and everything. I realized what I did wrong. So I climbed back up to twenty-five thousand again and put it in an intentional spin and recovered in about two or three thousand feet, which saved my fanny, ‘cause it was three weeks later, when I was hitting my fifth victim, I luckily was two, three thousand feet above him, when I spotted him and a few others. But I was going after this one. He saw me coming, of course, and just when I got in range . . . he was one of the smart ones . . . instead of diving down, why, he pulled straight up. So I did the same. I pulled up under him and I had superior speed so he couldn’t out climb me. In fact, I was gaining on him.
As soon as I got up pretty close to him, I started giving him a few squirts. It’s always hard to shoot even at half a second of time ‘cause if you hold on the light for two seconds, you’d burn the barrels and jam them. They’d get so hot, see? Shooting out. Spitting out eighteen shells a second. It didn’t take long to get them hot. Anyway, I gave him a few short squirts. Pieces of debris started falling around me and I was trying to duck the debris. By then I was no more than twenty yards under him, and we both stalled out at the same time. We both went into a spin. We were spinning in formation and he had a black cross on the side of his fuselage . . . it looked as big as a barn . . . that black cross. We were spinning in formation and, luckily, I recovered. Got on him, just as he recovered. Without that experience three weeks prior, why he would have recovered way before I did and he would have got on me and would have got me. He did the climbs, dives, tight turns, loops, snap rolls, and then, one time . . . he was really one of the smart ones . . . and I’d heard this had happened a few times . . . one time, what he did was he chopped his throttle and I was gaining up to him pretty fast, so I chopped mine and dumped my flaps and I still kept gaining on him. I was just about under him then so I dumped my gear to slow it more, and I was just practically under him by then. If I had gone just a little bit further, I’d have overshot him and he’d have been on my tail and that was his strategy. He was a sharp one.
Anyway, by then, too, I was still right under him so I started shooting my guns. The six 50s act like brakes when you shoot from an airplane; they shudder and you felt like you were backing up every time you’d shoot the six 50s, so that really slowed me up. I realized that he had probably seen the shells going out ahead of him, so he pulled back the throttle, ‘cause he was clean . . . and I cleaned mine up as quick as I could in my plane. I'm still on his tail, and finally I got him. He exploded. I guess he got his tank and engine. It exploded . . . just a big ball of flame. All that’s left is the wing tips and tail floating down. It was quite a fight.
Leiby: You had your own airplane after a while, too.
Brown: Yeah. Well, then I got one more that day, so I got six. That was my sixth. But, getting back to your question, after your last five or six missions, they lost so many green pilots. That’s when you go down. Like this one guy said, “Forty hours was the average combat life.” Forty hours. That was the average combat life when he was over there fighting. He was pretty right. There were fifteen of us as replacement pilots who went to the 20th group and by the time I finished my tour, eight out of the fifteen were shot down. Even towards the end of the war, it was still rough.
So, to get back to your question, after five or six missions, you figure, "Well, I got over the starting of it, so I got my own plane, and flew my own airplane from then on." ‘Cause you get the feel of it. Then you were able to put your name on it, and everything.
Leiby: What did you call your airplane?
Brown: Well, on the nose of it, I had Be Good, ‘cause my girlfriend from the U.S.A. was always writing and she’d always finish her letter the same way. “Be good.” (Laughing) So I wrote Be Good. Then, on the canopy, why, the band under the canopy, I had Harley's Ballroom written on it. Big, huge letters. I had a ball in that airplane.
Leiby: When did you meet your wife?
Brown: Oh, yeah. Peggy. Well, luckily, on the second day in England, the CO gave us the day off, so I and two of my buddies, hopped a ferry and went across the Humboldt River to Kingston, England . . . (Leiby: The big city, huh?) Yeah. Kingston. Yupon Hall, was the name of it. It had three hundred thousand population. It was one of the North Sea ports on the Humboldt River. And boy, it was bombed heavily, because it was the biggest industrial town in England nearest to Berlin. Hitler was sending his cadets over there. The first year of the war they bombed nearly every night, because it was easy for the cadets to come over and practice bombing.
But, anyway, we got there . . . this was the second day, at noon. The pubs during wartime, were only open two hours, and then at night, for only about three hours. So we didn’t have too much time to drink beer. So, in the afternoon, we were tooling around, looking the town over, and came upon a tea room. We were getting a little hungry by then, so we went in there, and saw this big, huge room. It’s full of tables, but it was crowded. Every table was full of people, so we stood there for a while, waiting to see if we could get an empty table. We spotted these two beautiful gals sitting there. One a brunette, and one a blonde. Sitting about in the middle, alone, in their uniforms. The English women, ladies, were conscripted into service just as men were drafted into the Air Force, Army, Navy, and the National Forest Service. She was sitting there in her uniform . . . these two gals in their uniforms were conscripted into the National Forest Service. So, we approached them and asked if we could join them. What two gals could turn down three handsome young aviators, with their silver wings and new, shiny, gold bars? (Laughing) So they said, “Yes. Please sit down.”
We found out they were on a tea break . . . afternoon break, really, and had to go back on duty. So, I got her phone number and address. So, from then on, every time I had any time off, I’d go over and see her. Of course, the whole nine, ten months I was over there, every time we had time off from my base at Kings Cliff, I’d go up and see her.
Leiby: Did you get to meet her parents right away?
Brown: No. No, the English people, they were real protective of their daughters from the “bloody Yanks,” and her wouldn’t let her bring me to her home. They tried to discourage us from going together really, in that respect, in that way. Well, after about four or five months, they realized we were serious about each other. I had forgotten about my gal at home. Peggy was so beautiful and a glamorous gal. Anyway, they said, “Oh, bring him home for dinner,” the next time he comes up. So, of course, I was as nervous as if I had an ME-109 on my tail! But, it was a beautiful evening, beautiful meal, and it was good . . . ‘cause we didn’t get really good meals on base. Of course, they didn’t either. Everything was rationed there. Of course, they’d put on the dog when I was there. (Laughing) So, before I left that evening, her mother said, “Harley, from now on, no use staying in a hotel. Come and stay with us. We have plenty of room here.” I thought, “Boy! I’m in like Flynn!” (Laughing) So, the last few months I found out the right way to fight a war. Go visit a beautiful English family, their lovely daughter . . . get decent meals . . . (laughing) . . . so I was pretty lucky there, Fred.
Leiby: So you finished your tour of duty, fifty-seven missions? (Brown: Yeah.) In March of ’45. (Brown: Yeah.) And, before you went home, you and Peggy got engaged, with the idea of getting married when you went back. (Brown: Right.) Then what happened when the war ended?
Brown: I had a three month leave to go over . . . they called it “flak leave” . . . and then you’d come back to the war again. I had a letter from my CO requesting my return, because, unbeknownst to me, there were kind of grooming me for squadron deputy or adjutant . . . which would have been a rank of major position . . . and then, after that, from there, and, since the squadron commander’d either go down or go home; that’s why we got promoted so fast, you know.
Leiby: You lose a lot of people . . .
Brown: You lose a lot of pilots over there. So, once you survive, you got promoted fast. To give you a little more detail, I flew, let’s see . . . twenty missions, leading my flight . . . and towards the end of the war there, the end of my tour, I flew four missions leading the squadron, sixteen men each. Then I flew three missions leading the group. And all this time I was twenty-two years old. It’s hard to imagine a twenty-two year old leading forty-eight pilots into combat. It’s hard to imagine. But, again, when you think about it, age was not a factor then. It was experience that counted. By then I had forty, fifty missions under my belt. I was just an old combat veteran at 22 years of age. (Laughing)
The CO wanted me to sign up for an extension, and I was gonna do this. But I thought, “Well, my birthday is coming up . . . two more weeks . . . my twenty-third birthday, so I’ll go home for three months and then come back. I would get the promotion then anyway, and I would marry Peggy.”
When I got home, a few weeks later, a month or so, I forget the date, but, anyway, the war ended in Europe. Of course, then I couldn’t get back there, but the war was still going on in Japan. So, there went my chances of getting married. It took me a year . . . nearly a year-and-a-half before Peggy could get passage to come on over.
Leiby: When did you go off of active duty then?
Brown: In September of ’46. Well, Peggy got over in June of ’46, and we got married in New York. We went to Niagara Falls . . . in fact, here’s a picture of her when she was eighteen . . . (Leiby: She was a very attractive girl.) . . . in England. Then this picture . . . let’s see . . . we were on our honeymoon in Niagara Falls.
Leiby: How old were you then?
Brown: We were both twenty-four years old. In fact, she was three months older than I. I was pretty wise marrying an older gal, ‘cause she started going on Social Security before I did. (Laughing) We went to Langley Field in Virginia, and they told me I was going to go to Japan for my next duty. I said, “Well, when can my wife follow me over?” They said, “About six months.” I said, “No way am I going to leave a British war bride in the U.S.A. for six months alone!” So I got out of the service in September of ’46, but luckily I stayed in the reserve and eventually got a total of twenty-one years, reserve and active duty.
Leiby: And what did you do after you got out of the service?
Brown: Well, let’s see. Actually, Fred, I had six careers. My first career . . . here is a picture of my family and I in show business, before the war started. It started then in ’36 and up to ’41, so for five years we were in show business. Well, during those five years in the summer, we’d do county fairs and theaters, and in the wintertime, schools and theaters and rodeos sometimes. (Leiby: Was the horse part of your act?) Yeah. He could put on forty-five minutes. He was a very well-trained horse. He was a beautiful black stallion. He could put on a forty-five minute show, on the stage, and we could do fifteen minutes with a whip act. So I had an hour. If they ever wanted to time me, why we could give them up to an hour of entertainment. I really enjoyed that. But then when . . . in fact, we were up showing him in Chicago, and we were showing him in high schools and theaters, and we showed at the State Luke Theater on State Street, which had the largest stage show in the world. So we were getting up big time when the darn war started and stopped us. (Laughing)
Leiby: That was your first career and the military was your second career.
Brown: Yeah. It was the second. Then the third was . . . after I got home from the war, why, I went into farming, and then, about six months later, I bought a Stearman and started crop dusting. So I worked that in with my farming. After a couple of years of farming and crop dusting, why, I kind of got tired of farming. Wasn’t making much money. I was making good money crop dusting, so I was a legalized buzzer and got paid for it. (Laughing) Then, after farming, I went into the insurance business, selling life insurance for John Hancock and also for a farmers group. I kept that up for a couple of years or so. All this time I kept on crop dusting, but by the time I heard an average crop duster's life was five years, so I quit after four-and-a-half and joined United Air Lines. Here’s the picture of my Stearman when I was doing the crop dusting. It was great fun.
Leiby: This is Peggy. Who’s the other gentleman?
Brown: That’s my brother-in-law. After that, and after four-and-a-half years of that, why I wanted to quit before I used up all my luck there. Let’s back up a little bit. Here’s a picture of my airplane over in England.
Leiby: It’s got your swastikas on there. Your six swastikas.
Brown: Yeah. That was the old P-51 with my victories on it.
Leiby: And there’s Harley's Ballroom right on top there.
Brown: Yeah. But it served me well. Got me through fifty-seven missions.
Leiby: Then you worked with United Air Lines.
Brown: Yeah. And here’s a picture when I was captain with United. (Leiby: They get you started off as a co-pilot, right? (Brown: Yeah.) That was in 1951?
Brown: Yeah. I started in ’51 and then ’61. Yeah. I had to fly co-pilot for ten years. Then I made captain and I flew captain for nineteen years. (Leiby: That’s when you got the big money, huh?) Yeah. Right. Then I got to harass the co-pilots. (Laughing)
Leiby: And that took you up to thirty-eight years of flying, altogether.
Brown: Yeah. Over twenty-eight thousand hours in the air. Pretty lucky bloke to survive all that. Then with United, why I started in on a little gooney bird, C-47, the DC-3 they call it in the airlines. It would just haul twenty-one passengers. Then I flew the DC-4, 6 and 7 and the Convair, and the 737. By then I retired.
Leiby: The 737. How many passengers did it hold?
Brown: I think a hundred thirty. But now United Airlines . . . they go all over the world, overseas and everything, but my overseas flying was in ’51 in the gooney bird, from LAX to Catalina Island. Back and forth. That was my overseas flying. Ten minute flight. Back and forth. (Laughing) So I didn’t get much overseas flying.
Leiby: No. I guess you didn’t. Well, thank you, Harley. That’s a very interesting career you’ve had.
Brown: Yeah. Thank you. Yeah, I’ve been a very lucky bloke. I finish a little speech with a talk explaining describing how the military . . . how they tell the various airmen apart. You could tell a bombardier by the ring around his eye; and you can tell a navigator by his briefcase of maps and charts; and you can tell a bomber pilot by how he boasts and struts; and you can tell a fighter pilot . . . but you can’t tell him much. (Laughing)