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Remembering A Hero

Way back in the day, during my sixth year of life, my dad bought the first TV our family ever owned. For whatever reason, considering my age at the time, one of the programs I liked watching was the NBC World War II called, "Victory at Sea." Now, this was just six years after the war had ended and the series' big selling point was that it contained numerous hours of recently declassified combat footage. Among the images that most fascinated me was a strafing run conducted by an American pilot against a Nazi target somewhere in Europe.

Through the lens of the gun camera we watch as machine gun bullets slam into a train parked in a rail yard. The image of the train grows larger and larger as the plane apparently dives closer, its guns continuing to wreak havoc. Suddenly, the train explodes into a massive fireball and the plane pulls up. But the fireball rises faster and higher than the plane's ability to outrun it, and we go right into the heart of the massive fireball. I would see that footage any number of times over the years, across innumerable docs about aviation or about WW II.

Cut to the early 1980s, and I am watching a PBS show called, "Tony Brown's Journal," and Brown is doing a segment on the famed Tuskegee Airmen, the segregated, all-black World War II Army Air Corps fighter squadron that my father-in-law served in. Hoping I might catch an image of my wife's dad, I watched the show and listened as a couple of those wonderful veterans told stories about their exploits half a lifetime ago. One of the men talked about a young, baby-faced lieutenant whose nerve and bravery belied his good looks. At some point in 1943 - 44, the Pentagon directed all of its Army Air Corps pilots to hold their dives on strafing runs so the footage from their gun cameras could allow more accurate analysis of their fire effectiveness against targets. Pilots hated this order because it meant they'd be exposed longer to anti-aircraft fire. But, the young lieutenant decided if the brass was so desperate for tighter footage, he'd give them their money's worth. On one of his strafing runs, he flew in low on a target and hit a train carrying ammunition that suddenly exploded. Instead of pulling up, the young pilot flew his Mustang right through the fireball and came out the other side without a scratch. As soon as I heard that story I wondered if this might have been the pilot whose footage I'd been seeing since the age of six.

As with many of his fellow Tuskegee Airmen, that young lieutenant had made so much with his life after the war. He'd gone on to a distinguished career in education and political activism. Anyone who'd ever spent time in his presence long enough came away impressed and inspired. Consistent with so many members of that "Greatest Generation," he seldom spoke of his wartime exploits, so many young people knew him primarily for his college presidency, or the courses he taught or the television show he hosted or for the rallies and marches he attended on behalf of the disenfranchised or oppressed. He was a man who looked forward, not back.

Some months after seeing the Tuskegee Airmen broadcast, in a delicious combination of timing and luck, I found myself at one of Lana Turner's fabulous Men Who Cook fundraisers, where I met that audacious young pilot, by this time late middle aged and the distinguished president of a college in New York. I asked him about the gun camera footage. He smiled and nodded his head, "yeah, that's me," and we talked about his days in the war, his friendship with my father-in-law and about African-American life and culture. Afterwards, he went on his way, disappearing into the swirl of people at that busy event and though, over the years, I continued following news of him in various publications or through word of mouth passed along by mutual friends and acquaintances, I would never see him again - a deep regret I now, like so many others, will have to live with.

Captain Roscoe C. Brown, US Army Air Force, (Ret.) died this past July 4th, at the age of 94 years - admired, honored, revered and loved. Here's to you, sir. Your watch is ended. Thank you for a job well done. May God Bless and Keep you.

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