Harold Lyle Brown (“Brownie” to his airforce buddies, “Lyle” to his friends and some family, “Grampy” to me, his granddaughter) enlisted in the US Army Airforce when he was 21 years old in 1941.
Lyle was not one for frivolity, having come of age during the Depression. Having a job was a key concern. He was steady, reserved, and mathematically inclined and knew that an education was a key component to a successful future. Between his junior and senior year at Mount Union College in Alliance, OH, things were heating up in Europe. A fraternity brother of his, who had just finished training as a fighter pilot, let him know that they were starting a new navigation school at Mather Field in California and they were taking people with 3 years of college. Lyle had finished 3 years of college so he figured he’d try. He went to Cleveland, OH in August, 1941 to enlist. They told him he qualified to be a pilot, but he had never even driven a car let alone an airplane so he decided he would rather try for the navigation school. They sent him home to wait for orders. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he received a telegram (around Christmas) that he was needed. On December 31, 1941 he was sworn in at Fort Hayes in Columbus, OH then went on to Maythur Field as a cadet. He received very little military training there, the focus initially being on academics. On May 2, 1942 he graduated navigation school as a 2nd lieutenant. He was one of 12 navigators who went on to Pendleton, Oregon as the 34th bomb group, one of the few B-17 groups in the Army at that time. That was the first time the young man whose family didn’t even own a car stepped into a B-17. They hopped around from there. The group remained in Oregon about 2 months before transferring to Tucson, Arizona for a few weeks. The Army thought at the time that the Japanese were going to start fires along the west coast so they transferred him to Tacoma, Washington (for about 3 weeks) then sent him back to Tucson and from there to the B-24 outfit in Euphrata, Washington where he got his first taste of flying inside a B-24. In Spokane, Washington he joined the 398th bomb group (603rd squadron), was there about 3 months, then went on to Rapid City, South Dakota.
In April, 1944 the whole group flew to Grand Island, Nebraska, picked up brand new B-17 G’s and flew over to Nuthampstead, England (stopping at Maine, Labrador, Iceland, and Ireland before arriving in England).
By this time, he was a group navigator and was not assigned to a specific flight crew. He almost always flew in the lead plane with the group commander, Colonel Frank P. Hunter. The group navigator’s office had to prepare flight plans for each mission. They did this solely with paper and a calculator, no computers. Hard to believe these days! Their equipment consisted of a compass and a drift meter and that was it. They would get a TWX (teletype) in the afternoon from 8th Airforce with instructions for how many airplanes, gas load, and bomb load they would be working with and they would work out the calculations based on that information. Each plane would be assigned a point to start and a departure time so everything would all line up correctly. If they weren’t in proper order, their bomb smoke might drift into another target.
When the Germans occupied western France, the flights were shorter and tougher because of the anti-aircraft around the coast. Flak was always a worry (even more than the fighters were). Lyle said during most missions the plane would sustain some sort of damage.
He flew 29 missions in total. His first mission on May 6, 1944 (photo above) was plagued with difficulty. He described it in a letter: “We were running late, almost an hour, due to transport and armament loading problems. A ‘stand down’ was discussed but we did get off, and by going directly to the departure point we got into the bomber stream, only to find the target obscured! Brought the bombs home… not our finest day. I do know that Colonel Hunter was upset, but blamed himself more than others for any problems… he was heard to say to General Gross who had arrived on the scene with some Operations people from the 91st ‘relieve me of my post’.” His second mission saw him flying over Berlin, Germany. On July 4, 1944 he flew a mission where the crew had to bail out over England after one of the engines caught on fire.
The mission he flew after that was on August 1, 1944 with the same crew. They were headed to a tank repair factory in Villaroche, France. He flew in the lead plane with the 398th group commander Colonel Frank P. Hunter and pilot Gene Douglas. The flak wasn’t bad going in, but they were hit bad at the target. They left the target with one engine on fire, a bomb held up in the bomb bay, and control problems. The pilot, Douglas, dove the plane enough to get the fire out, but they had 1 engine down and 1 partial engine left. They threw out their guns, flak suits, even Lyle’s navigation kit, to lighten the load. The bombardier got a slight wound to the head when flak came through the plexiglass. They thought they would have to ditch and gathered in the radio room in preparation, but Douglas spotted a little field to land in. They hit the treetops on the way down, but had a good landing. Grampy seldom named names when he spoke of his war experiences, but never failed to praise Douglas for that excellent landing.
Some other veterans remember that incident as follows:
“Colonel Hunter, our Base Commander was leading. Two direct hits by flack hit him 30 seconds before bombs away. #1 engine caught fire, he held it in there, dropped bombs and then fell out of formation. He got control of his plane, put the fire out and reached the English coast on two engines. The pilots did a very good flying job. He did not make it back to our base, but landed at a fighter field in England. A soldier came running out to the plane, and said ‘you can’t land here, you will have to talk to the Colonel about that.’ Then the soldier looked up, and said ‘yes sir.’ -Lt. Mark J. Woods, JR. (On another plane during that mission). Quote courtesy of http://www.398th.org
“We got shot up pretty badly on August 1st of ’44, bombing an airfield near Paris. There was a sheet of flames coming off the engine and I had seen a lot of airplanes start with a wing fire and then blown to smithereens. Doug (Gene L. Douglas, pilot) dove the airplane about 10,000 feet to get the fire out. I had thought we had lost control; of course, we dove about a 45 degree dive. We ended up with one engine left. Douglas flew that thing across the Channel. We had control cables hanging down our waist, all over. Airplane was reeking of gasoline. This was an experienced crew. They dropped that ball turret, we threw machine guns, everything overboard to lighten the load; they really cleaned out that airplane. Douglas was afraid to disengage the autopilot because all the manual control cables were all shot up and didn’t know whether he could control the airplane. So, he ended up landing that airplane with one engine on an English fighter strip without autopilot. He set it down wheels up. We all ran from that airplane as fast as we could for fear it would blow any second and then nothing happened. So, at any rate, they sent us on Flak Leave. They figured we deserved one after that.” -Keith Anderson (tail gunner of the plane in question). Quote courtesy of http://www.398th.org
Lyle admired Col. Hunter very much. At least 7 missions that Lyle participated in show evidence of them being on the same plane (always the lead plane in the formation) and every photograph that they appear in together shows them standing side by side. He always spoke of Col. Hunter with deep reverence. On January 23, 1945 Col. Hunter and his crew were shot down and killed. Only 1 crew member survived. Lyle would have been on that plane, too, had an illness (bronchitis?) not prevented him from flying that day.
After World War 2, Lyle married, had children, and returned to school, finishing his undergraduate and completing two graduate programs. He received his masters in education from George Peabody’s Teacher’s college and went on to become a math teacher and guidance counselor, but the AirForce was not finished with him yet. In 1951, he returned as a Navigator to fight in the Korean War, flying over Korea, Japan, and (what was then) French Indo-China in the two engine C119s, which he remembered as “scary” after being in the 4 engine B17s.
He retired from the U.S.A.F. in 1965 as a Lieutenant Colonel and recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross among other decorations.
Photo above: Grampy, center, receiving the Certificate of Retirement from Grant, left, the Deputy Administer of the Federal Aviation Agency. Grammy (Grampy’s wife Lois) is on the right (in a fabulous turban cloche).
Grampy died on February 19, 2017. His full honors military funeral service at Arlington National Cemetery was almost a year later. We were a small group consisting of my Mom, my husband, step-son, my aunt (Grampy’s daughter) and uncle (her husband), 3 cousins, and extended family from Ohio (Grampy’s “kid sister” Eileen’s kids: Don and his wife Darlene, Bill and his wife Phyllis, and Janice and her husband Dan). Some of these extended family members I had never met, others I had not seen since I was a child. We hugged and caught up and then were told to drive to the site of the procession. We began our drive and noticed an impressive gathering on the hill of horses and men in uniform. “This can’t be for him…could it?” we all exclaimed. It was. At least 50 soldiers were in attendance, several horses were stamping their feet in impatience, ready to march. We followed this procession on foot, silently, hugging one another, and sidestepping horse droppings. We arrived in the Columbarium, a peaceful, shaded stone area. The soldiers carefully went about their work folding and unfolding the flag, every move precise and respectful. I cried when they handed it and the bullets from the gun salute that followed the ceremony, with gentle reverence, to my aunt. Countless more soldiers in the distance marched and played their instruments. Finally, we were led to his resting place, a stone wall where Grammy’s remains already were. My younger cousin, Kyle, stepped up on the ladder, kissed his hand, then placed it on each of the stone markers carrying the name of his grandparents before we walked away from them. We were all somewhat in shock from the beautiful, peaceful, important ceremony that we had just witnessed.
He deserved all of it. He was a war hero and a cancer survivor – skin cancer from those long, much loved days on the beaches of Florida, where they lived after the war before planting their roots permanently in Virginia. He lived to 97 years old (having lived longer than around 96% of those who fought in WW2) with a mind as sharp as a tack up until the very end. “That was a good smacker” (a Grampy-ism for a kiss) was one of the last things that he said to me. He was a sweet, steady person who never sought to be the center of attention, loved the outdoors, and a quiet life with his family, but did not shy away from danger when his country needed his help. I felt that he would always be there and it’s still hard to believe that he’s gone.
Grampy and I
1). http://www.398th.org (for information + images #2, 3 & 4)
2). Author’s collection for remaining images.