2nd Lt. Gene C. Browne
March 31, 1924 – February 22, 2002
Unit: 301st Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group.
Captured: July 19, 1944, Austria
Prison Camp: Stalag Luft 1
One of the youngest pilots in the U.S. Army Air Corps, 1st Lt. Gene C. Browne was forced to crash-land in Germany and was a prisoner of war for more than a year.
Browne of New York graduated from flight training on Oct. 1, 1943, at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama. At 19, he is believed to be the youngest black pilot commissioned in the Army Air Corps. In December, Browne deployed to Italy with the 301st Fighter Squadron, part of the 332nd Fighter Group. The 301st Fighter Squadron flew its first combat mission on Feb. 5, 1944.
On July 18, the 332nd Fighter Group was sent to escort bombers to Memmingen, Germany. When the 66 P-51 Mustang pilots arrived at the rendezvous point, the bombers they were to meet weren’t there. The fighter pilots circled the area; when the bombers were spotted, so was a swarm of 30 enemy planes. More than 20 of the P-51 pilots rushed toward the Messerschmitt 109s to break up the attack.
The bombers and the rest of the fighters continued toward the target. Near Kempten, Germany, about 25 miles from the target, 30 more enemy planes were spotted. Four of them attacked the bombers, and four P-51 pilots, including Browne, responded.
“Approximately half way between the Alps and the target, our lone flight of four dropped back of the bomber formation and enemy aircraft were sighted,” 1st Lt. Joseph P. Gomer wrote in a military report. “Lt. (Wellington G.) Irving and his wingman, Lt. (Stanley L.) Harris,
broke away and Lt. Browne, my wingman, went in to attack an enemy aircraft headed at us.
When I next saw (Browne), I called him on the radio, warning him of an enemy aircraft on his tail.”
Gomer fired at the enemy plane chasing Browne, but did not hit it. “I saw a red-tailed P-51 near the deck on the tail of an enemy ship and also being followed by another enemy aircraft,” Gomer wrote. “I immediately went into a dive, during which my canopy was blown out, hitting me on the head and breaking my goggles.”
In the report, Gomer said he assumed he had been hit by enemy fire and took evasive measures. Gomer was separated from his wingman; Browne set out to find him.
“At one point he emerged from some clouds and spotted a formation of a squadron or two of ME-109s,” retired Lt. Col. Gene C. Browne Jr. said of his father. “They hadn’t seen him, but he was still uncertain of what to do since he was kind of just out there and exposed. He told me he actually formed up with one of the squadrons and flew along with them for several minutes. He said he realized he probably wasn’t going to get out of there without some kind of altercation, as he put it, so he made up his mind that he would blast the next plane that drifted into his crosshairs.
“He laughed as he told me, ‘All hell broke loose’ after he flamed the fellow in front of him. In the confusion, he told me he got three more (enemy planes) in the mess. He was hit while he was chasing his fifth target. My dad was wounded in that battle: He took three 20-mm slugs
to his left leg and a slug grazed his head when it came through the canopy.”
Browne was forced to crash-land in Germany and was captured. He spent 13 months at Stalag Luft I, a prisoner of war camp near Barth, Germany. Browne met several members of the 332nd Fighter Group, including Lt. Alfred Q. Carroll Jr., who became his roommates, Lt. William E. Griffin, Lt. Cornelius Gould and Lt. Starling B. Penn.
“He never got credit for the five kills that day because no one was around to see any of it but him,” Browne Jr. said.
After the war, Browne returned to New York, attended a trade school and started a 20-year career at Sperry Gyroscope. He later worked at Grumman Aerospace, where he contributed to NASA’s Apollo space program and other projects.
Before retiring from Grumman, Browne met Amityville, N.Y., police officer Brian Lowery. “I was driving one of the sector cars in the North Amityville area, and I see this older gentleman driving a sporty new American Motors car that had just come out, the Eagle Talon,” Lowery told Newsday in 2002. “It passes me, and I see the license plate frame says ‘P51 pilot.’ ”
Lowery, a Navy veteran, was familiar with the plane.
“It was one of the most beautiful planes out there,” he said. “Something else I knew immediately: The P-51s were in the Army Air Corps. So, if you were black and you flew a P-51, you had to be a Tuskegee Airman.”
Lowery followed the “P-51 pilot” plates.
“He pulled into the driveway and I pulled up on the apron. He got out. He was short. I rolled down the window and yelled out, ‘I like your car, but I love your license plate frame.’
“Without a word, he waved me into the house, as if he were saying, ‘C’mon, I’ll show you something.’
“The first thing (Browne) showed me was a picture of himself standing in front of the P-51. He was so young. I mean, he even looked young in life, standing in his living room, but in the photo if you had put a bicycle in front of him, you would have taken him for a paperboy, never the pilot. I’m doing the math in my head. It’s like 1989 or 1990. This picture had to be, what, 1944? He must have been 19. I look around at the 19-year-olds today, and I can’t imagine them flying an aircraft like this.”
Lowery and Browne talked more: About planes, about cars, about the military. “He showed me his Purple Heart. He was unbelievably modest,” Lowery said. “Then I think I put my foot in my mouth. I’m looking at him, I’m looking at the plane and I’m thinking what a great career this man could have had, or should have had, in aviation. And I ask him, ‘Did you ever fly again?’ “He said, ‘No.’ And I realized the environment he was in, and the times, and the opportunities he wouldn’t have had and I thought about him not getting to live up to his potential and I just said, ‘What a shame.’ And he said, ‘What a shame it would have been if I had never flown at all.’ ”
Browne died Feb. 22, 2002; he is buried at Long Island National Cemetery in Farmingdale, N.Y.
According to military documents, Browne was awarded a Bronze Star, an Air Medal and a Purple Heart.