Tears welled in Charles M. Brown's eyes during his officers' graduation ceremony as he realized the terrible irony of being a black officer in a segregated army.
Brown, a Dunbar High School graduate who later became the U.S. Army's first black aviator, was one of the few black officers of the period just before World War II.
Now 62 and a resident of Silver Spring, Brown said it was during his graduation from officers' candidate school in Fort Sill, Okla., that he realized rank would not eliminate the racial prejudice that prevailed in the 1940s.
"Five blacks out of about 480 graduated as second lieutenants in my class. When they pinned the bars on my shoulders I realized I could not go anywhere on the post, not even the officers club. As a black officer I stood on the stage during graduation and tears came to my eyes."
Brown, who was raised in LeDroit Park, simply learned to survive in the separate but often unequal world of the Army.
This month Brown, who retired as a master aviator with the rank of major, will be honored at the Army's aviation museum in Fort Rucker, Ala., as part of the Army's observance of Black History Month.
It was Brown's resistance to prejudice -- "just making those officers respect me as a person regardless of the situation" -- that resulted in his becoming the Army's first black aviator.
"They tried to give you menial details, but whenever I would talk to them I would talk to them just like I was on the same level and they resented it. You kids these days are lucky, you don't know what we went through . . . We were treated like dirt."
White officers were so anxious to get rid of him, Brown explained, that as soon as he volunteered for the newly created Pittsburg, Kan., Army aviation school in 1943, they transferred him.
"I was tickled pink," he added, explaining that he and his high school friends at Dunbar had always dreamed of becoming aviators at a time when it was almost impossible for blacks.
During both World War II and the Korean conflict, Brown flew a cloth-covered single-engine plane that, if struck by a bullet, he said, could have burst into flames within three minutes. He earned five air medals and was recommended for the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Flying his unarmed plane at 500 feet, sometimes over enemy lines, Brown pinpointed targets and radioed their locations back to long-range field artillery batteries that shelled troops, tanks and trains.
During the Korean war he received most of his air medals and was once recommended for the Distinguished Flying Cross for flying 25 miles under fire behind enemy lines to complete a crucial mission that required surveying roads before major troop movements.
Brown said he experienced racial prejudice several times during both World War II and the Korean fighting.
During the second world war, he said, his unit, the 351st Field Artillery Battalion, was sent into southern Germany, and he and other black pilots were kept on the ground for a month because the commander believed their speech, or implied black dialect, over airplane radios would betray the position of the American troops.
Because he and all other black officers were assigned to all-black combat units, the commanding officer said their accents would give the enemy valuable information about the movement of black troops in the area.
During the Korean conflict, Brown was recalled to duty and was among the first black pilots to enter the battle. He said he had a white commanding officer who refused to give him any more air medals and would not sign the recommendation for his Distinguished Flying Cross because, "he said I had won too many awards already for a Negro."
"I would have had a pocket full of air medals and I think I would have received the Distinguished Flying Cross. I am still hurt because of that incident," he added. "I lost five pounds on that mission (as a result of fear), I didn't know if I was going to make it back."
After retiring from the military, Brown became the first black assistant secretary to the District of Columbia Board of Commissioners, and later to the original D. C. City Council.
The recognition this month as the Army's first black pilot is Brown's dream come true. The Army decided to honor him after he sent a letter to Fort Rucker explaining that he may have been the Army's first black aviator. f
A spokesman at Fort Rucker said, "We have checked the records and have talked to black pilots who served in the Army during the 1940s, and as far as we're concerned, he is the first black Army pilot."