Major Harry Brown and his 'Lost Flight' of the 96th Aero Squadron

'But what are we to do with the major?'

by Steven A. Ruffin

 

An Ill-conceived Plan

On Wednesday, 10 July 1918, the embryonic U.S. Air Service suffered its most damaging and humiliating setback of World War I.  Brigadier General Billy Mitchell, Chief of the U.S. Air Service in France—and never one to mince words—referred to it in his memoir as “…the most glaring exhibition of worthlessness we had had on the front.”[i]


At 6:05 p.m. on that fateful evening, a formation of six Breguet 14 B2 day bombers of the 96th Aero Squadron, along with their six pilots and six observers, took off from the spacious flying field at Amanty with a full load of bombs.  Their objective was the strategically important enemy railroad center at Conflans, some fifty miles to the north.  The commander of the 96th, Major Harry Milford Brown, led the flight, along with his observer, 2nd Lt. Harold A. MacChesney of San Jose, California.  The formation consisted of the following men and machines[ii]:


               Pilot                                                 Observer                         Aircraft No.


Major Harry Milford Brown               2nd Lt. Harold A. MacChesney            4012

1st Lt. Durwood L. MacDonald          2nd Lt. Alfred R. Strong                      4003

1st Lt. Joseph M. Mellen                     2nd Lt. Rowan H. Tucker                    4019

1st Lt. Herbert Dix Smith                    1st Lt. George A. Ratterman               4005

1st Lt. Henry C. Lewis                        1st Caxton H. Tichenor                       4020

1st Lt. Robert George Browning         1st Lt. James Edward Duke, Jr.            4015


The weather that day was miserable—windy and rainy, with minimal visibility—in short, anything but a suitable day for flying.  Consequently, Brown would have been more than justified in scrubbing the mission—a fact that later became more glaringly obvious with the help of hindsight—but he did not.  Not only had there already been multiple delays throughout the day, but he and his men had also been forced to abort several previous missions because of bad weather and mechanical problems.  Brown and his men were therefore anxious to finally complete a mission.  So, when the clouds appeared to lift, off they went.  They quickly disappeared into the overcast…and never returned.


Unbeknownst to Brown and company, the wind blowing from the southwest was even stronger at altitude than it had been at ground level—and much stronger than had been predicted by the meteorological experts.  Brown later estimated it in excess of 70 miles per hour.[iii]  Flying above the clouds by compass on a northwesterly heading, the inexperienced Americans continued blindly on their presumed course, unaware they were being blown eastward and ever deeper into enemy territory.[iv] 


When they finally caught a glimpse of the ground through the clouds, they viewed an unfamiliar town—which they later learned to their chagrin was Coblenz, Germany.  This was completely off of their maps some 120 miles northeast of the intended target at Conflans.  Because of Brown’s uncertainty as to his exact position, he decided not to drop his bombs, and instead signaled to the rest of the squadron that he was lost.  At this point the formation broke up, and each individual aircraft and crew set its own course in a general southwesterly direction, desperately trying to reach some safe haven.  In the face of the strong and nearly direct headwind blowing against them, they made little progress as their aircraft seemed to stand still in the sky.


One by one, the bomb-laden Breguets ran out of fuel, and each pilot was forced to negotiate a tricky landing in the dark at various localities south and west of Coblenz.[v]  All somehow managed to get down safely, but since none of the crews had the presence of mind to destroy their aircraft, the appreciative Germans captured all six fully armed bombers intact.  In addition, all twelve crewmembers were taken prisoner, and thus condemned to fight the remainder of their war as POWs.


Back at Amanty Airdrome, the remaining members of the 96th waited…and waited…for their comrades to return.  All they knew for sure was that six indispensable aircraft and twelve equally valuable friends had seemingly evaporated into thin air.  The log for that day read simply:


July 10--6 planes left our airdrome tonight at 6:05 P.M. to bomb the railroad station and yards at Conflans.  Up to 11:30 P.M. no word…received as to the whereabouts of any one of them.  Weather cloudy and rainy.  Visibility poor.  The formation was in command of Major Brown.[vi]


The next day, G-2, the Intelligence Section at General Headquarters A.E.F., notified the squadron of a German communiqué it had intercepted.  This message announced that, “Out of a squadron of six American aeroplanes which intended to attack Coblentz [sic] we captured five together with their crews.”[vii]  G-2 surmised that the 6th plane must have landed within the German lines farther south than the others.[viii]  With that grim news, all that now remained of America’s only day bombing squadron was one marginally serviceable aircraft and twelve empty bunks.  It would take three weeks for the 96th to regroup to the point where it could begin flying missions again.


If there was any humor to be found in the entire sorry episode, it was a German note reportedly dropped on a U.S. airdrome some time after the unlucky American airmen had landed in Germany.  It purportedly read: “We thank you for the fine airplanes and equipment which you have sent us, but what shall we do with the Major?”[ix]


Mercifully, the immediate—and likely unprintable—response by the harshly critical and unforgiving Colonel (at the time) Billy Mitchell is not recorded, but he later wrote:


I know of no other performance in any air force in the war that was as reprehensible as this.  Needless to say, we did not reply about the Major, as he was better off in Germany at that time than he would have been with us.[x]


Even though this somewhat amusing little anecdote has become a part of World War I aviation folklore over the years, it is a matter of conjecture as to whether or not the Germans actually sent such a note.  Some have suggested that it may simply have been the product of someone’s imagination.[xi], [xii]  If a note really was dropped, it must have been more than a week later, since it took that long for the Germans to finally apprehend “the major” and his observer.  According to Lt. MacChesney’s official post-war report, after he and Major Brown broke off from the rest of the formation over Coblenz:


We traveled southwest for an hour, diving continuously and landed at 9:00 P.M. having made forty kilometers [25 miles] in the last hour.  Major Brown thought we must be in France for the country resembled that about Commercy.  Questioning of a peasant convinced us that we were in Germany.  We attempted to start the motor again but failed in this.  The crowd came out while we were in the midst of our work and I drove them back with my machine guns.  As soon as they left I secured my compass, sight and maps, and broke my altimeter and guns.  We headed for a woods where the maps and sights were destroyed and where we hid from our pursurers [sic].  At 11 P.M. we started out, crawled through the line of search and walked until morning.  We lived while we were out, on potatoes and raw peas, slept in grain fields as far as possible and traveled mostly at night.  Several times we met people and usually escaped notice.  We were caught on the 19th crossing the border into Luxembourg.  From thence we were taken to the city of Luxembourg, questioned and sent to Treves, where we staid [sic] in confinement over night.  We were then taken to Cologne and questioned.  From there to a civil prison in Coblenz for three days and then to Karlsruhe, where we got better food and more of it.[xiii]


Since Brown and MacChesney evaded capture for nine days, the waggish note allegedly dropped by the Germans, asking what they should do with the Major, was—if it ever even existed—delivered more than a week after the incident.


That none of the American airmen were injured while landing on unfamiliar and unimproved enemy terrain—in the dark with a full load of bombs, no less—was a miracle in itself.[xiv]  Also fortunate is that none of the airmen were harmed by vengeful civilians.  Some almost were.  As recorded in Gorrell’s “Index: Air Service Prisoners in Germany:”


When the civilians discovered the bombs on the machine [Lts. Smith and Ratterman’s] they became very hostile and it was necessary for the Germen [sic] soldiers present to protect the Americans.[xv]


These two flyers’ worries were not yet over.  The next day they were accused of using illegal “dum-dum” bullets and threatened with execution.  Since there was no basis to this charge, nothing else came of it.  On yet the following day, however, a German officer attempted to strike one of the flyers with his sword but was restrained by one of his colleagues.[xvi]


With the exception of Brown and MacChesney, none of the six crews evaded escape for any length of time, so their stories of landing in enemy territory and subsequent capture were similar. In general, each crew, after being immediately apprehended, was marched directly to a local jail—the location varying according to where they had landed—where they remained overnight.   At least some of the airmen were interrogated in Coblenz, but within a few days, all members of the flight—except Brown and MacChesney, who were still on the loose—were assembled at the barracks at St. Avold, an intelligence headquarters 25 miles east of Metz.  Here, they were thoroughly interrogated and all their flying clothing and equipment confiscated—including even their Sam Brown belts. 


On 19 July—which happened to be the same day that Brown and MacChesney were finally apprehended—the ten previously captured flyers were moved from St. Avold to the large Allied officers’ camp at Rastatt.  On 23 July, they were transferred to Karlsruhe for about a week.  It was here that Major Brown and Lt. MacChesney were finally reunited with their ten comrades.  The initial part of that visit was spent in the infamous “Dictaphone Hotel,” so called because it was widely believed to be “bugged” with microphones, through which the Germans could eavesdrop on prisoners’ conversations.


On 30 July, all twelve of the captured flyers were moved to Landshut, Bavaria.  Here, they were quarantined for a period of about ten days, before being transferred to the main camp there, located at Trausnitz Castle.  Life here was harsh, and escape virtually out of the question.  In the ensuing months, most of the men of the 96th were transferred to the permanent camp for American officers at Villingen, Baden,[xvii] located in southwestern Germany, near the Swiss border.  Here they remained until after the Armistice. 


Life in the various camps, as recorded by the American flyers in interviews after the war, was generally severe.  Quarters were often dirty and crowded, and food—with some exceptions—was generally inadequate in quantity, as well as quality.  The Germans, in short supply of food themselves, often stole the Red Cross parcels for themselves, instead of properly distributing them to the POWs.  As a rule, however, the American officers were treated reasonably well—as long as they abided by the rules.  Those attempting escape were generally punished with solitary confinement, and in some cases, beatings.[xviii]


It remains somewhat of a mystery as to why none of the twelve airmen of the 96th, after being forced down, thought to destroy their valuable aircraft,[xix] rather than leaving them all to fall undamaged into enemy hands.  The best explanation lies in official written statements made after the war by the downed flyers themselves.  Many of the men stated specifically—and it might be said, more than just a little defensively—that they declined to destroy their machine because they was certain they had landed in France within Allied lines.


There is no doubt that the flyers were indeed truly lost.  One of the downed flyers, Lt. Ratterman, was even convinced he had landed in Switzerland![xx]  Only Lt. MacDonald admitted to knowing he had actually landed in Germany, but asserted that he was taken prisoner before he could destroy the machine.[xxi]  Major Harry Brown’s defense was equally lame:


Machine was not destroyed, due to fact that we had no incendiary bullets, and I considered that I was certain of capture if I delayed to set fire with a match to the carburetor….I already knew that machines of the same type as that which I was on, had already been captured by the Germans.[xxii]


Such are the highlights of the case of the unfortunate Major Harry Brown and his lost flight of 10 July 1918.  Accounts of this disaster, the German note, and Billy Mitchell’s acerbic comment appear in almost every history ever written about the U.S. Air Service in World War I—certainly understandable, given that it was the largest USAS one-mission loss of men and aircraft in the entire war.[xxiii]  It was, in fact, such an unforgivable and seemingly ridiculous blunder that it has come to represent—almost comically—just how bad things were at that point in the war for day bombing in the U.S. Air Service.



Endnotes


[i] William Mitchell, Memoirs of World War I.  (New York: Random House, 1960), 242.

[ii] Gorrell Histories, A.S. A.E.F., Volume E-14, “96th Aero Squadron (Bombardment).”

[iii] Gorrell Histories, A.S. A.E.F., Volume M-10, “Air Service Prisoners in Germany.”  Brown later estimated the wind velocity to be about 115 kilometers  (approx. 70 miles) per hour.  He also made a point of stating that, “The weather report of the day, which was handed to me five minutes before I stepped into the machine, and which I was informed was the last weather report, gave the velocity of the wind above 2,000 meters as from 20-35 kms. an hour.”  Gerald C. Thomas, Jr., in The First Team: Thornton D. Hooper and America’s First Bombing Squadrons (Dallas: The League of World War I Aviation Historians, 1992), suggests on page 84, however, that Brown simply used this as an excuse for his bad judgement, and that it was his responsibility to determine the accuracy of such data.

[iv] Conflans was actually north and slightly east of Amanty, but Brown correctly steered NW to compensate for the mild southwesterly wind that he anticipated.  Unfortunately, he did not compensate nearly enough!

[v]Gorrell Histories, Volume M-10.  All six aircraft landed within the borders of Germany, some 25-35 miles southwest of Coblenz.  Since the crews were probably using the Moselle River as a navigational landmark, most landed close to towns located near the river: Brown and MacChesney reportedly near Immerath; MacDonald and Strong close to a town listed as “Krichberg,” but which was probably Kirchberg; Mellen and Tucker in the vicinity of a town Mellen’s report referred to as “Eutkirch,” but which may have been Enkirch; Smith and Ratterman near Burg; Lewis and Tichenor at Lutzerath; and Browning and Duke just outside of Cochem.

[vi] Gorrell Histories, Volume E-14, 36.

[vii] Gorrell Histories, Volume E-14, 36.

[viii] Gorrell Histories, Volume E-14, 36.

[ix]  Mitchell, 242.

[x] Mitchell, 242.

[xi] Albert Simpson, ed.  The World War I Diary of Col. Frank P. Lahm, Air Service, A.E.F.  (Maxwell AFB AL:  Air University), 1970.

[xii] Charles Codman.  Contact.  (Boston:  Little, Brown and Company, 1938), 50.  Codman, another 96th Aero Squadron pilot who just missed being on the ill-fated mission himself, wrote that the purported German statement “was good for a laugh wherever it was told, and it was told so often that it became accepted as gospel.”  Codman, who considered Brown a “regular guy,” added, “As for the Major, well perhaps he would have done better to have directed the activities of the Squadron from an arm chair.  Most of the other Air Service Majors found it advisable.  The trouble with Brown was he liked flying,. Foolish for the Major perhaps, but just the same he was game.  Even the boys who accompanied him to Germany will tell you that.”  Codman later rejoined his lost comrades when he himself was shot down and taken prisoner.

[xiii] Gorrell Histories, Volume M-10, 181.  Major Brown estimated the landing time at 9:10 p.m. (10:10 German time).

[xiv] Codman, 194.  Codman quoted pilot 1st Lt. Robert G. Browning as stating that, “The field we picked was as nice a little field as you’ve ever seen.  There was only one thing the matter with it….It was in the wrong country.”

[xv] Gorrell Histories, Volume M-10, 274.

[xvi] Gorrell Histories, Volume M-10, 274.

[xvii] The exceptions were Lts. Browning and Lewis.  As members of the Red Cross Committee, they remained behind with 1st Lt. Charles R. Codman and Capt. James Norman Hall to monitor Red Cross supplies.  Codman relates the amusing story of their release after the Armistice in his book, Contact  (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1938).

[xviii] Gorrell Histories, Volume M-10.

[xix]The U.S. Government had paid some $10,000 apiece for the Breguets, as related by Maurer Maurer in The U.S. Air Service in World War I.  Volume 4.  (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1979), 536.

[xx] Gorrell Histories, Volume M-10, 248.

[xxi] Gorrell Histories, Volume M-10, 183.

[xxii] Gorrell Histories, Volume M-10, 34. After landing near Immerath, Germany, Brown and MacChesney were finally captured while crossing a bridge at Dillingham, on the Luxembourg border.

[xxiii] As reprehensible as this incident was, it was not unique.  Arthur Gould Lee describes on page 167 of his classic No Parachute:  A Fighter Pilot in World War I.  (New York:  Simon & Schuster, Inc., Pocket Book Edition, 1971) a remarkably similar event.  Four Camel pilots of No. 3 Squadron “…baffled by low clouds and mist, and swept by a strong westerly wind, became hopelessly lost in enemy territory, and were forced to risk a landing to discover their position.  They found they were near Namur, over 100 east of the Lines.  No German troops appeared and three of the Camels—the fourth could not be started—set out to fly a westerly course by compass.  They landed when their petrol ran out, only to find themselves prisoners.  They had flown 100 miles due south, almost to Rheims!”

 

The Uncertain Beginnings of US Day Bombing

To put into perspective this unfortunate incident, it should be noted that American day bombardment had only begun a few weeks earlier.  The 96th Aero Squadron arrived at Amanty airfield, near Gondrecourt, on 18-21 May 1918.  The squadron had formed at Kelly Field, near San Antonio, Texas, on 20 August 1917.  On 27 October, it sailed for England on the R.M.S.S. Adriatic.  Upon arrival in southern England, the unit immediately moved on to France, where it trained at the 7th Aviation Instruction Center at Clermont-Ferrand.  On 17 April 1918, Major Harry Milford Brown, a West Point graduate and trained pilot, was assigned as commanding officer of the 96th at Clermont.[i]


Major Brown began his brief tenure as commander of the 96th with ten very used French Breguet 14 B2 bombers, all powered by the 300-hp F.E.V. Renault engine.  This airplane was capable of carrying 500 pounds of bombs to an altitude of 4,000 meters in thirty-five minutes, making it a logical choice as a bomber.[ii], [iii]  All of the aircraft were in rather poor condition, having been used for the several months previous for instructional purposes.  Spare parts were not yet available, so maintaining them could only be accomplished by scavenging and through the ingenious use of farm equipment as replacement parts.  As recorded in the 96th Squadron History:


Part of a weather-beaten harvester was used for a tail post for one of the planes, wagon tires were cut up and used for tail skids, and pieces of an ox-cart tongue were employed to reinforce wing spars on several planes.  One of the planes carried brace wires which had once served on the telephone line of communications.  Plane No. 4014 was crashed in a bad field and was salvaged for spare parts.  Everyone [sic]of the remaining nine planes when put on the available list, carried some part of plane No. 4014, and thus the squadron was able to operate long before spare parts from the Supply Depot at Colombey-les-Belles were obtainable.[iv]


  The 96th Aero’s first bombing mission over the lines was conducted on the afternoon of 12 June 1918. After an extensive photo op session with dignitaries from the various Allied nations—including the commander of the British Independent Air Force in France, General Hugh Trenchard—Brown, with Howard G. Rath of Pasadena, California, as his observer, led eight planes from Amanty airdrome to the railroad yards at Dommary-Baroncourt.  Although encountering serious opposition from antiaircraft fire and enemy fighters, the 96th dropped a total of 640 kg. of bombs with visible results.  The mission was judged an “unqualified success,”[v] and U.S. day bombing had begun.


Over the next two weeks, only three more successful bombing missions could be flown—on 14, 18, and 25 June.  All were against Conflans.  On 22, 26, and 28 June, and 5 July, planned raids to Conflans and to Longuyon were aborted because of either engine trouble or weather.  In addition, numerous other days were completely unfit for flying due to the chronically inclement weather.  Squadron luck went from bad to worse on 6 July, when two members of the squadron, 1st Lt. Roger Clapp and Sgt. 1st Class Robert J. Dunn, were killed in a horrendous crash on the airfield.  While attempting to land aircraft No. 4017 following a test flight, they stalled 200 meters over the field.  The plane augured into the ground and burst into flames.[vi]  It was on the heels of this long string of bad luck that Major Brown and his men felt—perhaps understandably—so compelled to take off on 10 July, in spite of impossibly bad weather, on what was to be their flight of no return.


The damage done by Harry Brown’s failed last mission was indeed significant.  With the instant loss of twelve trained flying officers and six airworthy—albeit slightly worn—bombers, American bombardment was effectively wiped out for weeks to come.  But even more painful, the newly formed American Air Service was publicly humiliated before enemy and ally alike.[vii]


No one can deny that the disastrous flight was a bitter pill for Billy Mitchell and the U.S. Air Service to swallow, but even so, the ultimate outcome was favorable.  The Allies, after all, eventually prevailed.  And the 96th Aero Squadron—which had earned such derogatory nicknames as the “Bewilderment Squadron”[viii] and the “Original Child of Hard Luck”[ix]—managed to recover and establish a very respectable bombing record before war’s end.  And the twelve men lost on that ill-fated mission?  They were all safely repatriated after the Armistice.  There remained, in fact, only one real casualty from the 10 July fiasco, and that was the man who was most responsible for it: Major Harry Brown.


[i] Special Order No. 80 dated 17 April 1918.

[ii] Gorrell Histories, A.S. A.E.F., Volume D-1, “Tactical History of A.E.F. Air Service,” specifically, “Tactical History of Day Bombardment: From the Beginning to the St. Mihiel Offensive.”

[iii] Maurer Maurer, Volume 1, 88-89, 358.

[iv] Gorrell Histories, Volume E-14, 4.

[v] Gorrell Histories, Volume E-14, 5.

[vi] Gorrell Histories, Volume E-14, 6-7.

[vii] The Germans certainly seem to have relished this incident to the utmost.  As recorded on page 159 in Terry C. Treadwell’s America’sFirst Air War: The United States Army, Naval and Marine Air Services in the First World War. (Oceola, WI:  MBI Publishing Company, 2000), German captors joked with American POW 2nd Lt. R.A. Floyd, asking him if U.S. “…Liberty machines were going to act the same way” as Brown’s Breguets had.

[viii] Lt. Lucien H. Thayer,  America’s First Eagles:  The Official History of the U.S. Air Service, A.E.F. (1917-1918.  (San Jose, CA:  R. James Bender Publishing; Mesa AZ:  Champlin Fighter Museum Press, 1983), 139.

[ix] Thayer, 138.

 

The Infamous Major Brown

For as many times as “Major Brown” has been mentioned in relation to this disastrous mission, little else has been written about him.  This is probably because very little else was ever known.  Harry Milford Brown was born on 16 November 1890 into a Missouri railroad family.  He entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point (Cullum Number 5296) on 1 March 1910 from Junction, Missouri.[i]  A so-so student (if anyone attending West Point can be so considered), Brown, who was called “Red” and sometimes the inevitable “Buster,” graduated 91st out of his class of 107.  On 12 June 1914, he was commissioned a 2nd Lt. in the 22nd Infantry.  He served at Texas City, Texas and at Naco and Douglas, Arizona with his regiment from 14 September 1914 to 11 October 1916.  On 1 July 1916, he was promoted to 1st Lt.[ii] 


Brown apparently decided at this point in his career to enter the new and promising field of aviation.  He was accepted by the Signal Corps and assigned as a student flying officer in the Aviation School at Rockwell Field (North Island), San Diego, California.  He remained there from October 1916 until 5 August 1917.  He spent a portion of this period—while still technically a flight student—at Columbus, New Mexico, performing unspecified duties.  It is likely that he was serving in some capacity in support of General Pershing’s Punitive Expedition in pursuit of Mexican bandito Pancho Villa.


On 15 May 1917, Harry Brown was promoted to the permanent grade of Captain of the Infantry (Lineal Number 837).  Only a month later, on 16 June 1917, he became a Major, Junior Military Aviator.  On 13 August that same year, he sailed for France with the 1st Aero Squadron, arriving there on 3 September.  He left behind a young wife, whom he had met in 1916, and an infant son. 


In France, Brown served as “Chief of Heavier-Than-Air Division, Technical Section, Headquarters, Air Service, Zone of Supply” until 24 October.  He then moved to Chaumont as “Chief of Supply Section, Materiel Division, Air Service, Zone of Advance, Chaumont” until 1 Feb 1918. 


His first real flying job came on 28 January with his assignment as commander of the 12th Observation Squadron, a post he held until 1 April 1918.  After making known his preference for bombers, Brown assumed command of the 96th Aero Squadron on 17 April, where he remained until forced down behind enemy lines on 10 July.  His last promotion was to Major of Infantry, National Army on 17 June 1918 (Signal Number 2562).


Up until his last mission, Brown was without a doubt a rising star in the rapidly expanding U.S. Army Air Service.  He was a classmate of future Army Air Forces generals Carl Spaatz, Ralph Royce, and William Ord Ryan, as well as a contemporary of most other up-and-coming officers in America’s newest fighting arm.  As a consequence of his fortuitous placement and ground level timing, the career of this West Point-trained wartime squadron commander would likely have skyrocketed in the years to come…but for his one bad decision of 10 July 1918.


Instead, Brown’s military career effectively ended with his release from German captivity on 1 December 1918.  Disgraced and humiliated, there was no place for him to go.  His military record indicates he was a “casual officer” at Tours, Angers, and Bordeaux until 31 January 1919, when he finally boarded a ship for home.  He was granted a leave of absence from 21 February to 21 May 1919 for unspecified reasons, and then inexplicably, his record is a complete blank until 23 March 1920, when he formally resigned from the Army in his permanent grade of Captain of the Infantry.  This section of Harry Brown’s record is noteworthy for its emptiness.  What was this disgraced officer doing in the Army for ten months that warranted no comment in his record whatsoever?


There does not seem to be a definitive answer to this question.  Brown’s complete military record was destroyed in the 12 July 1973 fire at the National Records Personnel Center in St. Louis.[iii]  Bits and pieces of information on Brown’s military career were, however, obtained from other sources, such as documents from The U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the Official Army Register, and unit histories.


One explanation for this ten-month gap in Major Harry Brown’s military record came in the form of an offhand statement in an obscure letter located in the archives of the U.S. Air Force Museum.  This statement suggests that Brown faced official U.S. Army charges during this “lost” ten-month period in his military career, and in fact served time in a military prison. 


The idea that Brown might have been prosecuted seems unlikely, given the absence of any apparent crime he might have committed.  But the letter—dated 15 Mar 1975 from a Charles L. Bullock of Springfield, Massachusetts, to Charles G. Worman, the Chief of the Research Division at the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio—contained the mysterious “by-the-way…” rhetorical question: “Does your record show [that] Major Brown after WWI was in the military prison at Governor’s Island, often referred to as Castle Bill?”[iv]


It is unclear exactly who Bullock was, but from the context of the letter, he had apparently served with the 7th A.I.C. in France during World War I.  One thing for sure is that the military complex on Governor’s Island, located in New York Harbor, has an old Civil War military prison, named “Castle Williams”—which was probably nicknamed “Castle Bill.”  This fortress also served as a military prison during both world wars, and was known to have housed such notorious “criminals” as Walt Disney and Rocky Graziano![v]  It is therefore conceivable that Major Harry Brown may have served there too.


So, the question remains, if Harry Brown really did serve time in military prison, was it for dereliction of duty connected with his last mission?  Or was he confined for some other crime?  It is of course possible that Bullock’s assertion could be without foundation, but it is difficult to imagine any reason why he would have lied or have been so badly mistaken. 


The author was fortunate enough, while researching this article, to make contact (by a very circuitous route) with Harry Brown’s granddaughter.  Since she had barely ever known her grandfather, however, she was unaware of any official action ever taken against him by the Army.  For that matter, she had practically no knowledge at all of Harry Brown’s role in the war, other than the fact that he had been a POW.


Neither could the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General, the Army Clerk of Courts, the Center of Military History, or the National Archives find any evidence of a court martial for Major Harry Brown.[vi]  Likewise, the Air Force Historical Research Agency and The Veteran’s Administration turned up nothing.  Since something as important as a court martial record would in all likelihood still exist, it is therefore improbable that Brown did in fact suffer this indignity.


Since Major Brown’s “offense” was at worst an error in judgment, rather than a willful crime (assuming his conduct as a POW was honorable), it is possible he might have quietly undergone some sort of nonjudicial disciplinary action, that might have resulted in a period of detention or house arrest at “Castle Bill.”  Such a slap on the wrist—if this is what actually occurred—would have served the Army’s purpose of punishing one of its officers for an unacceptable wartime performance.  It would have also served to end any future career this officer might have had in the Army—yet still allow him to save some face by being able to resign at his permanent rank of Captain.  In any event, as to whether Harry Brown was ever admonished in any way for the loss of his flight on 10 Jul 1918, the jury is still out and perhaps always will be.


[i] No town named “Junction” currently exists in Missouri.  It was probably a railroad junction community near Springfield, in southwestern Missouri.

[ii] This information and much of it to follow was derived from Brown’s U.S. Military Academy Cullum File, the Official Army Register, and various other reliable sources.

[iii] As most readers are undoubtedly aware, this tragic fire destroyed the major portion of records of Army military personnel for the period of 1912 through 1959.  With tens of thousands of military careers literally sent up in smoke, it was certainly one of the worst catastrophes in the history of U.S. military history.

[iv] Charles Bullock to Charles G. Worman, 15 Mar 1975, in a letter contained in the 96th Aero Squadron file, U.S. Air Force Museum Archives.  Bullock had earlier served at Wright Field with the 44th Aero Squadron in the fall of 1917.

[v] From various sources dealing with Governor’s Island.

[vi] Interestingly, the latter agency did have a record of punitive action taken during this time period against an Army private, named Harry Brown.  It was most likely an entirely different person.

 

After the War - Living with the Past

After Brown’s resignation from the Army on 23 March 1920, it was as though he dropped off the face of the earth.[i]  One can only imagine the state of mind of a proud career soldier, after being drummed out of the Army he loved.  He apparently lost all interest in aviation, and cut all ties with both the military and his illustrious alma mater, West Point.  This is glaringly obvious from letters from his class alumni group, which were spiced with comments such as one written in 1931 that stated, “Harry ‘Red’ Brown has defied all efforts on the part of the Class of 1914 to get in touch with him.  I published our 15-year Book in 1929, and he beat every effort that I could make to locate him.”[ii]  Twenty years later, the editor of the class Thirty-five Year Book (1949) had no better success in locating Brown.  This publication contains the simple statement under Brown’s name, “…last seen near San Francisco about 1942….no report.”[iii]


Neither did Brown keep in touch with his wartime squadron or POW comrades; there is written evidence that they were still attempting as late as 1961 (unbeknownst to them, a year after his death) to locate the illusive Major Brown for a proposed reunion.[iv]  All the evidence thus points to a man whose memories were just too painful to keep alive, and who felt compelled to do everything in his power to distance himself from his failed past.  Not even his descendents are able to add much to the story.  In his later years, Harry was, according to his granddaughter, “a proud, stubborn man” who never talked about the particulars of his last flight.[v]


The few facts that have been established are as follows: His marriage in 1916 to Claudia Ezile Stout, a union which produced in March 1917 a son named Claude, ended in divorce shortly after the war.  Tragically, Claudia committed suicide in 1926, and Harry had little to do with Claude for the remainder of his life.  In his later years, Harry struggled with an alcohol problem.  These events may well reflect the pain that Harry carried with him after the war. 


Harry later remarried and had another son and a daughter.  At some point after leaving the Army, he was associated with a company in Los Angeles, dealing in oil stocks in various localities across the country.  By 1932 he had settled in San Francisco, where he remained, living in several different locations, for the rest of his life.  He worked variously as a billiard table salesman, a statistician, a U.S. Court bailiff, and finally, on the waterfront as a Ship’s Clerk for the Pacific Maritime Association.  He died on March 2, 1960, and is buried in the Golden Gate National Cemetery San Bruno, San Mateo County, California.  His marker reads simply, “Major 1 BN, 2 Inf.”  Typical of the post-war life he lived, there is no reference to his aviation background.


[i] Brown did indeed disappear from public life, but briefly re-emerged to drop one last retaliatory “bomb” on Brigadier General Billy Mitchell.  In an undated newspaper clipping—probably appearing in February 1925, when Mitchell was being considered for reappointment as Assistant Chief of the Air Service—Brown and former 96th Aero squadronmate Howard G. Rath sent a telegram to the congressional committee considering Mitchell’s reappointment.  In this telegram they offered to testify as to “Gen. Mitchell’s conduct and lack of knowledge of bombing during the late war.”  Whether or not they actually testified could not be determined, but Mitchell was not selected for reappointment.  In a matter of months, he was being court-martialed for insubordination.

[ii] Cullum File, U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

[iii] West Point Alumni’s Thirty-five Year Book, 9.

[iv]  J.J. Smith letter to the U.S. Military Academy, 10 February 1961.  Mr. Smith was writing in behalf of former members of the 96th Aero Squadron and a group of former POWs, both of whom were planning a reunion.

[v] Phone conversations between author and Mrs. Barbara Hoyt, August-September, 2002.

 

Conclusion

It seems patently unjust that Major Harry Milford Brown has been remembered only for a single bad decision made in the confusion of war.  By all accounts and by virtue of his impressive credentials, he was a highly competent and courageous officer and soldier who did his best to serve his country honorably and efficiently in time of war.  That his aggressive nature—sabotaged by a dose of bad luck shrouded in the insidious “fog of war”—led him to make a costly error in judgement, should not doom him to eternal disgrace. 

 

After all, he paid many times over for his blunder.  It cost him a highly promising military career, his reputation, and possibly also his family and his self-esteem.  It is apparent that Harry Brown remained bitter for the remainder of his life.  And as a true casualty of war, he never stopped paying for his fateful decision to take to the skies on that dreary late afternoon of 10 July 1918.  He truly cast his fate to the winds of war…and regretted it until the day he died.

 

Acknowledgements

The author wishes to acknowledge Major Bob Kasprzak, USAF (Ret), who was instrumental in helping track down the descendents of Major Harry Brown. Also of great help were the late Major Brown’s granddaughter, Mrs. Barbara Hoyt, as well as various accommodating representatives of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and its Association of Graduates, the U.S. Army Judiciary, and the National Archives.  Thanks also go to Mr. James Controvich for the vital information he was able to provide the author about Brown’s military record.

 

©2019 by Steve Ruffin's Aviation Hangar. Proudly created with Wix.com