News>Retired chaplain's life shining example of duty, faith
Retired Lt. Col. James Good Brown served as the chaplain for the 381st Bomb Group during World War II. He recently celebrated his 105th birthday. He also published a book, "The Mighty Men of the 381st: Heroes All," detailing the stories and experiences his unit had during the war. (Courtesy photo/John Supancic)
11/23/2006 - HAVERHILL, N.H. (AFPN) -- On June 23, 1943, tragedy struck the small airfield at Royal Air Force Ridgewell, England, home of the 381st Bomb Group. As ground crews armed one of the unit's many B-17 Flying Fortress bombers, 11 on-board explosives detonated, killing 23 American servicemen and one British civilian.
One man, an officer, was killed in a plane further down the flightline as he inspected his instruments. An object flew into the plane and took his head off.
It was a day, among many, retired Lt. Col. James Good Brown will never forget. At the time he was the unit's chaplain.
"I looked in disbelief over the airfield where the plane had stood. All I saw were smoldering ruins," he remembered.
Yet, those bombs had not only destroyed the B-17. The unit too was devastated, and it was times like these that it needed its chaplain the most. In his usual way, Colonel Brown brought comfort to those affected by the tragedy and instilled hope where despair brimmed close to the surface.
Though this event occurred more than 60 years ago, Colonel Brown, who is now 105, still holds to the values that made him an inspiring chaplain during this tragedy and throughout his service during World War II -- faith, compassion and peace.
Colonel Brown's journey into the chaplaincy began before he was even born. His parents, Rev. William Henry and Minnie Ella Brown, desperately wanted a son who could follow in his father's footsteps and join the ministry. On their third attempt -- his two elder siblings being girls -- James was born.
"As early as I can remember, I wanted to become a minister," Colonel Brown said. "I had no choice, really. My parents wanted me to be one, so that's what I grew up wanting to be."
So, while other kids his age would often get in trouble, young James was the model child. He said he never fought, lied, cheated or stole, and, to him, this was how it had to be.
"My parents had given me the middle name of Good," he explained. "So, I felt an obligation to live up to that name and be exactly that - good."
Upon graduating from high school, Colonel Brown attended Albright College in Reading, Pa., and earned a degree in theology. Wanting to learn more, he then applied and was accepted to Yale University in 1931, where he earned a divinity degree.
While at Yale, Colonel Brown also became the minister for a small church in Goshen, Conn., and raised three young daughters with his first wife, Marry Curry, who he met while studying at Albright. But his "search for wisdom in the hope of finding understanding" was not yet satisfied, he said, and he returned to Yale in 1936 for his doctorate degree.
"My friends would tell me, 'You can't raise a family, be a minister and go back to school,'" he said. "But I just told them that yes I could. Several years later I had my doctorate."
Then, in the late 1930s, war broke out in Europe and the United States was soon involved. Each week, Colonel Brown remembers seeing fewer and fewer young men scattered among his congregation and eventually he tired of saying goodbye to so many of them.
So, in 1943, Colonel Brown became a chaplain and was assigned to the 381st Bomb Group of the U.S. Army Air Forces.
For the next three years he would experience both the horrors of war and the resiliency of the human spirit, each of which impacted him tremendously and shaped the way he would forever approach his own life. However, it was the men he would come to know who would have the biggest impact on him.
"They had a faith and a belief in what they were doing, for which they were willing to die," Colonel Brown said. "These men felt it was their duty to defend democracy and they never thought twice about traveling across the world to do it ... even knowing that they may die in the process."
Inspired by the men, Colonel Brown felt it his duty to lead them and provide hope as best he could on the ground, because "once they were in the skies they were in God's hands," he said.
It was these times that the colonel felt the most frustrated. He remembers watching the B-17s and their crews flying off in the mornings and counting how many returned later in the day.
"We lost so many good men," he said. "All they wanted was to return home to their wives, their children, their mothers and fathers. But instead they climbed into those planes and flew into danger. And sometimes they never came back."
Tired of "being left behind on the ground," Colonel Brown asked the unit's commander if he could go on a mission. At first, the answer was a definitive no. But the colonel kept asking until the commander eventually gave in and allowed the chaplain to fly on a mission.
"The commander kept telling me that I couldn't go because I was a noncombatant and he would be breaking the rules of war if he allowed me to," the colonel recounted. "So, as far as I know, I'm the only chaplain that's ever flown on a combat mission."
Still, this one act further endeared the chaplain into the hearts of the men he served. So much so they wouldn't let him leave. Colonel Brown was the only chaplain in the 8th Air Force who served in the same unit for his entire time in the war.
"I can remember my fellow chaplains complaining they were constantly being bounced around from one unit to another," Colonel Brown said. "Not me, though. I was with the 381st all three years I served."
Colonel Brown was 41 years old when the 381st was formed. Being sometimes twice as old as the men he gave spiritual guidance to, he was more aware of the sacrifices of these young men than perhaps they were at the time they flew. Because of this, the relationship between Colonel Brown and the 381st men often resembled that of a father-son relationship.
"His apprehension when they took off, relief and joy on their return and grief when they did not was very apparent," said John Comer, a B-17 turret gunner with the 381st.
After the war, Colonel Brown returned home and completed 50 years of active service as a minister in several Connecticut churches before he retired in 1976. He also published his first book, "The Mighty Men of the 381st: Heroes All," which tells the unit's story during World War II.
"For me, it wasn't so much a book as a memorial," Colonel Brown said. "It's a testament to both the living and the dead, lest we forget."
He has written several other books since his retirement, including his autobiography, which he published at the age of 104.
These days, the colonel sits in his quiet home here, where he pores over notes, watches Larry King on television and visits with friends and family members. It's a life much different from the one he knew for three years in the midst of war over half a century ago, but he has never forgotten the men who called him "Chaplain Brown."
"I have never regretted my decision to join the war," he said. "I felt it was my duty to serve those who were serving this nation. We owe them so much ... so much more than we could ever give."
Faith has played a large role in Colonel Brown's life. Faith in his God, faith in mankind and faith that good will always prosper over evil. Now, in the twilight of his life, his one faith is that the war fought so savagely so many years ago has kept the world from warring against itself again.
"They said that World War I was the war to end all wars," the colonel said. "It wasn't. But, so far, there hasn't been another world war since [World War II]. I have to think that this fact gives those who died a certain measure of peace ... knowing that their sacrifice was not in vain, but for the betterment of this world."
12/15/2010 7:12:34 PM ET John Comer is mentioned in the article. He is the author of Combat Crew. It is an excellent book about men and air combat in Europe during some of the worst of the fighting for bomber crews. I read it at least twice a year it so good.