Thomas C. Brown, 94
Residence: West Seneca
War zone: Europe
Years of service: 1943-46
Rank: Staff sergeant
Most prominent honors: European- African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal
Specialty: Motor pool supervisor
By Lou Michel
News Staff Reporter
Long before the Freedom Riders of the civil rights movement started boarding buses to head South and make a stand against racism, Thomas C. Brown and a group of fellow black soldiers at Fort Dix, N.J., stood up against bus drivers who denied them transportation during World War II because of the color of their skin.
In the months before the all-black outfit headed to Europe, where its members would be putting their lives on the line to defend America, Brown recalled how the public buses transporting Fort Dix soldiers into town on their days off were always filled to capacity with white soldiers.
It hadn’t taken long to realize the buses leaving the base were intentionally following a route that went to the barracks of white soldiers first and, at the last stop, left no room for the blacks.
“When we had time off, we wanted to go into town, and we couldn’t get to town because there was no transportation,” Brown says. “By the time public buses went around the base, they were loaded and there was no space for us.”
He and his fellow African-American soldiers would not stand for the unequal treatment.
“One morning, we stopped a bus as it was entering the base, and we chased off the five passengers and turned the bus on its side,” he says. “We sat on top of it and shot off our guns a couple times to let them know we weren’t kidding. Someone called in a preacher who was black, and we explained what was happening, and he spoke with the base commander.
“About 4 hours later, we got transportation and we turned the bus back over on its wheels.”
So in the midst of a war against Germany and Japan, this group of black soldiers first had to win a stateside battle against discrimination.
When it came to transportation, Brown was already something of an expert, long before the military.
After leaving vocational school on Eagle Street in the late 1930s, he found work at the Buffalo Courier-Express, loading bundles of newspapers onto a truck whose driver delivered the morning paper to East Side stores and newsstands.
Brown rode along as what was known as a “hopper,” hopping out at each stop to deliver the bundles. The pay was $7 a week, and with the nation still reeling from the Great Depression, he says, it was good money.
“The driver picked me up at my house at Sycamore and Spruce streets every night and would drop me off back home in the early morning,” Brown says. “I didn’t have a driver’s license at first, and he taught me how to drive. When I got my license, I drove the truck by myself and delivered the papers. There must have been about 700 papers on my truck.”
His work at the Courier went on for several years, the 94-year-old West Seneca resident recalls, until “Uncle Sam came along with a draft notice.”
“When the Army found out I could drive, they put me in with the engineers, and I drove a pickup truck,” he says. “Three months later, they made me a sergeant and shipped me to Fort Dix, where I trained other African-Americans and three white officers on how to drive dump trucks. It was a learning period. We were all fresh off the streets, even the officers.”
About 12 months after the black soldiers had ended the discrimination of bus rides into town, Brown and his company were shipped overseas, starting first in North Africa, then over to Italy and, at the end of the war, France.
“I was in charge of the motor pool,” he says. “I had 54 dump trucks, and when one of them broke down, I would go out and service it.”
This may sound like a reasonably safe job in a war zone, but Brown will tell you differently, especially when he pulled double duty, delivering ammunition to the front lines. German planes prowled the skies looking to knock out supply lines.
“One time in Italy, I was driving a weapons carrier on my way with another sergeant to pick up a load of ammunition,” Brown remembers. “The other sergeant said to me, ‘Look at that.’ I looked up and saw a German plane coming right at us. I hit the brakes, and we jumped out just in time. We hit the ground, and the truck went up in the air after it was hit by a bomb. The truck was destroyed.”
To this day, Brown says he remains grateful that the truck was empty.
“If we had gotten the load of ammunition, I wouldn’t be here,” says. “We wouldn’t have had a chance. We were pretty shaken up that morning.”
By the afternoon of that same day, he was assigned another truck, and the work of war continued.
His happiest moment occurred when he and his older brother, Harry, also a sergeant, had an unexpected reunion in Italy.
“It was a Sunday morning, and we had a religious service,” Thomas Brown recalls, “and the preacher mentioned the name of another all-black outfit that was in charge of an ammunition depot, and I said that was my brother Harry’s outfit. I knew his outfit, but I didn’t realize it was just ahead of ours.
“The preacher didn’t have any transportation, so I drove him to that outfit so he could conduct a service, and I saw my brother was in the office there. I was sitting in the truck, and he came out, but he couldn’t see my face. I was about 15 yards away. I started talking loud and really nasty and he shouted, ‘Who the hell is that talking?’
“I turned around to face him, and I said, ‘Hey, Sgt. Brown.’ He caught my voice and said, ‘Oh, my kid brother.’ I got out and we shook hands and hugged. I settled down, and he settled down, and we went to the service. It was held right out in the open. We were together about an hour.”
Both brothers made it home safely from the war, and Thomas Brown found work at the Chevrolet plant in the Town of Tonawanda for eight years. He later drove his own taxi on and off for the next 45 years, providing him with cash to open up a string of businesses on the East Side.
They included gasoline stations and automotive repair shops and four taverns. But age, he said, eventually caught up with him, and he retired.
“I made a bundle of money and spent a bundle of money,” Brown says.
But it is his war memories these days that he often thinks about, frequently sharing them with his brother-in-law, World War II veteran Archie Galloway, who until recently lived at the same West Seneca apartment complex as Brown.
“After the fighting was over in Europe, I started visiting the towns in Italy and France,” Brown says. “Because I was a sergeant and worked in a motor pool, no one questioned me when I’d get in a truck. I’d go out most of the time by myself. I’d make friends wherever I went. I had a girlfriend in every town.”