Sometimes a person's life is so interesting that others comment, "They should make a movie or TV show about him." In Willard Brown's case - they did. Both.
If you ever saw the classic movies The Great Escape or Stalag 17 or the follow-up TV series Hogan's Heroes, you know a little about the life of Willard Brown.
Willard Brown was born June 11, 1915 making him the second born of a family destined to include 3 boys and 2 girls.
His early interests steered him toward a career in medicine but that changed as the state of the world changed. In 1938 he took a bicycle trip abroad and could sense that the US was going to be joining the war so he decided against medical school and chose law school instead.
Willard had been on the America First Committee (along with prominent names such as Charles Lindbergh) to keep the US out of the war in Europe. But "When the US government transferred destroyers to Great Britain (not to mention the attack on Pearl Harbor), you felt you had a duty to support the action."
He took flying lessons at Lost Nation Airport and then taught for 2 years at the Air Force Navigation School in Sacramento. He was transferred to the 8th Air Force which was involved in the early stages of the B17 Flying Fortress development.
Willard was assigned to a group formed in South Dakota where he did training before flying to England via Africa. They flew several exploratory missions and the German response was limited.
On Sunday June 13, 1943 they bombed Kiel. Willard flew the lead ship to General Nathan Deforest, grandson of the Confederate General. Willard recalls that Deforest had "significant ideas" about B17 formations - they always flew together. This B17 raid included 40 or so planes.
Somehow the Germans knew they were coming and as the lead plane Willard was attacked and shot down over the Baltic Sea. He was knocked out and then parachuted 40,000 feet landing in the Trade Channels.
He survived the air attack and parachute jump and 2 hours later a German ship picked him up. Only 1 of 200 people survived the attack as the Germans shot down over 20 planes.
Willard reports that the treatment he received by the Germans was respectful as should be accorded to an officer. He was sent down to Gulag Glut outside Frankfurt where the German Intelligence unit was and remained there for several weeks.
He did not suffer any violence by his captors. "They respected that it was my duty not to reveal any information and they also knew that it was my duty to try and escape." He was assigned to Stalag 3 in Zagon, Germany, which was run by the Luftwaffe, and assigned to the 2nd American Compound.
In the POW camp he got to know the counterpart to Roger Bushell from The Great Escape movie by talking through a fence and barbed wire. He was "a distinguished character," but "Nobody equals British arrogance" says Willard, "though we come close to it."
Both were lawyers and the two would debate in the POW camp. The Germans did not object to this. He was allowed into the British compound and then into Bushell's room for refreshments. There he met other British officers and fliers in the RAF from Poland and Czechoslovakia. All would be involved in their escape plans and activity.
Willard feels "tremendous respect for them - their dedication, resourcefulness and courage." The men attempted escape via a network of tunnels. They also needed to create the credentials, clothing and other items necessary too escape through the occupied territory once they left the POW camp. On their first attempt, 70 men got out of the compound via a big tunnel they had dug. 55 or 60 of the men were caught and shot.
Soon after, the Germans asked for officers to help them run Stalag 17, a Non-Com Officers Compound in Krembs. Willard volunteered for this position with the idea of organizing escapes to Yugoslavia via train. That plan didn't last too long since it was discussed with an American noncom who turned out to be a German undercover agent. The Stalag 17 movie was a result of this activity but they never directly interviewed Willard for his input for the movie.
Finally it was time for Willard's Great Escape. He was being transported on a train in Austria along the Danube. To heat the passenger cars the Germans had hot steam conveyed from the train engines to the passenger compartments in rubber pipes. When a pipe broke and steam came pouring out, Willard managed to break free and jumped off the train and escaped into the woods.
Willard had been prepared for the escape attempt. He quickly changed the brass buttons on his coat to bone buttons he had sewn inside his coat. He had also sewn a cap inside his shoulder pads. He turned his coat inside out, donned his cap, and posed as a civilian. He actually joined up with a group of Germans who were looking for him.
He worked his way to the river and stole a small boat. He floated down the Danube but realized he was going to need some assistance soon so he landed the boat and went into a field to ask another escaped trustee (POW) for help. But he was seen and surrounded by Germans and sent back north again to Stalag 3.
Upon arrival he was told to report to the Commandant. The Commandant had also served in World War I. Willard saluted him and though he was only a First Lieutenant the Commandant returned the salute. Willard still recalls the Commandant's words: "As one officer to another, you did your duty. But the cat was smarter than the mouse" and then he shook his hand.
Willard received what he terms "modest punishment" and was then assigned back to the barracks. He asked for permission to read some books and they got him a tome by the ancient Greeks about why men get into wars.
Meanwhile the war situation was changing. Hitler made an attempt to end the war via discussions with a Count in Sweden. Then there was another attempt through an American POW in Stalag 3. The only American General ever captured had been a Military Attaché in Berlin. He had come to England to apprise the tactics that the Air Force was employing and was shot down over France and captured.
Hitler ordered the General to go to Berlin and he brought Willard along with him as his aide. Colonel Kennedy and Colonel Spivey were also in the group. Hitler attempted, through the General, to suggest terms of surrender that would be acceptable to both the Allies and Germans. Willard was not actually involved in the discussions, but was regularly advised of what was happening.
They were presented with Hitler's conditions for surrender and several aides were released and flew back to US to inform the president. The conditions for surrender were not acceptable - it was too late - and the war ended 3 months later.
Willard was sent back to the POW camp where he escaped again. This third escape was successful and he joined up with US forces. He returned home to the US to report on what he had witnessed.
He asked the Germans how they could let someone like Hitler take over. They told him, "We never spoke up" - though they probably would have been shot if they had - "if you have problems in your country, speak up"
Fortunately for Willard and the other POWs, the Geneva Convention had been signed after WWI and the people he dealt with were "honorable people performing their duty." He says, "My Experience with 2 years with the Germans in combat and as a POW found them to be respectful. They lived by the rules of the Geneva Convention in protecting prisoners and treated me with the dignity afforded an officer."
His experiences have led to a lifelong concern of how nations get into wars. He feels that the primary cause is economics followed by cultural differences. "The pursuit of economic advantage by foreign investors is so often accompanied by a high degree of arrogance. This is apparent in the indifference to a group's culture, which is the very source of one's identity."
So how do we prevent these tragic occurrences? Education. And "Government should commit to the enhancement of the human condition. They have to find something with much higher degree of motivation then just money." As we have witnessed, monetary rewards don't hold the same value to some cultures as they do in the West.
He feels that isolation is a luxury that no longer exists because of the revolution in communications (CNN, the Internet, etc.) "Afghans and other cultures know for the first time that they are deprived."
His keen interest in education led him to develop courses for the American University of Cairo & Yale Law School in leadership and comparative cultures.
At 86, Willard is still a large and imposing man, and he still maintains the aura and commands the respect of a United States Air Force officer and gentleman. He actively studies education, the politics of war and economics. There is great demand from universities all over the world who want to learn of his philosophies so much of his time is spent traveling.
The escape days are over, but the adventure continues.
First Lieutenant Willard Brown, we salute you.