Lt. Col. Bill Brown flew KC-135 tankers in Alaska, Vietnam and Japan

This was cadet Bill Brown when he joined the Aviation Cadet Program in the U.S. Air Force in 1942 with his fleece-lined flying jacket, leather flying cap and goggles. Photo provided

Lt. Col. Bill Brown was flying a “Red Anchor” mission off the Russian Coast out of Thule, Greenland in his KC-135 refueling tanker when he got an emergency call on his radar scope.

“I was up there to save lives and not worry about anything else. I was flying around in the North Country until someone needed gas,” he said.

“On my radio the flasher came on. I looked at my radar screen and there was a dot on my screen flashing,” the 87-year-old Punta Gorda, Fla. retired tanker pilot said. “I knew that was a pilot who needed gas. I dropped from 30,000 feet to 12,000 feet in a hurry.

“A bunch of wet wing fighters were waiting for me.They had refueling holes in their wings. That’s why they called ’em ‘wet wings.’

“I turned right in front of him with my KC-137. He was 20 miles from me but moved up and hooked on right away because he was was almost out of fuel.

“I gave him 20,000 pounds of fuel. At the same time we checked his code name and that told us what base he was from. We started flying toward his base,” Brown said. “He was still in tow when I pointed out to him, ‘Your base is at 1, 20 miles away. I waited until he landed and then told him ‘Good Bye.’

“‘Thanks much,’ he replied.”

Brown was at the controls of the KC-97 tanker filling up a B-47 “Stratojet” bomber with jet fuel. At this point he was flying for the Strategic Air Command. Photo provided

“A couple of days later we flew into his fighter base up in the mountains. I went into the bar to get a bite to eat and a drink. A bunch of fighter pilots grabbed me and my crew and took us over to the bar and started buying us drinks. Finally I told them ‘That’s all. Maybe I’ll have to refuel you guys fuel tomorrow!'”

Following his tour in Alaska, Brown spent some time flying combat missions refueling planes off Vietnam between 1962-65.

“I flew out of Kadena Air Force Base in Japan with my KC-135. I was refueling fighters mainly, but we also refueled B-52 bombers. As long as they used JP-4 fuel we gave it to them,” Brown explained. “A B-52 could take 120,000 pounds of fuel at one setting. A fighter might take 20,000, 30,000 or 40,000 pounds of fuel.

“One time we were working fighters in Vietnam and we had a big basket on the end of our boom. The fighters would come up and fit their nose onto the basket to get fuel,” he said. “This one fighter came up several times and tried to hook his nose into the basket but fell off each time. Then he broke our basket off the boom.

“I had to quit refueling that day and he had to fly to his emergency base,” Brown said.

His aviation career began in 1942 after graduating from high school in Bristol, Tenn. He joined the Aviation Cadet Program. Brown ended up in San Antonio, Tex. and took Primary Flight Training at a base in Coleman, Tex.

“I started flying a PT-19, a two seat, open cockpit, biplane. That was my first plane,” Brown said. “Our landing strip was a grass field.

“From Coleman I went to Basic Pilot Training at Perrin Field in North Texas. There I flew BT-13 single-engine prop planes at Perrin. I got my pilot wings in 1944 and became an officer and a gentlemen. I was 21,” he recalled.

“As a 2nd lieutenant I ended up in Naples, Italy at the end of World War II. I was flying cargo in a C-47 ‘Gooney Bird,'” Brown said.” I spent a year as part of the occupation troops in Italy after the war.”

He came back to the States and got out of the Air Force. He worked for an insurance company as a safety engineer for several years. He decided to re-up and went back in the Air Force as a captain.

“I started to learn to fly four-engine jet tankers at Atwater Air Force Base in California. I went to Roswell, N.M. and the Air Force base there in 1961 and by then I was flying KC-135s,” Brown said.

Then he went to work for the Strategic Air Command mostly refueling B-52 bombers that were the centerpiece of the United States of America’s strategic air defense. They were on alert 24-7 to deliver hydrogen bombs any where in the world at a moments note. It was Brown’s job to keep these bombers fueled anytime of the day or night.

In 1969 he returned from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel. He had spent 26 years in the active service.

Lt. Col Bill Brown is a red, white, and blue Air Force officer rooted in a World War II background. Photo provided

Brown thought he might go into civilian aviation when he got out of the military. He signed up to fly twin engine commuter airplanes for the airlines.

“After flying a four-engine jet transport during most of my career in the Air Force I told the airlines, ‘I’d never feel safe flying a little two-engine propeller driven airplane like that,’ he said. “That was the end of my civilian aviation career.”

He returned to Tennessee and went to work for Tennessee Eastman Kodak Co. as manager of the shipping and mail department. Brown worked there until he was 70 when he retired for the last time and moved to Florida.

By that time his first wife had died of Alzheimer’s disease and he moved in with his sister who owned a home in Port Charlotte. After her death he decided to buy his own place in P.G.I. In 2007 he married Gloria. She, too, had lost her husband to Alzheimer’s.

He has one son, Gary, a civilian aviation mechanic, who lives in the Dallas, Texas area.

Brown’s File

Name: Bill Brown
D.O.B: 18 June 1923
Hometown: Bristol, Tenn.
Current: Punta Gorda, Fla.
Entered Service: 1942
Discharged: 1969
Rank: Lieutenant Colonel
Unit: Strategic Air Command
Commendations: Presidential Unit Citation and 2 Air Medals
Battles/Campaigns: World War II, Vietnam

This story was first printed in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Thursday, May 19, 2011 and is republished with permission.

Click here to view Brown’s Collection in the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project.

Click here to view the War Tales Facebook fan page.


  1. I found a very old leather aviator cap that looks just like the one he was wearing. It is not in very good condition and rather small. Does anyone know anything about these?

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