SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - When most people hear the name Rev. Matthew Southall Brown, Savannah’s St. John Baptist Church most likely comes to mind. After all, it was one of the area’s largest churches and Brown was the dynamic pastor for nearly 35 years.
But did you know he was a real American hero? Rev. Brown helped integrate the US Army during World War II.
The year was 1941. America was at war - World War II. Although blacks had few, if any, rights in the country, that did not prevent them from being drafted.
"I have my diploma in one hand and the draft papers in the other. It seemed it looked like they were waiting on me,” Rev. Brown said.
He was a member of the quartermaster unit, where he performed support role duties including stacking gasoline, cleaning the latrines, and serving food to German prisoners.
"Anything and everything nobody else wanted to do or be in. All black soldiers were in the quartermaster,” Rev. Brown said.
When the Battle of the Bulge - the greatest American battle of the war - broke out in 1944, Brown was serving in Europe.
Gen. Dwight Eisenhower desperately needed more boots on the ground. They didn't have enough white soldiers, so he called for black soldiers to volunteer for the infantry.
Brown was among 2,221 black members of the Greatest Generation who answered the call.
"Wanting to leave the quartermaster with all that menial work, I signed up,” Rev. Brown said. “Lo and behold, I got selected. I will tell you what, I told everybody then I got scared. Why? I'm going up front. That's what you wanted. I didn't know it was going to come that quick."
Going to the infantry meant they had to give up their rank.
"They didn't want nobody black giving orders to anybody white. So, we all were bust down to buck private which is the lowest rank in the military,” Rev. Brown said.
He became one of the first black soldiers to fight in World War II.
"I fought all over the Netherlands, cross the Elbe River, the Rhine River and into Berlin,” Rev. Brown said.
He recalls fighting Hitler’s elite army on the front lines and taking down a five-man machine gun unit.
"The gentleman with the blue eyes, blonde hair, 6-feet tall saw us and he hollered a word that means black,” Rev. Brown said. “They just threw up their hands.”
One of many victories Brown won. He also earned many awards and commendations for his service including: WW II Victory Medal, American Theater Ribbon, EAMET Medal and the Good Conduct Medal.
Brown returned to the Netherlands to a hero's welcome recently as the country celebrated its 75th year of freedom. He'll never forget what one man said to him.
“That man said to me, ‘Thank you for volunteering to run Hitler and his gang out of my country,’” Rev. Brown said.
When Brown came home from the war, he proudly says he joined another army - fighting for equal rights during the Civil Rights movement. He followed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Then, a federal judge appointed him to lead an integration committee that worked to integrate schools.