Joseph Earl Brownlee
Joseph Earl Brownlee was born August 17, 1919 to Andrew Joseph Brownlee and Maude Evalie Brownlee. He joined two siblings, Grace (1913) & John (1915), in a small rural farm house near Nelson, Missouri. Joe also had another older sister, Nettie Louise, born in July of 1917, who was “given” to a wealthy family living in Boonville, MO. The facts regarding Nettie’s “adoption” are vague but the siblings knew of her throughout their lives. Perhaps the effects of WWI had some bearing on Nettie’s placement into another family. Joe would later be joined by three more siblings, Lucy Catherine (1921), Lilly (1924) and Bill (1925).
Joe spent his childhood living and working on the family farm. He was raised knowing the value of a dollar and a hard day’s work. As a boy he spent his free time hunting and fishing. He attended a small country school through the sixth grade which would be the end of his formal education, but life would continue to teach him many valuable lessons forming him into the man his family and friends knew and loved.
After leaving the family farm and prior to joining the Air Force, Joe had been employed as a bell hop in Kansas City, Missouri. He also worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps. Our family is unsure of his exact location, perhaps Wyoming, or the specific projects he worked on. The CCC was part of President Roosevelt’s plan during the Great Depression to provide jobs and education for millions of unemployed men while conserving the nation’s natural resources. To join, young men had to be 18 to 25 years old, unmarried, unemployed and with a family on relief. The pay was low, even for the Depression. The CCC paid $1 a day. Each young man earned about $30 each month but $25 was taken from their checks and sent to their families, leaving them only $5.
Following his time with the CCC, Joe joined the United States Airforce. He attended boot camp in Kansas City, MO and was then stationed at Ellsworth Airforce Base in Rapid City, SD. In September 1942, Joe became a part of the 1923rd Quartermaster Truck Company of the United States Armed Services. He also met and fell in love with Margaret Collins who was a taxi driver in the Rapid City area at the time. Joe and Margaret were married on December 5, 1942.
In July 1943, the 1923rd Quartermaster Truck Company was sent overseas to England. While Joe was overseas Margaret stayed with her family and she and Joe would write each other almost daily. In one of his letters to his new wife, he wrote, “My Darling sweet wife, well darling you have a happy husband tonight. I received six letters and the nice card of congratulations for our first year of happy married life and I will say honey it was and is the happiest year of my life even if we didn’t get to spend the whole year together and I am three thousand miles away from the one I belong to and love ever so much.” Their letters to each other indicated how truly hard it was for them to be apart and how much they looked forward to being together again.
On Tuesday, June 6, 1944, Joe and his unit were called into action on Omaha Beach during the Invasion of Normandy. The 1923rd unit, attached to the air corps, carried supplies and landing mats for the first air strip to be laid in France. Some of these young men were also given the job of removing the bodies of dead soldiers from the beach. Joe did not like to speak about his time on Omaha beach. When asked about D-Day, he would often just shake his head and say, “No one should ever have to witness such a thing.”
Joe returned home to Rapid City, SD in 1945. On October 16, 1946, he and Margaret were blessed with their first and only child, Marshall Joseph Brownlee. Joe soon left the Airforce, worked construction for a short period of time, and then returned to Ellsworth Airforce Base as a Civil Service employee until retirement.
Joe and Margaret lived a simple life. They enjoyed many things together, watching their son grow up; playing card games with friends; gardening; and raising and hunting with their bird dogs. Joe was also Margaret’s caretaker as she suffered from various illnesses throughout her life. Margaret passed away from Alzheimer’s disease in 1988.
After Joe’s retirement and Margaret’s passing, Joe spent his time doing the things he loved. He continued to garden until he could no longer do the work; he enjoyed poker and cribbage tournaments, fishing, and spending time with family. He was a long-standing member and volunteer of the VFW Post 1273 and the Disabled American Veterans – Chapter 3 in Rapid City.
Joe was diagnosed with dementia in 2007 and passed away on April 2, 2008. Joe left behind a legacy of toughness, perseverance, dedication and love.