Joseph Earl Brownlee
On August 17th, 1919, on a small farm in Nelson, Missouri, Andrew Joseph and Maude Evalie Brownlee welcomed the birth of their newest son, Joseph Earl Brownlee. Joseph joined two siblings, his sister Grace and his brother John, who were six and four, respectively. Joe was soon joined by three more siblings, Lucy Catherine (1921), Lilly (1924), and Bill (1925). Another sister, Nettie Louise, was separated from the Brownlee’s and lived with a wealthy family in Boonville, MO. However, the details regarding the “adoption” of Nettie are vague. Still, Joe and his siblings knew of her throughout their lives. Family speculates that the First World War may have been a factor in the decision to place Nettie—born in July of 1917—with another family.
Joe spent his childhood living and working on the family farm. His family recalls that Joe 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, and he attended a small country school until he finished the sixth grade. This was the end of his formal education, but he never stopped learning. Joe received valuable lessons throughout his life, which helped to shape him into the man his family and friends knew and loved.
Before joining the United States Army Air Force, Joe had been employed as a bell hop in Kansas City, Missouri. He also worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Joe’s family is unsure of his exact location or the specific projects he worked on, but it is possible Joe was located in Wyoming during this time. The CCC was part of President Roosevelt’s plan during the Great Depression and functioned to provide jobs and education for millions of unemployed and unmarried young men, aged 18-25, while working toward conserving the nation’s natural resources. 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 Army Air Force. He attended boot camp in Kansas City, MO and was eventually stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base in Rapid City, South Dakota. In September 1942, Joe became a part of the 1923rd Quartermaster Truck Company of the United States Armed Services. During Joe’s time in Rapid City, he met and fell in love with a taxi driver named Margaret Collins. 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, Joe 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. This infamous battle resulted in thousands of casualties and remains one of the most notorious events of World War II. 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 Air Force, worked construction for a short period of time, and then returned to Ellsworth Air Force 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, Pixie and Buck. 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. Joe spent time watching his favorite sports, boxing and baseball. He enjoyed a good game of poker as well as cribbage and would often enter and win local tournaments. Throughout his life, Joe maintained his love for fishing as well as for spending time with his 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’s family describes him as “salt of the earth type man,” who spoke infrequently but with great intention. He was known to love a good chicken fried steak, as well as biscuits and gravy. 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.