Carmel senior profile: WWII pilot now has a different fight
I was helping her
As I often do, I told her,
“I love you.”
Looking me in the eye,
with a slight smile,
— Howard Brunn
By Dennis Taylor [email protected] @mchdennistaylor on Twitter
CARMEL >> The love of his life, his wife Courtney, began sinking into the abyss of Alzheimer’s disease about five years ago, a tragedy Howard Brunn shares in intimate and often-painful poetry in an autobiographical book, “Flaps Up!”
He first saw her almost six decades ago at Kip’s Market, at Ocean Avenue and San Carlos Street. She was a blonde beauty, divorced, like Howard himself, and he knew immediately he needed to meet her. They were married less than a year later, on Dec. 31, 1958, and he remains smitten today, even though Courtney no longer knows who he is.
“This disease … every person is a little different, but all the same things happen, one way or the other,” says the 92-year-old Brunn, who visits her every day at Carmel Villa, an assisted-living facility in Carmel Valley. “There will be combativeness. I lost Courtney three times when she could still walk because people are going to wander. And, of course, the memory begins to go at all levels.”
A Personal History
Friday is officially “Howard Brunn Day” in Carmel, honoring the man who served on the City Council from 1978-82. Brunn was also a successful business man, opening 13 different businesses, mostly men’s apparel shops, through the years. During World War II he was decorated for his service flying bombers in Italy.
Howard Brunn Levinson was the middle of three sons born to Louis and Helen Levinson, who moved to Carmel from San Francisco when he was a toddler.
He was part of Carmel High’s second graduating class in 1942, and, with World War II in progress, he enlisted in the Army as an aviation cadet. “I wasn’t patriotic,” he muses today. “I wanted to fly an airplane.”
He became a B-25 aircraft commander with his own crew, deployed to Corsica with the 57th Bomb Wing (a unit that included “Catch-22” author Joseph Heller), flying missions over the Brenner Pass.
“The Battle of the Brenner never got much publicity, but it was one of the worst battles of World War II for losses. We lost 860 guys there,” Brunn says. “The Germans wanted to get everything out of Italy, back to Germany, and Brenner Pass was the only route, so we had to keep it closed. They called us ‘the Bridge Busters’ because we could hit those little bridges. And we did, but we suffered huge losses.”
Brunn remembers first arriving at Corsica, watching planes returning, nine abreast, from a difficult mission.
“It was always very dramatic when planes were returning from a mission. We were watching them send up flares … there were ambulances going out … and we were all thinking, ‘So, this is what we’re going to be doing tomorrow or the next day … this is fine!’ ” he recounts. “Then a plane came by us with its whole back end blown off, and we realized that’s where the tail gunner had been.”
Brunn flew 70 combat missions, and says his aircraft was hit by flak in most of them, but he landed in one piece every time. There is no discounting the role of sheer luck in his survival, he says.
“When you see the guy right next to you being blown out of the sky … I mean, how close can you get? There’s a lot of luck,” he said.
He was decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with 11 oak leaf clusters, the European Theater Ribbon with four battle stars, and two Presidential Unit Citations, then sent home on a 30-day leave.
He was happy to return to Carmel and visit his family, but says he spent most of his time drinking heavily, feeling like he had nobody to talk to.
“If I heard a car backfire, I’d dive into the nearest ditch,” he says. Everyone who understood what he’d been through was still overseas, and he couldn’t wait to get back to military life, even though he’d earned enough points to be discharged.
When he finally did leave the service, he was sent home on a ship with 5,000 other GIs. The war ended while they were en route.
“We landed at Camp Myles Standish in Boston, the very first troops to get home, and were told, ‘OK, there’s a huge party in town, but you guys can’t go. It’s going to be a big mess,’ ” he remembers. “Well, of course, we found a hole in the fence about 50 feet wide and went anyway, all dressed up in our uniforms. We ended up at a place called the Fox & Hound Club, and I don’t remember much else, except that it was a wonderful evening.”
Brunn used his GI Bill after the war to attend three schools, including Geller Theater Workshop. His intent was to become an actor, but realized his best shot at success was to move to New York, and the beaches of Malibu and Santa Monica were too much fun.
While in Southern California, he met his first wife, Margaret Hatfield, whom he married in 1946. They moved back to Carmel and had two children. The marriage ended after eight years, and Brunn’s meeting with Courtney at Kip’s occurred three years later, in 1957.
Brunn became active in local politics, and, as mayor pro-tem, became the city’s acting mayor for two years, after Mayor Gunnar Norberg suffered a heart attack.
Courtney was a business stalwart in her own right, first as a working partner in a women’s apparel shop they co-owned, then as an accomplished interior designer. In 1975, she was featured in a six-page spread in Architectural Digest for designing the interior of the Ventana Inn in Big Sur.
Brunn turned down offers to fly for United Airlines after the war, and says he went years without flying (he still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder) until a friend took him for a ride in a twin-engine Cessna and gave him the stick.
“I was about 45 or 50 by then. I started flying that plane and thought, ‘My god, this is wonderful!’ ” he says. “After that, a group of us local guys bought a plane together and flew it to Mexico every year.”
He says he has traveled infrequently since Courtney became ill, an aspect of life he misses, but remains committed to caring for his wife to the end.
“I have a good life,” he said. “I get together with a lot of really great friends — mostly men, but some pretty wonderful women, too. And I’m pretty darned healthy for a guy my age. I’ve been very fortunate that way.”
Brunn’s book, “Flaps Up!”, is exclusively available at Carmel Bay Co., Lincoln Street and Ocean Avenue, for a $20 donation. Proceeds will be donated to the Alzheimer’s Association.
Dennis Taylor can be reached at 726-4371.