High school typing classes saved Earle Browning’s life during World War II.
As a result of his typing abilities, the then-18-year-old Browning transferred units during basic training and was assigned to an administrative position with the 106th Infantry Division’s general offices. The switch spared him from the fate of many members of his original unit, who were killed or captured during the Battle of the Bulge.
“If I hadn’t been transferred, I probably wouldn’t be here today,” said Browning, 93.
His new unit, farther from the front lines of combat, had better odds of survival. But they, too, lost members, both to enemy fire and the harsh winter typical to the Ardennes region of southeast Belgium where they camped out.
A foot-and-a-half of snow covered ground that December. Fog and lack of light left Browning and his unit in total darkness, he recalled. The foxholes they dug in the rough, frozen terrain were just large enough to fit a single soldier, “almost like a coffin,” Browning recalled.
The force with which German rocket artillery fire, nicknamed “screaming Mimis,” hit the ground nearby would catapult them a full foot into the air.
The shots largely missed his unit, instead hitting the residents of a nearby town. Their screams, audible from his foxhole, broke the silence. So did the shots that rang out from nearby foxholes from soldiers whose fear induced hallucinations of Germans.
“I felt like at any time there’d be a German standing there with his gun sticking down in my foxhole just getting ready to shoot me,” he said.
His own fear prompted him to turn to prayer, the first time in his life he truly found comfort and meaning in the practice.
He was proud to have fulfilled what he viewed as his patriotic duty.
But, he added, “I wouldn’t want to do it again.”
Browning’s service opened up opportunities for his education and career otherwise unimaginable for a rural farm boy from Kemptown. Although he’d opted for trade-based studies in high school, he spent part of his basic training studying engineering at Vanderbilt University through the Army’s Specialized Training Program. Program participants were selected based on IQ tests.
“I guess I’m a little bit smart,” he admitted.
After he was discharged, Browning pursued a degree in accounting from Strayer College in D.C., paid for through the GI Bill. He went on to top-level financial positions in the federal government, first with the Army Map Service and later as budget officer for the National Cancer Institute.
It was his efforts that helped Fort Detrick secure federal funding for cancer research under the Nixon administration, transitioning the local fort from a biological warfare research base to include a National Cancer Institute facility.
Since retirement, Browning has returned to his rural roots on a 14.7-acre farm near Mount Airy, where he lives and also owns and operates a Christmas tree farm.
The labor, combined with miles clocked each morning on a stationary bicycle in his bedroom, is what has kept him active and in good health, he said.