Major Albert "Al" Brown




By David Hendee

A Nebraska native who was one of the nation's oldest known surviving World War II veterans has died.

Albert Brown, 105, was born and raised in Nebraska, quarterbacked the Creighton University football team, left a Council Bluffs dental practice when called to active Army duty and survived the Bataan Death March and years of captivity.

Brown suffered beatings, torture, a bayonet wound, a broken back and neck, and malaria, dengue fever, dysentery and about a dozen other tropical diseases as a Japanese prisoner during WWII.

When he returned home after the war, a doctor told him to get out and enjoy life while he still could. The doctor said Brown was unlikely to live to 50 because of the illnesses, malnutrition and physical abuse he had suffered as a prisoner of war.

Brown died Sunday in Nashville, Ill.

Born in North Platte in October 1905, Brown was a godson of William F. "Buffalo Bill'' Cody, whose Scouts Rest Ranch was near the Brown family home.

As a child, Brown would sit on Cody's lap and run a hand through the former Wild West hero's beard, Brown recalled in a 2007 World-Herald interview.

Brown's father, a Union Pacific Railroad engineer, died in a 1910 locomotive explosion. The family later moved to Council Bluffs, where Brown attended high school and lettered in football, basketball, track and baseball.

At Creighton, Brown played football and was a forward on the basketball team. He graduated from the CU dental school in the 1920s. He received a medallion during Creighton's centennial celebration in 2005.

Brown enrolled in ROTC in high school and college.
In 1937, he was ordered to report to Minneapolis' Fort Snelling within three days. He was a 32-year-old Army Reserve lieutenant and a married father of three.

In 1941, the 35-year-old Brown shipped off to the Philippines as an artillery officer. Within months, Imperial Japanese forces attacked in an assault coordinated with the Dec. 7 strike at Pearl Harbor.

Out of supplies and with no reinforcements in sight, U.S. forces and their Filipino allies in the Bataan Peninsula west of Manila surrendered after three months of fighting in 1942.
Overwhelmed with the task of transporting more than 70,000 prisoners, the Japanese forced them to march 65 miles north up the peninsula. Disease, thirst, hunger and killings marked the ordeal. As many as 10,000 died.

Brown was stabbed in his buttocks after slipping to the back of the column.

At prison camps in the Philippines, Brown recalled fights breaking out in the line to a single brass water faucet.
"Every drop in that canteen was your life,'' he told The World-Herald.

Brown secretly documented it all, using a nub of a pencil to scrawl details into a tiny tablet he concealed in the lining of his canvas bag.

By the time he died at a nursing home in southern Illinois, Brown's story was well-chronicled, by one author's account offering a road map for veterans recovering from their own wounds in many wars.

"Doc's story had as much relevance for today's wounded warriors as it did for the veterans of his own era," said Kevin Moore, co-author of the recently released "Forsaken Heroes of the Pacific War: One Man's True Story," which details Brown's experience.

"The underlying message for today's returning veterans is that there's hope, not to give in no matter how bleak the moment may seem," Moore said. "You will persevere and can find the promise of a new tomorrow, much like Doc had found."

Brown told his biographers that he survived on three daily rice balls the size of table tennis balls at the Philippine prison camp. His weight dropped to about 85 pounds from 180. He lost his eyesight for a time.

Despite the hardships, Brown focused on bright spots, including a prisoner called on to fix Japanese soldiers' radios. The prisoner managed to steal radio parts, scraping together enough components to build a functioning unit of his own.

Brown helped craft a listening tube for the device, which brought the captives news from San Francisco that the U.S. actually had won a battle the Japanese soldiers were celebrating as a naval victory.

"He had this incredible spirit to live and overcome," Moore said. "Positive thinking or whatever you call it, he survived."
Brown was among prisoners from Camp Cabanatuan packed in ships bound for camps in Japan and Japanese-occupied China. He remained a prisoner for the duration of the war.

After a two-year recovery, Brown quit dentistry, moved to California and earned a graduate degree in international relations. He rented properties to Hollywood stars Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland. He mingled with Hollywood celebrities, including Roy Rogers and John Wayne.

Brown was recognized by fellow Bataan survivors at a 2007 Washington, D.C., conference that coincided with the 65th anniversary of the forced trek.

Survivors include a son and daughter, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren. A son preceded him in death.

Brown's funeral is scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday at Pyatt Funeral Home in Pinckneyville, Ill. The burial service will be private.

Brown couldn't muster the strength to talk about his experiences until about 15 years ago, said granddaughter Susan Engelhardt of Pinckneyville.

"He's an incredible man, and he had an incredible legacy,'' she said. "He came through horrible times and came out on top, rebuilding his life. But so many of those men and women triumphed."

Source: The Omaha World-Herald, Omaha, Nebraska, Tuesday, August 16, 2011