Major Fletcher Locke Brown, Jr.

Insignia of VMSB-232, the Red Devils.
Insignia of VMSB-232, the Red Devils.

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Service Number: O-005613

Birth and Early Life:
Fletcher Locke Brown was born around the year 1915 to Maude and Dr. Fletcher Brown Senior of Smithville Township, North Carolina. The family moved to Jacksonville, Florida in the 1920s, and the younger Fletcher eventually attended college at the University of Florida in Gainsville.

Enlistment and Boot Camp:
After completing his education, Brown accepted a commission in the United States Marine Corps. He was appointed a Second Lieutenant on July 19, 1937, and reported for duty at the Basic School at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. He remained under instruction until June 1938 when, having been deemed fit for sea duty, he reported to the Marine detachment of the USS Pensacola, then at harbor in Seattle.

Service Prior to 1941:
To be stationed aboard a warship, even in the cold waters of the Pacific Northwest, was a coveted position for any career Marine, and Lieutenant Brown kept his position as second-in-command for a full year before being ordered to report to Washington, D.C. From there, he went to engineering school at Fort Belvoir – where he had the unusual distinction of being the only Marine in attendance. Military protocol being what it was, Brown was required to submit a monthly muster roll, noting himself as present and signing it as the senior officer.

The entire roster of the USMC at Fort Belvoir's engineering school, September 1939.
The entire roster of the USMC at Fort Belvoir’s engineering school, September 1939.

This was a far less glamorous post than a seagoing Marine, but Lieutenant Brown stuck out his assignment gamely until securing an escape to Pensacola – not his former cruiser, but to the Naval Air Station which he joined as a detachment officer in February, 1940. He was soon accepted for flight training; a promotion to First Lieutenant followed in July, and by December Fletcher Brown was a full-fledged pilot with Marine Bombing Squadron Two in San Diego.

Brown’s year hadn’t been spent entirely in training – he took a leave in July to travel back to Seattle, where he married Elynor Forster at the officer’s quarters of the nearby Naval Air Station.

Wartime Service:
Lieutenant Brown’s squadron was moved to Hawaii in early 1941, and took up residence at MCAS Ewa on Oahu. That July the squadron – the first to be equipped with then-modern Douglas SBD dive-bombers – was re-designated as VMSB-232, the Red Devils. They trained in Hawaii for the remainder of the year, an easy existence despite growing international tensions and the loss of two of their senior enlisted men – Staff Sergeant Boyd McMahon and Technical Sergeant Loren Yentoch – in a crash at sea on September 3.

Then came Pearl Harbor. The Red Devils lost one man killed and nine planes destroyed in the attack; a detachment of 25 sent to defend Wake Island were killed or captured within weeks. Brown found himself temporarily whisked away from his squadron to serve with the headquarters of the next organization up, MAG-21; upon his return he was promoted to Captain, and briefly served with Benjamin Norris before the latter’s transfer to Midway. Brown became the squadron’s executive officer shortly before the bombers left Hawaii for combat.

The Red Devils landed on Guadalcanal’s Henderson Field on August 20, 1942. They were met with great enthusiasm by the Marines already ashore; until then, there had been no American bomber force based on the island. VMSB-232 became the first Marine dive-bomber squadron to fly against the Japanese in the South Pacific; days consisted of searching for targets, scrambling to clear the field when the enemy attacked, and endless briefings, while nights meant snatching sleep when one could and worrying about flying in the morning.

Brown received a promotion to Major shortly after landing on Guadalcanal, and participated in most of the squadron’s strikes as a group or flight leader. On August 28, he led a group of eleven bombers to attack enemy shipping off Ramos Island and managed to hit three destroyers – the Asagiri, the Yugiriand the Shirakumo in a satisfying response to IJN shelling of the previous nights, though Lieutenant Oliver Mitchell and his gunner, PFC Frank Schackman, disappeared over the fleet. (1) In a second attack against enemy shipping two nights later, Brown not only located his target in the dark but continued making passes over the area until his ammunition ran out.

Date Of Loss:
On the morning of September 6, 1942, squadron planners decided to go after shipping and shore installations at Gizo Harbor. The aggressive Major Brown was picked to lead a section of the attack, which took off at 1050 in hopes of striking their target before a reported storm settled in over the island. Brown and his gunner, Corporal Robert S. Russell climbed into SBD-3 03356, completed their pre-flight checks, and took off on a bearing for Gizo.

The Americans hit their target, though with “undetermined” results, and turned for home, racing against the weather. A thunderhead caught up with them off the coast of Guadalcanal, breaking up the formation and scattering the planes as each tried to get back to base on its own.

Two dive bombers were forced down in the storm; one of them, seen spiraling out of control towards the sea, was that flown by Major Fletcher Brown. Neither he nor Corporal Russell were ever seen again; they were declared dead on September 7, 1943.

Brown was awarded a posthumous Navy Cross for his service with the Red Devils:

The President of the United States of America takes pride in presenting the Navy Cross (Posthumously) to Major Fletcher L. Brown, Jr. (MCSN: 0-5613), United States Marine Corps, for extraordinary heroism and distinguished service in the line of his profession while serving as a Pilot in Marine Scout-Bombing Squadron TWO HUNDRED THIRTY-TWO (VMSB-232), Marine Air Group TWENTY-THREE (MAG-23), FIRST Marine Aircraft Wing, in action against enemy Japanese forces in Solomons Islands Area on 28 and 30 August 1942, and on 6 September 1942. On 28 August Major Brown led a section of scout bombers in a courageous attack which resulted in the destruction of three hostile destroyers north of Romos Island. On the night of 30 August, despite poor visibility, he located an enemy naval force attempting to land troops and supplies at Tasimboko. Pressing home vigorous attacks in the face of tremendous anti-aircraft fire, he scored several near misses, then dove his plane to a perilously low altitude and strafed the Japanese vessels until his ammunition was exhausted. His bold determination and fearless aggressiveness compelled the enemy to retire before an appreciable number of troops or amount of equipment could be disembarked. On 6 September, as leader of one division of a striking group, Major Brown raided hostile shore installations on Gizo Island, but failed to return from this mission. He gallantly gave his life for his country.

Several years after Fletcher Brown’s loss, the wreckage of an unidentified plane was found washed up on a Guadalcanal beach. Two sets of remains were found and buried in the island’s cemetery. An extensive appraisal of serial numbers was made, but the one most telling was the number 21, painted in white on the fuselage. SBD-3 03356 – the one flown by Brown and Russell on the day they disappeared – had carried this number with VMSB-232. However, not enough evidence could be found to conclusively link the remains with a name, and both were permanently labeled as unknowns.

Today, Fletcher Brown’s remains may rest in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, Section Q, Grave 493.

Read the report of Unknown X-182.

Next Of Kin:
Wife, Mrs. Fletcher Brown Junior

Status Of Remains:
Unknown

Memorial:
Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, Philippines.
_____
NOTES:
(1) Although the official report of the action stated that three destroyers had been sunk, only the Asagiri foundered. The other two destroyers were badly damaged and placed out of action for months.

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