Robert Joseph Brown
|HOME OF RECORD
216 East Jefferson Street, Havana, IL
|NEXT OF KIN
Father, Mr. Harold G. Brown
|DATE OF BIRTH
January 21, 1921
August 20, 1940
|DATE OF LOSS
January 16, 1942
|CAMPAIGN / AREA
Killed In Action
|CIRCUMSTANCES OF LOSS
PFC Robert Brown was killed in action on 16 January 1942, while volunteering with a Philippine Scout detachment operating near the Abucay Line on the Bataan Peninsula.
Distinguished Service Cross, Purple Heart
|LAST KNOWN RANK
Private First Class
|STATUS OF REMAINS
“Buried US Army Cemetery #1, Plot #7, Limay, Bataan, PI.”
Manila American Cemetery
All personal photographs courtesy of Andrew Brown.
Robert Joseph Brown was born on 26 January 1921. He grew up in a house on East Jefferson Street in Havana, Illinois, with his older sister, Helen, and parents Harold and Bernice. Tragedy stuck the family when Bernice died in 1938; Harold rapidly remarried to Marie Sansone of Terre Haute, Indiana.
By the summer of 1940, “Bobby Joe” had lived in Havana seventeen of his nineteen years. He had two years of high school under his belt, but may have been lacking in job prospects, as the 1940 census records no occupation for him. Whatever his reasons may have been, Brown headed west until he reached Los Angeles. After about four weeks, he found his calling.
On 15 September, Constable Harold Brown received a telegram from California. Bobby Joe wanted to be a Marine – and the Marines had to be sure they wanted Bobby Joe. A similar telegram went to Harold’s boss, the Havana Chief of Police. Both men attested that the younger Brown was of good character, with no criminal record, and was unmarried. With approval secured, Brown was free to enlist, and entered the service on 17 September 1940.
The very same day, Private Brown was sent to the Third Recruit Battalion at MCRD San Diego. There, under the watchful eyes of two seasoned platoon sergeants and a corporal, Brown’s 112th Platoon learned to be Marines.
Brown completed boot camp on November 9, and for his first assignment was assigned to Company M, Third Battalion, 6th Marines. He kept up his training with this company, even qualifying as a “swimmer, second class” shortly after his arrival. As one of the more junior members of the regiment, he spent a month on mess duty, receiving an “excellent” rating.
The confidence of his officers, plus Brown’s military bearing, may have played a role in his reassignment to one of the most coveted assignments in the Corps – sea duty aboard a United States warship. And not just any warship, but the cruiser USS Houston, flagship of the American Asiatic Fleet and the personal favorite of President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself. Brown was aboard the “Huey Maru” for several months, receiving high marks from his superiors, until new orders placed him on land once again. This time, he would be with Company B, First Separate Marine Battalion, at Cavite in the Philippine Islands. Brown arrived at this new station on September 16, 1941.
In peacetime, a station at Cavite was considered very good duty indeed. The locals were friendly, liberties were plentiful, and a Marine private’s pay could go a long way. However, only the most optimistic or naive servicemen ignored the rumblings coming from Japan. As the year came to a close, the First Separate Battalion was organized into a more defensive posture; their main duty was the manning of antiaircraft batteries around the yard, though when needed they could deploy as infantry. In November, their communications specialists received three radar sets, whose existence would be kept a closely guarded secret.
The arrival of the Fourth Regiment (the China Marines) in late November and early December was the final warning that something was about to happen.
The war began for Bobby Joe Brown on 10 December 1941. Japanese bombers struck the Philippines, dropping tons of bombs on Cavite Navy Yard and causing much destruction and mayhem. The death of PFC Thomas Wetherington brought the truth of war home to the members of the First Separate Battalion, and there was a scramble to assign troops to vital important locations. Bobby Joe was transferred to the battalion’s HQ company on December 16. Shortly thereafter, he was one of a handful of Marines detailed to become a “mobile air warning radar unit” protecting the important radar sets.(1)
Few of the men thus detailed had any idea how to operate the delicate equipment; most acted as armed guards as the detachment moved stealthily from location to location to avoid Japanese patrols and scout planes. Marine Gunner John T. Brainard, the commander, did his best to keep his men and their vital equipment safe; as attacks continued, they became the guardians of the only operational long-range radar set in the Philippines, an SCR-270. (2)
Conditions with the air warning team – dubbed “Radio Bataan” – soon became significantly less than desirable. On top of the work put in moving the setup around the Bataan peninsula and defending against Japanese attacks, rations were severely curtailed. After evacuating their equipment on Christmas Eve, Brainard’s men found they had been abandoned not only by the defenders of Cavite, but by their supply trucks; Christmas dinner consisted of “hardtack, cheese spread, and Ovaltine.” With supplies already becoming problematic, the Navy department decided that it could not provide rations or anything else to units that were “detached” – effectively orphaning the Marines of the radar detachment. (3)
Bobby Joe commemorated New Year’s Eve with the news that he had been promoted to Private First Class.
Out of contact with Marine headquarters, unable to get supplies from the Navy, and with only grudging support from nearby Army quartermasters, the men of the Mobile Air Warning Unit were left to their own devices. Brainard first allowed, and then encouraged his men to forage for needed supplies. Marines “reconnoitered” up and down Bataan for food, fuel, and other necessities. Scouting expeditions were arranged so the Marines could get to the front lines, but none were able to see any action.
One day in January, one of the patrols searching for supplies came upon a foreign freighter that had been disabled. Upon investigation, an ample supply of alcohol was found and summarily “requisitioned” for use by the Marine Corps. The event became known as “The Great Liquor Coup” and added to the growing reputation of the “Rogues of Bataan.”(4)
Those Marines who were anxious to get into the fight would not have long to wait. Not long after the liquor raid, a Dodge command car pulled into the camp. Corporal Ted Williams, one of the “Rogues,” recognized the officer inside.
The short, heavyset man who climbed out of the car was already fast becoming a legend. He was the same man we had met at the airstrip. Captain Arthur Wermuth was known as “The One Man Army”. The Japanese called him the “Ghost of Bataan.”
He resembled the true Pancho Villa, not a ludicrous movie version but the real thing. Of course he wore no large sombrero nor was he draped with a serape. He was robed in a cross between an American Army and Philippine Scout uniform. He clutched a Thompson submachine gun in his hand and bandoleers crossed his chest. He also had a .45 pistol at his waist.
After introducing him to our C.O. I withdrew to check our power van where the LE ROI was giving me some trouble. Gunner [Brainard] invited Captain Wermuth to share in a drink with him and I can only surmise what transpired. At any rate, about an hour later, Brainard assembled the men and introduced the Captain. The conversion went something like this.
“Men, this is Captain Wermuth of the Philippine scouts. He is here in hopes of acquiring a few volunteers to help him rout a group of Japanese infiltrates who are hiding in a cane field this side of the front lines. No technician will be spared but any others may help him if they so desire. Are there any volunteers?”(5)
Several volunteers stepped forward immediately and were whisked away, returning that night glowing with excitement at their successful fight, and the idea of joining the Scouts caught on. A few days later, some of the perpetrators of the Great Liquor Coup put their heads together and decided they wanted to get in on the action. After obtaining Brainard’s permission, “they took off for the MLR and Captain Wermouth’s outfit,” wrote Williams. “This time they were more military and the group included Sergeant [Charles] Eckstein, Corporal [Reinhold] Aschenbrenner, PFC Archie Shelton and Privates [Earl] Gould and [Bobby Joe] Brown. [A sixth Marine, Private Richard J. Watson, was also present – ed.] They had been tippling a bit of the illicit ‘sauce’ and left in a jovial mood.”(6)
Wermuth had a job for the gung-ho Marines. The Japanese were putting heavy pressure on the main line of resistance – the Abucay Line – and recent fighting revealed a major weak point in the defenses. Japanese snipers and infiltrators were sneaking through a seemingly impenetrable cane field and causing havoc behind the lines. When armor and aircraft declined to burn the field, Wermuth decided to do it himself.
“It was night by the time we arrived and we soon found that the Japanese had penetrated our defense through a cane field,” Aschenbrenner recalled after the war. “Wermuth requested that we go with him into this field and set off an incendiary bomb to ignite the cane. It was his hope that the conflagration would drive the enemy into the open. We all agreed to go. It was excitement, for we hadn’t seen any action yet.”(7) Wermuth issued small phosphorus bombs and detailed the Marines to burn down a nearby building that held a Japanese outpost.
The brief fight that followed was little more than a skirmish in the great battle of Bataan, but was remembered and retold in a number of ways. Depending on the accounts, the Marines either acted alone or were supported by up to thirty of Wermuth’s scouts. The attack took place under cover of night, or after daybreak on 16 January. The field was either burned, or abandoned when the raiding force was discovered. Few primary sources of the event survive, but Marine muster rolls and unit diaries indicate that three of the volunteers became casualties. The belligerent Sergeant Eckstein and the (apparently unmemorable) Private Watson were both wounded in action; Private Robert J. Brown lost his life.
When writing his memoir Rogues of Bataan, Marine veteran Ted Williams contacted his former comrade Reinholdt Aschenbrenner for details of the second Wermuth raid. As Aschenbrenner remembered:
We started toward a small rise on our left flank, then took an irrigation ditch up to the cane field. We never made it. The Japanese had already penetrated and were behind us. They opened up with a heavy machine gun which killed Brown instantly. Eckstein was badly hit by smaller arms fire.
Captain Wermuth signaled a retreat to the protection of our mortars. They did us little good as only one out of every three or four exploded. Shelton, Gould and I half dragged the wounded Eckstein to the safety of a berm. We unlimbered a considerable number of hand grenades and thirty-caliber ammunition, assisted by the sporadic mortar fire. This drove the intruders back.
Later that morning, Shelton and I bellied up to Brown’s body and dragged him out to where we could carry to the Captain’s command car. Eckstein was sent by ambulance to the hospital at little Baguio.(8)
Aschenbrenner’s matter-of-fact retelling ran in contrast to the more official story, which portrayed Bobby Joe Brown in a much more heroic light. Seeing one of his comrades – either Eckstein or Watson – wounded and immobilized, Brown pitched a grenade at the marauding machine gun, then opened up with his rifle. In doing so, he exposed himself to Japanese fire, and was shot down in turn.
This very different account of events is backed up by one compelling piece of evidence: a medal citation. For his actions at Abacuay, Private Robert Joseph Brown was recommended for the Distinguished Service Cross – the Army equivalent of the Navy Cross, and superseded only by the Medal of Honor. This honor was not just remarkable, but unprecedented at the time. Thirty-one Marines would eventually earn the DSC during World War II, but Brown was the first – and the only one so decorated for actions in the defense of the Philippines.(9)
The President of the United States takes pride in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross (Posthumously) to Robert Joseph Brown (296184), Private First Class, U.S. Marine Corps, for extraordinary heroism while serving with Headquarters Company, Third Battalion, Fourth Marines, SIXTH Marine Division, in action in the vicinity of Abucay, Bataan, Philippine Islands, on 15 January 1942. While on legal leave from his proper unit, Private First Class Brown voluntarily joined a detail from the 57th Infantry which was charged with the mission of destroying an enemy position through which snipers were infiltrating into our lines. During the performance of this mission this intrepid soldier, observing that one of his companions had been severely wounded, and was unable to move, proceeded without orders in the face of enemy machine gun fire at close range in an effort to evacuate the casualty. Silencing a hostile gun by a well-placed hand grenade, and inflicting several additional casualties on another enemy group which prevented his reaching the vicinity of the wounded man, Private First Class Brown had thereby disclosed his position to the enemy and was mortally wounded by the ensuing enemy fire.(10)
Captain Wermuth – the only Army officer present – must have had a hand in Brown’s recommendation. Since the war, the reputation of the “One Man Army” has been called into question; while his personality was certainly larger than life, some of his contemporaries regarded him as a glory hound. However, during the battle of Bataan, his recommendation carried a great deal of weight. The citation for Private Brown’s decoration was submitted on 5 April 1942, just four days before Bataan fell, and was approved after just five weeks.
However it happened, the end result of the patrol was the same: three Marine casualties and a hasty withdrawal from the cane field. The closest surgeons were at General Hospital #1 in Limay, more than fifteen miles to the south. The hospital’s resources were being pushed to the limit by recent attacks along the Abucay Line, and plans were already in motion to move the facility farther from the front, but the overworked doctors and nurses treated every patient who came through their wards. Sergeant Eckstein and Private Watson were two of 187 surgical cases treated at Hospital #1 on 16 January alone.(11) Both men were transferred to the new hospital at Little Baguio; Eckstein returned to duty on 23 January and was eventually captured on Corregidor, while Watson remained hospitalized and surrendered on Bataan. Both men would ultimately survive their ordeals as prisoners of war.
Robert Brown may have been killed outright at the cane field, or possibly survived long enough to be evacuated to Limay. (Accounts differ, of course: Aschenbrenner claimed Brown died instantly, while other primary sources suggest he died of his wounds after some time elapsed.) His body was buried in a cemetery near the hospital, in Plot #7.
Other records offer an alternate location: “KP 148, Mariveles Road.” This probably indicates the location of the hospital (Kilometer Post 148) and not some vague location out in the boondocks. The hospital was described as “well laid out just east of the barrio of Limay on a sandy level area bounded on the east by Manila Bay, on the west by the main highway to Manila, on the north by the Limay River and on the south by a large farm.”(12) Less than a week after Brown was buried, Hospital #1 was evacuated and abandoned. The fate of the facility under Japanese occupation is difficult to trace. Cemeteries elsewhere in the Philippines are known to have been mistreated or destroyed by the conquering army; Filipino citizens often tried to maintain or repair such burial grounds, but could face harsh reprisals – even death – if caught. The exact site of Cemetery #1, who was buried there, and what became of their remains is the subject of debate more than 75 years later.
The diagram above right is believed to depict Hospital #1 and the cemetery where Private Brown was buried. The building labels closely match those described in The Official History of General Hospital Number One, USAFFE, At Camp Limay, Bataan. Note the circles indicating where bombs fell in the area, including three close by the cemetery.
When word of the abortive Abucay attempt reached Marine headquarters, the officers in charge decided it was time to rein in Radio Bataan. First Lieutenant Lester A. Schade was sent to take over from Brainard; the gunner’s expertise kept him at his post, and foraging was curtailed until supplies ran out again.(13) Military justice caught up with the perpetrators of the Great Liquor Coup – reportedly in the form of an angry MP officer who felt he deserved a share of the loot – and the guilty parties were hit with a month of extra duty and six months forfeited pay. Bataan fell long before these sentences ended; even those who escaped to Corregidor were bound for capture and imprisonment.
Charles Eckstein made it to Corregidor before being captured. He was liberated from Fukoka POW Camp #1 in Japan in 1945, as were Reinhold Aschenbrenner and Earl Gould.
Richard Watson was captured at Fort Mills, Bataan, on April 9, 1942. He would survive prison and be liberated from Shinjuku POW Camp in Tokyo.
Archie Shelton was captured on Corregidor, survived prison in the Philippines and transport to Japan. He died at Tokyo Sectional Camp #3 on 25 July 1945.
Marshall Appenzeller and Leo Stalker, who were in on the Great Liquor Coup, were captured on Bataan. Appenzeller was liberated from Osaka Main Camp; Stalker died at Fukoka POW Camp #1 on 25 April 1945.
The leader of the Rogues, John T. Brainard, surrendered on Bataan. He was imprisoned at Cabanatuan in the Philippines, and died in the sinking of the hellship Arisan Maru on 24 October 1944. Lester Schade, who relieved Brainard, was killed by American bombs aboard the hellship Enoura Maru on 9 January 1945.
Bobby Joe Brown’s burial site was never found after the war, and his remains have not been accounted for.
1. Donald J. Young, The Battle of Bataan: A Complete History, 2nd ed. (McFarland & Company, Inc; Jefferson, NC, 2009), 34. The structure of the 4th Marines changed dramatically during the fighting for the Philippines; Brown’s First Separate Battalion became the regiment’s Third Battalion, and he was carried on the rolls as a member of Headquarters Company.
2. J. Michael Miller, From Shanghai to Corregidor: Marines in the Defense of the Philippines.
3. Ibid. In fairness to the Navy, this decision was handed down from Congress, who declared “No enlisted personnel, absent from or unable to perform the duties of his organized unit shall receive subsistence, promotion in rank or other monetary considerations.” This bill was quietly passed and was not made known until after the war.
4. Ted R. Williams, Rogues of Bataan. Known participants in the Coup were Bobby Joe, Sergeant Charles L. Eckstein, Corporal Reinhold Aschenbrenner, PFC Marshall Appenzeller, and Privates Earl Gould and Leo H. Stalker, Jr. In the following months, all would be courts-martialed for “theft” – the charges apparently stemmed from a jealous MP captain who was refused a bottle of Scotch. Each Marine was fined, and three were reduced in rank.
7. Williams, Rogues of Bataan.
9. Much later, a handful of other Marines were decorated for their service with Philippine guerilla units after the fall of Bataan and Corregidor – more than a year after Brown’s award was approved.
10. Brown’s award was approved April 5, 1942; the official citation was written after the War, by which time the “new” Fourth Marines had been incorporated into the Sixth Marine Division. There was no such division at the time of Brown’s action.
11. James Duckworth, “Official History of General Hospital #1 USAFFE at Camp Limay Battan; Little Baguio, Camp O’Donnell, Tarlac, Philippine Islands, from Dec. 23, 1941 to June 30, 1942,” National Archives, Philippine Archive Collection, Washington, D. C.; RG 407, Box 12.
13. John Gordon, Fighting For McArthur: The Navy and Marine Corps’ Desperate Defense of the Philippines (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2011), 132.