WWII veteran reflects on life, service and freedom
Pearl Harbor had already been attacked by the Japanese when Mike Brown received his draft notice in 1942. He wasn't anxious to leave Woodford County and travel overseas during wartime, but he wasn't afraid or nervous either. "When you're 20 years old," says Brown, "I don't think you think about stuff like that. I really don't." Brown knew his country had sent for him, and he had to go. His mom cried and didn't want her only son to leave her. She was fearful he might be killed - something Brown says he never really considered. "You just have to do what you have to do," he says. Brown's experience as a structural steel worker before being drafted likely led to him being assigned to the Army's 353rd Engineer Construction Battalion during World War II. Brown trained with this "new outfit" of soldiers in the Agate Desert, near Medford, Ore., before they boarded ships bound for the Pacific Theater in the spring of 1943. New Caledonia, Guadalcanal and the Russell Islands were among their many destinations during the war. The islands in the Pacific were mostly populated by native people, who lived in very primitive conditions. "They were friendly to us," says Brown. ".They hated the Japanese because the Japanese treated them awful. And we treated them good." The responsibilities of the Army's 353rd Engineers - building roads for supply routes and setting up field hospitals to treat the wounded - were very similar to the Seabees, the Navy's Construction Battalion (or CBs). Soldiers in the 353rd served in combat areas, but didn't serve on the front lines like Marines. "They caught hell over there. I'm telling you. They really did," says Brown. He says thousands of Marines lost their lives on beachheads in the Pacific. "I have all of the respect in the world for them. I was just glad I wasn't one of them," adds Brown. He says the Navy's aircraft carriers in the Pacific "caught a lot of hell, too" - from bombs being dropped by Japanese fighter planes. "If it hadn't been for the United States military," says Brown, "Hitler would've taken over the world. He would have. "Under the Nazi regime," he continues, "I don't believe people would be living today like they are. ".The United States military saved the world." Longtime NBC anchor and author Tom Brokaw has often referred to the men and women who served their country during World War II, and those who supported the war effort at home and abroad, as the "Greatest Generation." Brown says his generation didn't question their country's call to service. They all did their part whether they were overseas or at home. "People are different today than they were then," says Brown, who spent three years in the Army, including 19 months in the Pacific. "And I am not sure that they'd knuckle down and do the things that people - civilians I'm talking about right here . did." Before he was drafted into the Army, Brown got married to Louise Wright. Their only son, William Jr., was born while his father was serving in the Pacific. "He was two years old before I ever saw him," says Brown. He says he didn't really feel like he was a father until he got home - even though letters from home informed him otherwise. Letters to soldiers serving in the Pacific sometimes arrived weeks - or even months - after they were written, but "everybody was anxious to get those letters. You just like to hear what's happening at home mostly," says Brown. He returned to the United States on a hospital ship before the war ended - Christmas Day 1944. He suffered from "jungle rot" (a skin infection) to his hands, feet, arms and legs, and was later treated for dengue and rheumatic fever while hospitalized. Brown says he worked in structural steel construction after he returned home, but then went to vocational school and became an electrician after seeing co-workers "hurt pretty bad" in falls. He continued working as an electrician until he was into his 70s. His wife of 47 years, Louise, died in 1989. Brown, who received a key to the City of Versailles on Nov. 9, 2014, for his service and dedication to the nation while serving in World War II, remains an active member of the American Legion in Versailles and Veterans of Foreign Wars in Frankfort. He will likely be with his military brothers at the Legion or VFW on July 4. "It's a holiday that everybody should be proud of - whether they've ever been in the military or whatever," says Brown. He will celebrate his 94th birthday on July 31.