Survivor Of Bataan Death March Dies; Albert Brown Was 105

Aug 16, 2011
Originally published on August 16, 2011 6:10 pm

We'll pause for a moment to consider a remarkable life:

"Albert Brown, the oldest living World War II veteran and survivor of the 65-mile forced World War II trek known as the Bataan Death March, has died," Illinois' The Southern Illinoisan newspaper reports.

He was 105 and passed away Sunday at a nursing home in Nashville, Ill.

The Associated Press report on his death begins with this:

"A doctor once told Albert Brown he shouldn't expect to make it to 50, given the toll taken by his years in a Japanese labor camp during World War II and the infamous, often-deadly march that got him there. But the former dentist made it to 105, embodying the power of a positive spirit in the face of inordinate odds."

The wire service adds that Brown, who began his military service in 1937:

"Was nearly 40 in 1942 when he endured the Bataan Death March, a harrowing 65-mile trek in which 78,000 prisoners of war were forced to walk from Bataan province near Manila to a Japanese POW camp. As many as 11,000 died along the way. Many were denied food, water and medical care, and those who stumbled or fell during the scorching journey through Philippine jungles were stabbed, shot or beheaded."

Brown told the Southern Illinoisan that when he was freed in September 1945, he was "blind, I couldn't hear, I was in terrible shape."

His sight slowly came back. And according to the AP:

"He took two years to mend, and a doctor told him to enjoy the next few years because he had been so decimated he would be dead by 50. But Brown soldiered on, moving to California, attending college again and renting out properties to the era's biggest Hollywood stars, including Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland. He became friends with John Wayne and Roy Rogers, doing some screen tests along the way."

The Southern Illinoisan writes that Brown's daughter, Peg Doughty of Pinckneyville, Ill., says her father "never considered himself a hero. ... I guess he just figured he was at the wrong place at the wrong time."

One more fascinating fact about Brown: The Nebraska native's godfather was Wild West legend "Buffalo Bill" Cody.

For some history of the Death March, there's material posted here from Public Broadcasting's American Experience. And Smithsonian magazine has retraced the route.

Update at 3:40 p.m. ET: As we said earlier, author Kevin Moore co-wrote a biography of Brown and today spoke with NPR's Melissa Block about the Death March survivor.

The march and the three years Brown spent in a prisoner of war camp, "was a horrific, horrific experience," Moore said.

Brown told of starving prisoners who were forced to march, beaten if they slowed down, and beheaded if they couldn't go on. "They were denied water the entire 5 to 6 day march," even though there was plenty available, said Moore.

"There were very few times that he could speak of it without pausing [and] getting a tear in his eye," Moore added.

Melissa asked Moore to read a passage from the journal that Brown kept during his time as a prisoner.

"I don't know why I continue to live while others so much younger and stronger than I die," Brown wrote. He eventually concluded, Moore said, that perhaps it was because he kept his mind working.

"I think what he was saying was ... find one thing, find a sliver of hope to hang on to just long enough until you can get a little nourishment," Moore said.

And finding nourishment was an enormous challenge, Brown remembered. In the camp, prisoners were typically only given three small balls of rice a day. To survive, they sometimes did things such as picking undigested corn kernels out of horse manure and boiling them for food.

An edited version of Moore's conversation with Melissa is due on today's All Things Considered. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show.

Update at 2:35 p.m. ET: All Things Considered host Melissa Block is this hour talking with Kevin Moore, co-author of a biography of Brown — Forsaken Heroes of the Pacific War: One Man's True Story.

As Connecticut's reported in January, Moore writes in the book about the journal that Brown kept while he was a prisoner.

"[There] was an officer with a samurai sword," Brown wrote. "They just had [prisoners] kneel down and just whacked the head off — that happened a lot.

"If you didn't stay in the pack ... you were either going to get shot or they'd cut your head off ... We marched five days without a drop [(of water]."

We'll update this post again with some of Melissa's conversation with Moore. And All Things Considered is due to air some of the interview on today's show. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host: His survival of the Bataan Death March alone would have distinguished Albert Brown. In World War II, Brown was an Army captain captured by the Japanese in the Philippines. He and some 75,000 Filipino and American prisoners of war were forced to march more than 60 miles. For days, they were brutalized. They had little food or water. As many as one in seven prisoners died.

But Albert Brown made it, then survived years in horrifying POW camps before coming home. Albert Brown died on Sunday at age 105. He was the oldest American survivor of the Bataan Death March.

Kevin Moore talked with Albert Brown for a recent biography.

KEVIN MOORE: He was 36 when the march began. By the time he was released from the veterans' hospital in Denver - it was 1947, by the way - as Doc Brown, as we came to know him quite fondly, relayed to us, he said: As I'm walking out the door, the doctor calls my name out. And I turn around and he says,: Hey, Al, go on home and enjoy the next few years of your life - you won't live to see 50.

BLOCK: And there he was living to 105.

MOORE: I think a medical miracle, frankly.

BLOCK: What did Albert Brown tell you about the conditions that he endured on the Death March in Bataan?

MOORE: There were very few times that he could speak of it without pausing, you know, getting a tear in his eye, but I think, by the time we had interviewed him for this book, he was more ready than he had ever been to speak of his experiences.

And he just detailed incredible horror and atrocities, that of which, you know, I think boggles the mind of all of us. From the march on, they were beaten, tortured. If you fell back in the pack, they would pull you out of line and simply just lop your head off with a sword.

And Doc himself had been bayoneted. He had fallen back in the pack and a Japanese soldier came up and jabbed him right in the back and he vowed at that point never to be in the back of the pack. He determined, as he said to us, to be in the back of the pack meant death.

BLOCK: Albert Brown had been trained as a dentist, worked as a dentist before going off to fight in the war. What about after the war? Did he pick up his work?

MOORE: Well, he came home. He spent two years repairing in the veterans' hospital and could no longer practice dentistry because of his injuries. He had some adjustment issues, as they all did coming home and, eventually, he moved to California in about 1950. He bought a house in the Hollywood Hills and he broke the house into apartments and he rented the apartments out to the movie stars of the day.

He developed great relationships with the likes of John Wayne, John Wayne's son. They became great handball partners at the Hollywood YMCA.

You know, I think he had seen so much horror that afterward he was determined to enjoy his life. You know, he was adored by his family and friends.

In the early '50s, I do know, as he recalled, he went back to school, USC, and he earned a graduate degree in international studies. And he said to us, not long after I graduated, I received a call from the State Department and they were offering me a job, but they wanted to send me to some country in Central America that was in revolution and I paused and then I said into the phone, as he relayed this story, he said, why the hell do I want to go back into another war?

But, you know, he always would tell these anecdotes with almost a twinkle in his eye and a little humor and I think that that spirit in one manner, shape or form had to play a tremendous role in helping these men survive.

BLOCK: Kevin Moore, thank you for talking with us about Albert Brown today.

MOORE: Well, thank you for having me. It's been my pleasure.

BLOCK: Kevin Moore is co-author of the book, "Forsaken Heroes of the Pacific War: One Man's True Story." Albert Brown, the oldest American survivor of the Bataan Death March died on Sunday at the age of 105. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.