I was born while my dad, Edward A. Brown, was at Guadalcanal with the 13th Army Air Force, 42nd Bombardment Group, 390th Bombardment Squadron, known as “The Crusaders of the Jungle Air Force.” They flew B-29s, searching for enemy submarines and other targets.
I first met Dad when he came home in September 1945. I know when because he dated the backs of photos of me. Being just shy of 2 years old then, I have no memory, but I’m sure I knew he was my dad because Mom had taught me to point at his photo and say, “Daddy.”
Like most in his generation, Dad rarely talked about the war and then told mostly amusing stories. Dad was communications chief and responsible for inspecting radios on planes and at their base. But he flew missions occasionally as a radioman and wing gunner. Mom said he only spoke about his bad experiences when he first got home. She shared with me when I was in high school that on one mission, he was horrified as the rear gunner’s head rolled down the aisle past him.
Dad died in 1983 and I received his memorabilia and photos. I had spent a lot of time as a fascinated teenager looking at these items and I was pleased to be able to revisit them. Dad had told me about a jungle darkroom used for developing and sharing photos. I have seen some of Dad’s original photos in World War II books. I have his photos of natives, destroyed enemy planes and the well-known art on our own planes. But there are also photos of everyday life of the guys washing up in a ditch, doing their jobs or relaxing with a beer.
One photo shows my dad playing cards. On the back of that photo, which he sent to Mom, he wrote, “This is where $400 came from last month.”
In browsing Dad’s Buddy Book, I recognized Robert Bender’s name. He signed the book Nov. 16, 1941. I remember him from stopping at his gas station in Tacoma when we drove from Aberdeen to Seattle. Dad and Robert would visit for about 20 minutes while Mom and we three kids waited in the car. Mom simply said, “Be patient. Your dad needs to talk to his friend.” We were rewarded by a stop at the nearby XXX Drive-In for root beer.
I noticed a Buddy Book entry by Virgil Bachus from Victoria, Texas. He met Dad at McChord Field and signed the book Nov. 6, 1943. His comment was, “Remember the time I told you that I hope your baby was a boy.” So I tracked him down online, still in Victoria, and wrote him, “I am that baby girl.”
I was thrilled when Virgil called me. One question I asked was how he and Dad ended up in communications. He said it was because they could read and write. Not everyone could, back then. Virgil said he had enlisted prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, same as my Dad did. They both believed we would soon be at war.
I spoke with Virgil a few more times, but like Dad he only told “soft” stories, like the one about fishing by throwing a hand grenade in the ocean. Otherwise, he simply said they went through some “bad times” in the Pacific.
My parents always celebrated their anniversary on Oct. 5, but they evidently married without military permission, then married again after receiving it. I have a copy of Dad’s Application for Family Allowances, which lists their marriage date as May 2, 1942. I’m assuming he could not apply for family benefits if he was married without permission, hence the second marriage.
When I was well into adulthood, Dad shared two war stories that really bothered him. He witnessed some fellow soldiers remove gold teeth from dead Japanese. He was disgusted by this.
But the story that haunted him most was about a flight mission. The alphabetical mission list was posted and the cutoff line was drawn between Edwin Brown and Edward Brown. Dad went to the officer in charge and pointed out that Edward comes before Edwin alphabetically, so he should fly that mission, not Edwin. He was told, the orders stand.
No one returned from that mission. Dad always felt it should have been him that died. He did the right thing, of course, but I’m forever grateful he was saved by that error.
Dad always spoke fondly of his R&R time in New Zealand. All the guys wanted a real hot meal and food they missed, so they headed to a restaurant and ordered steaks. The waitress told them they would not be able to eat steak. They laughed — and then promptly proved her correct! She’d seen it happen many times. After months and months of military food such as Spam and hash, their bodies simply could not digest this rich food.
Dad would have loved to revisit New Zealand but never did. I always wanted to go because he spoke so fondly about his short time there. So five years ago I decided I was taking him to New Zealand with me. I carried his photo and was shocked to burst into tears when wheels touched down in Auckland. My only explanation is that I could absolutely feel Dad’s presence. I still miss him.
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