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News / Life / Clark County Life

Clark County history: Vancouver High graduate received WWII Distinguished Service Cross

By Martin Middlewood, Columbian freelance contributor
Published: March 9, 2024, 6:02am

Three months after the invasion of the Philippine Islands and the Battle of Bataan, the Japanese captured nearly 78,000 Filipino and American prisoners of war. Japanese soldiers marched them for six days down the Bataan peninsula to a railhead, denying them food and water before dispersing them to internment camps. Estimates of the death toll range from 5,500 to 18,650, mostly Filipinos.

A 1922 Vancouver High School graduate was among the mob of prisoners on the death march. Capt. Ralph W.E. Brown was an Army chaplain at Clark Field, Philippines when the Japanese invaded on Dec. 8, 1941. According to his citation for the Distinguished Service Cross, “Chaplain Brown, under severe fire and without consideration of his own safety, drove in his personal automobile through the area being attacked, collecting wounded, administrating first aid and transporting casualties to the Fort Stotsenburg Hospital. In spite of enemy attacks recurring at short intervals, this officer made no fewer than six such trips, each with a full load of such casualties, in imminent danger from enemy bombardment and machine gunning. His actions beyond the reasonable demand of his duty, saved many of the wounded from death or further mutilation.”

In February 1942, as the Japanese pounded the island defenders, Brown sent a cable to his family saying, “All OK and well.” He also wished his eldest son, Warren, a happy birthday. If he knew he had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross at the time, the cable failed to mention it. Or perhaps modesty or the fear of saying too much made him leave that out.

Brown was an outstanding football player in both high school and at the University of Puget Sound. At UPS, he was known as “King County” and was the team’s mainstay. In his second year of play, he blocked a punt and injured a retina. Once he healed, he transferred to and graduated from the University of Washington but decided not to play football due to the hazard of reinjuring his eye.

Brown was the son and grandson of Methodist ministers. While Brown attended Vancouver High School, his father was the East Vancouver Methodist Church pastor. Brown joined the Army in 1937 as a chaplain. Two years later, he found himself at a Philippine army base, where his family joined him in 1940. When hostilities erupted, the Army evacuated his wife and three children with other civilians. Later, in a letter to his wife, Margaret, he mentioned salvaging candy, gum and toiletries from the post exchange to distribute among the men. He added, “The path to my chapel area and tent are the best worn in the camp.”

In September 1945, bad news came to Margaret Brown, a schoolteacher with three teenagers. Brown’s father, Arthur, had learned of his son’s death. Arthur told Margaret and his grandchildren that Ralph Brown had died in a prison camp on Jan. 31. His father’s cousin, Florine DuFresne, also related the same information.

Brown, who had been promoted to major, was the only chaplain in World War II to receive the Distinguished Service Cross. This award is second only to the Medal of Honor and, like the nation’s highest honor, is only awarded for action in combat. According to the citation, he repeatedly visited all elements of his command, in spite of hostile fire, holding as many as 10 different religious services in a day.

Columbian freelance contributor