There have been many stories written about Sgt. Bernard Brown, a Saranac Lake police officer (before he joined the service), a U.S. Marine and a hero of World War II.
Not only were many stories published about him but a "War Comics" edition in the 1940s featured Sgt. Brown. He was a big, soft-spoken man, and many will remember the late Mr. Brown, especially after he retired from Niagara Mohawk and used to visit with everyone as he strolled around town.
Last week, my friend Jack Finegan, former manager of the Adirondack Airport (and probably the best one ever) sent me this incredible story about Sgt. Brown and the men in his squad published in the New York Daily News on Nov. 30, 1943. I have read bits and pieces of his story (and wrote about him) but I have never read the full story as reported at the time. It was written by George Jones under copyright by the United Press.
Sgt. Bernard Brown
(Photo courtesy of the Adirondack Room of the Saranac Lake Free Library)
The timing is perfect for this story, on the heels of Veterans Day and the television series featuring Cpl. Archie Sweeney from Saranac Lake who was killed in WWII. He died shortly after he had sent a letter to his parents saying he missed them and he thought the war would be over soon. I caught that part of the TV series which said the letter took about three weeks to reach his family and that it arrived almost at the same time as the war department telegram telling them he was killed.
The headline and story from the Daily News follows:
"Five marines kill 74 Japs; miss 1"
"Bougainville, Nov. 24 (Delayed) (U.P.) - Five American Marines and a combat patrol of 75 Japs met at a river yesterday afternoon and for two and a half hours there was the damnedest shooting you ever saw.
"When the jungle quiet was restored, there were 74 dead Japs piled up in front of the American machine gun nest. For all anybody knows, the 75th is still running. The five Marines were alive to tell the story.
"It's a yarn that makes Hollywood's best efforts seem wan, but it's been officially verified at Marine headquarters.
"Anyway, you wouldn't doubt the word of Pvt. Joseph Les of Roselle, N.J., who fired eight belts - 2,000 rounds - of ammunition into the Japs. Les is blonde and skinny. He's lost 15 pounds on Bougainville. He nervously shuffled his feet and earnestly stared at the jungle floor while recounting the story. He would have dismissed his part of the incident with two sentences if the others hadn't interposed.
"The squad's leader is Sgt. Bernard Brown, 30, dark-eyed, swarthy, former Saranac Lake, N.Y., policeman, who has handled guns and men with authority for many years and who pitches grenades with deadly accuracy.
"Brown turned down a platoon command several days ago because he didn't want to leave his men. The others of the group are Cpl. Ozer Logan, 22, Remlapa, La., ex-high school football star; sharp-shooting Cpl. Lewis Trott, 22, Hyattsville, Md.; and Pvt. J.E. Barlo, 19, Trenton, N.J.
"They talked in the presence of their company commander, Lt. Jules N. Rouse, Los Angeles. This is the story:
"'Yesterday they were on the bank of the Piva (print is faded here, could be Piya) River, a small but clear stream 10 feet wide, where overhanging branches from both sides shut out the sky. At a bend in the river there was an eight-foot plateau and there the Marines set up a machine gun.
First Japanese sighted
"Previously, 75 Japs had been sighted, evidently bent on a counterattack. We were just sitting around when Barlo saw a Jap heading our way, related Brown. We heard machine gun fire and all hit for holes. In a few minutes, the Japs appeared packing machine guns. They had selected a bushy point some 25 feet from the Marines, where they evidently intended to establish a firing line extending to the Marines' flank.
"The Marines were armed with a machine gun, one Garand (an M-1 rifle, clip fed), four carbines (smaller rifles) and a few grenades. But they worked together for two years and were ready for action.
"Les worked the machine gun; Barlo fed the ammunition belt and Trott pulled it through on the other side to prevent its jamming. Brown tossed the grenades. I held my fire until I saw the Japs clearly and then opened up, Les said. There was a small clearing through which the Japs had to dash. One Jap popped across and fell as the first bullets spurted from the marines in their foxholes. Others started across in two's and three's.
"Les, shirtless, helmetless and barefooted, kept firing, spraying the surrounding bushes for good measure. He jerked the elevation belt from the gun and aimed it up and down, right and left. That's how they do it in the movies with Robert Taylor firing the gun, Lt. Rouse told me. It usually doesn't happen that way in actual fighting because the machine gun usually has a fixed line of fire. Empty cartridges piled up in the shallow foxhole, practically burying Les' legs.
"Still the Japs came on and the five Marines dripped with sweat in the humid jungle air. Les kept brushing the straw-colored hair from his forehead. Barlo, Trott and Logan worked continuously while the temperature of the gun barrel rose under the heat of constant firing.
"Brown heaved grenades as far as 35 yards with occasional directions from Les. He quickly ran out of his original supply and made four trips to the rear for replenishment. The racket was heightened by battle yells from the Jap living and moans from the Jap dying. I've never heard howling like that before, said Logan.
Try, try again
"The Japs also could be heard frantically digging holes and trying to establish their firing line - they never succeeded because they couldn't get enough men past the Marine's guns. They were so dammed stupid, we had them cold, Brown declared, but they kept trying to come through us.
"During a lull in the fighting, Trott implored Les; For Pete's sake, save one for me. He'd hardly spoken when a Jap came into view. Les, grinned and said, take it away, and Trott drew a bead with a rifle and shot the Jap between the eyes.
"Halfway through the action, Jap snipers began to annoy the Marines. Brown picked up the Garand and splattered the treetops. The annoyance ceased immediately.
"Brown kept those grenades going like mortars, said Logan. The former policeman would hold the grenades for two seconds, then throw them into the Jap positions. I improved my timing as we went along, Brown said. The underbrush was being thinned out by bullets and movements of the Japs were clearly visible. Some were wearing leaf-covered helmets. They carried small packages of rice and had crates of ammunition strapped on their backs.
"The enemy succeeded in setting up one light machine gun and poured out ineffective rifle fire at their tormentors. One Marine was slightly nicked in the leg by a bullet which ricocheted. The Jap fire grew less and less until only a couple of guns were firing - then silence
"One hundred fifty minutes after the battle started the only sound in the jungle was the Marines' conversation. They went over to look at the results."