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Joseph F. Brown
Navy Corpsman - Korea 1951-52
(Click image for larger photo)
Joseph Francis Brown
Although Joe arrived in Korea in June, he did not see a dead enemy, or a dead Marine, until mid September. "It’s difficult to explain my feelings at the time," he said, "But it was hard to accept the dead Marines. Under the conditions we were in, one had to ‘suck it up’ and go on. The loss of any Marine has stayed with me since then. The dead enemy was a release for what they had done to our troops. Little did I think of them as equals, but then, we all are made in His image."
- Interview with Joseph Brown
Joseph Brown enlisted in the US Navy in February of 1949. He joined the Marine Reserves as a corpsman, and was sent overseas as an FMF Corpsman with E Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines in Korea from June of 1951 to August of 1952. He received shrapnel wounds in September of 1951 when his unit suffered 80 percent casualties. He was discharged in 1953, and joined the active reserves. He received his final discharge in 1962.
Joseph Francis Brown was born March 19, 1930 in Robert Packer Hospital, Sayre, Pennsylvania, the son of Oscar Seward and Helen Louise Haughey Brown. Oscar (named after the Seward of Seward’s Folly) was a New York State trooper until World War II. During the war, he worked for the OPA controlling gas stamps. Helen was attending nurse’s training when she dropped out to marry Oscar. She was a housewife until World War II, when she worked in a public library in Binghamton, New York. The Browns were parents of Joe, and a daughter Nancy Josephine Brown (Bieleski).
Joe attended first through fifth grade school in Waverly, New York. The family moved to Watkins Glen, New York, where he attended sixth and seventh grade. While living in Watkins Glen, Joe also was a Boy Scout in a very active troop. The family moved yet again, this time to Binghamton, New York. There, Joe completed his final year of grade school at the Daniel S. Dickinson School. He graduated from Binghamton Central High School February 1949. Also in Binghamton, Joe held a job with the Binghamton Boys Club summer program. In it, he guided a group of younger boy. They played games, hiked, told stories, and swam at the local YMCA.
Most of the folks in Joe Brown’s class in high school had jobs while they were in school, or their parents were in a position to send them to college. At the time, the Navy was offering a program referred to as USNEV, Enlisted Volunteer, for 18 year-olds. The requirements of the USNEV program were one year of active duty and four years in the active reserves, or one year of active duty and six years in the inactive reserves.
Joe talked over the pro and con’s of joining this Navy enlistment program with his folks and his uncle. His father had made several trips across the ocean with troops and supplies when he served in the Navy during World War I. As a pharmacist’s mate during World War II, his uncle, Albert Paul Haughey, had tended the wounded that were brought in to the hospital at Bayonne, New Jersey. "My father and uncle were a great influence in helping me make up my mind," said Joe.
Joe enlisted in the Navy in February of 1949. He traveled by train from Binghamton, New York to New York City, and from there he went by train to Great Lakes Naval Training Center. Arriving late at night, the new recruits were given blankets and were told to find a rack on which to sleep. Early arousal next day was by a man running a coke bottle inside of a garbage can. "I thought it extremely rude to awaken us tired homesick boys that way," said Brown, "but what could I do?"
Navy Boot Camp
According to Brown, the men were herded to the chow hall where they ate breakfast. Afterward, the events of their first day in the Navy unfolded. They went for haircuts, had a shower, and were issued clothing. "Our civvies were packed and sent home, and we went to recruit training side at the Lakes," he said.
Joe was assigned to Company #59, under the leadership of J.M. Kelly, BMC and N.A. Lauterback, TMC. Both of these drill instructors were World War II veterans. Brown was not to stay in this company for very long, because he came down with the measles. He was sent to the hospital on main side until he was past quarantine. He was then sent back to recruit training in Company #82. The drill instructor of that company was J.F. Pilkerton, TMC, a World War II veteran.
Classroom training in boot camp consisted of learning Navy history, rules and regulations, and weapons training firing a 22 rifle in an indoor range. Hygiene and sanitation were strongly addressed, as well as care and folding of clothes and how to present them for inspection. Other training consisted of lots of close order drill, learning right from left.
The day began at 6:00 a.m. with the watch calling reveille. "We did our AM things," said Brown, "squared away the barracks, went for chow, and started the day’s classroom and other activities. Evenings were pretty much our own and a lot of guys spent time in the rec hall. I think lights out was at 10:00 p.m.," he said.
Joe recalled an infraction of boot camp rules toward the end of the training that caused several of the recruits to get into trouble with their DI. He explained, "Towards the end of boot camp, a bunch of us got into a huge water fight. There were around twelve men involved. For punishment we were threatened that we would not graduate with our Company. We were all given ten demerits, each meaning one hour’s worth of extra duty. We spent time cleaning the barracks and doing physical drill under arms to reduce the demerits. Fortunately, we did graduate as scheduled." Other than this instance, discipline was on an individual basis, Brown said.
Food was plentiful and nutritious in boot camp, and he recalled, "I never went hungry." Church was offered for those who needed the nutrition of religion, but Brown said that few from his Company took advantage of it. Recruits did, however, spend time in the rec hall, were involved in sporting events, track and boxing, and "shooting the baloney" with fellow recruits.
Upon entering boot camp, these recruits were given aptitude tests to judge their abilities. The would-be sailors also were tested for proficiency throughout their boot camp training. The drill instructors were in command throughout the eight to twelve weeks of training, during which Brown never faltered in his decision to join the Navy. "It was my long-time desire to be a sailor," he said, though being away from home for the first time was difficult for him.
When the training was all over, the various companies passed in review on the grinder with families of some of the graduates present. The recruit drum and buglers provided the music. Upon graduating, Joe Brown found himself a different person than when he had first arrived at the training camp. "I knew I was in extremely good shape," Brown said. "I was knowledgeable about Navy life, knew how to wear the uniform, and felt like an Old Salt." After basics, Brown traveled back to New York for a two-week leave. He wore his uniform and friends remarked on how good he looked in it. After the leave, he returned to Great Lakes via train to attend Hospital Corps School.
Hospital Corps School
Admittance into Hospital Corps School was determined by IQ tests. There was also a certain amount of volunteerism to attend. Joe Brown was one of those volunteers, and was admitted having achieved the required marks. He was pleased to have been accepted into the medical branch of the Navy, because his uncle was a pharmacist’s mate during World War II. It was his uncle who suggested that he go for Corps School. "He said duty stations were nice; quarters were good; food was good; and liberty was port and starboard," said Brown. "His selling point was that Corpsmen had the best living quarters and best meals in the Navy. Of course, he was stationed in Bayonne, New Jersey for the duration of the war. Little did I know I would wind up with the FMF. You can imagine the loving thoughts I had of him while eating cold beans from a tin can, on top of a mountain or while taking a lunch break near a rice paddy in a country over 10,000 miles from home. " When attached to Marines on the front line of a combat zone, "nice" and "good" are two words that are not apropos when describing a corpsman’s life.
Hospital Corpsman School was sixteen weeks in duration, and included classroom study of anatomy, minor surgery, first aid, nursing procedures, chemical warfare, and more. Lectures were frequent. There were also laboratory studies in chemistry. Among Brown’s instructors were: Lt. Edna I. Johnson, NC, USN, R.N.; G.L. Proper HM1 USN; H.G. Lasalle HM1 USN; W.J. Jochum HMC USN; and L.C. Gilley HMC USN. Brown admitted that he could have been a better student had he applied himself. "Not being the most attentive student in public school," he said, "my habits went with me to the Navy. Had I applied myself better, I would have attained a higher class standing. On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the most difficult, I was in the middle at 5."
After his training at Great Lakes, Joe Brown spent the remainder of his one-year active duty at Portsmouth Naval Hospital, Virginia. There, he worked on surgical wards for enlisted patients. He had port and starboard liberty, spending a good deal of it in Portsmouth and Norfolk, Virginia. When his active duty was over, he felt confident to assist in most medical situations. "Comparing today’s EMT’s," he said, "we [corpsmen] were of EMT quality in that time period."
At the time of his release from active duty in February of 1950, it was to be Joe’s choice of six years inactive reserves or four years active reserves. "I chose the inactive and was applying to enter nurse’s training in a local hospital," said Joe. "I didn’t have chemistry in high school and went back for six months to get it. Not being the best student in the world, I didn’t do well in the tests. Between the teacher and myself, I decided to quit and didn’t go to nursing school." Instead, Joe did door-to-door sales work.
War Breaks Out
According to Joe, his vision of a life’s career was vague at this point in his life. "I didn’t have much outlook for a career. It was mostly party time, and I believed I was doing okay." But Joe’s partying was about to draw to an end. In distant Korea, a war had erupted. "I knew nothing of Korea," said Joe. The newspapers told about an outbreak of hostilities there, but Joe ignored the headlines. "The war didn’t mean beans to me as I wasn’t there," he said. His life was about to alter drastically, however, and soon the country he knew nothing about would become his home for 14 months. He would learn more than he ever wanted to know about that distant country and its people. In August of 1950, Joe Brown was recalled to active duty. "I think I was glad to get back in," he said. "I had a purpose for getting up then. There wasn’t much of a job to leave. I was doing door to door selling and some construction work. I had no idea I would ever go into combat and didn’t worry about war, as I never thought about it."
Joe’s first duty station once he was activated was at St. Albans Hospital. There, he worked on a surgical ward. "The hospital was receiving wounded men from Korea. They were sending the guys to a service hospital nearest their homes until the casualties built up. We had several Army men until we were crowded with sailors and Marines." The patients at St. Albans told Joe about Korea. "They told me of the mountains and the strength of the enemy, but it really didn’t strike me very much. I guess you could say I was living in my own little world, and the war didn’t mean much to me. My family was much more concerned than I, as they were more aware of what was going on. My friends knew as much about the war as I did."
From St. Albans, Joe was transferred to Beaufort near Parris Island. "At Beaufort," he explained, "I worked on a ward and most of our patients were recruits from Parris Island. I felt I was safe from the FMF, but after one month there, I got orders for the FMF. While at Camp Lejeune, we were given money to supply ourselves with a complete Marine sea bag. All field equipment was available at Montford Point, but to purchase khakis and greens, we had to make the trek to main side on our own time. Many of us bought was available, and left by troop train for Camp Pendleton, California after school. Once arriving at Camp Pendleton, arrangements were made for us to purchase the remains of a complete sea bag. Seeing as many of us had spent a good share of the previously issued money, we had to have our pay dunned. Not many gave a Fat Rat’s A$$ about the money, knowing where we were going."
Joe’s reaction to being assigned to FMF was mixed. "I was excited to think that I would end up serving with the US Marines," he said, but "I was also somewhat frightened as my training had not included combat readiness." He said that Hospital Corps School at Great Lakes didn’t hit on too much combat medicine. "We did have four weeks at Camp Lejeune of Field Medical School. The class lectures and films were good, but the field exercises lacked a lot. The supposed victims wore a tag with the type of injury we were to treat and we wrote our treatment down on the tag." In spite of the admission that he himself could have been a better student with a little more effort on his part, Brown also noted that the school could stand some improvement as well. "For four weeks I attended one of the poorest taught schools I ever attended in the service," he said. "The majority of our training was sitting in a drill hall watching movies relating to field and combat conditions. I opened and applied my first battle dressing under combat conditions. No realism at all, and many times not even a battle dressing was opened." Within weeks, however, Joe Brown would get more of the "realism of war" than he ever dreamed or wanted. What realism was lacked at Camp Lejeune, he found in Korea.
Brown did not have the opportunity to attend Marine boot camp before he was shipped to Korea. "I think it would have helped a lot of us then," he said, "but like they say, ‘hindsight is 20-20.’" His FMF school training was in 1951 at Montford Point, Camp LeJeune. There, he and other trainees were billeted in one-floor barracks. "We were aroused every morning with a version of Nothing Could Be Finer…," recalled Brown. "Navy corpsmen of all rates taught necessary medical subjects, and Marines of all rates taught weapons," he said.
The troops snapped in with the M2 carbine, and fired two clips off on an outdoor range. There was no cold weather or house-to-house training whatsoever. On the marches, the corpsmen carried a Marine back pack with field gear, skivvies, socks, field blouse, and green trousers. In addition, they carried Unit One packs with battle dressings, tourniquets, APC’s, instrument case, morphine, thermometer, etc.
"Learning field medicine/corpsman responsibilities was intense," Brown recalled. "Most subjects were covered with a lot of movies and many lectures." Inside the classroom, the corpsmen also learned first aid procedures, field sanitation, chow in the field, and personal hygiene. The corpsmen also participated in one landing practice in which the drill instructors selected those that were wounded or KIA, and the assigned corpsmen had to simulate treatment.
When FMF training was over, Joe was shipped directly to the west coast and on to Korea. "I never realized what I was about to encounter, and didn’t bother going home. I had no sense of the danger I was going to be involved in, and thought I was just going to another duty station," Brown said.
In May of 1951, Joe Brown boarded the ship that would take him to Korea from San Diego, California. "There were around 170 corpsmen and some Marines we picked up at Treasure Island, along with cargo," he said. "This was my first experience on a large ship. The first days out were pleasant, but sometime after we left Treasure Island we hit some heavy seas. I did feel nauseous and developed a headache, but with fresh air I cleared up. There were several that became sea sick," he said. The shipment of troops not full, Joe said. "Later I learned we were called the 9th and ½ draft to be sent there as we were not a full complement of troops."
Now Joe Brown was well and truly on his way to a war zone. "I didn’t get Gung Ho until on the ship going over, and then it was a lot of false bravery," he said. The ship did not go directly to Korea. Instead, it landed in Japan, place not known.
"There, we stored our sea bags, were taken to a Marine air base, and waited for the weather to clear to fly us to Korea," said Brown. "I believe the trip from the States to Japan was a little over two weeks. This included the stop at Treasure Island." There was no entertainment provided on the ship. "We did a lot of talking, thinking and wondering what we were in for," said Joe. "I made a ring out of a half dollar with a mess kit spoon, which drove my comrades crazy, but kept my mind off the future," Joe recalled. He had mess duty for a short while, but that ended when he told the petty officer in charge that he was going to be sick. By that time, the ship had hit the rough weather. "After that," Brown said, "I was assigned to watch duty and cleaning up the living areas. The duty was rotated around so that almost everyone had some exposure," he said.
In addition to Marines and corpsmen, the ship carried a unique, non-human passenger. Brown explained, "Some buddies had picked up a baby Mexican Chihuahua, ad we babied that pup all the way to Japan." He said that the dog was given to a Marine family at the base in Japan, "as dogs were not given the greatest respect in Korea."
From Japan, Brown and other corpsmen were flown to Korea, where they arrived in June of 1951. Landing around mid-day, the men had their first taste of C-rations at the first airstrip where they landed. "We were then herded back on an aircraft to go further north," recalled Brown. "There was a Marine on the plane returning to Korea from R&R," he said. "He was pointing out many areas where there had been significant action. The devastation and totaled villages he pointed out were unbelievable." And when the plane landed, there was more evidence of war. "Where our plane landed," said Joe, "it was obvious that there had been action in the area. There were remains of buildings, vegetation that had been ruined, and no civilians in the area."
From the airfield where they landed, the men were trucked to the Punch Bowl area of Korea. "After two days travel," said Brown, "I ended up with the second platoon, "E" company, 2nd battalion, 5th regiment, First Marine Division." His assigned platoon was on a mountain overlooking the Punch Bowl area. The Marines to which he was assigned made daily patrols into no man’s land to determine enemy movement. Joe Brown was now a platoon corpsman. "I was a babe in the woods," recalled Brown. "I didn’t know a single person."
New to Combat
When he joined up with his platoon, Joe was shown the perimeters of the area that the Marines had been assigned to protect. He was also introduced to the men of the platoon. A few of the "old-timers"—those who had been in Korea for days or weeks before Joe arrived—showed him the ropes. "A Marine sergeant taught me the mechanics of the 45 pistol, including safety measures and how to kept it clean," he said. "We had been issued and fired M2 carbines while in Camp Lejeune, and they were crated and not re-issued until we reached Japan. At last, we each had our own weapon. When I arrived at Battalion Aid, it was taken from me and I was given the .45 automatic. I was as familiar with that weapon as I was with the 105 Howitzer! Fortunately, my platoon sergeant took me aside and gave me safety instructions and taught me how to field strip it. He did say there was nothing more dangerous in combat than a Corpsman with a .45. I thought he may have been confused and was thinking about an 18 gauge on the end of a 10 cc."
A day or two after Joe’s arrival in Korea, the platoon went on patrol. "Our first patrol was uneventful, but I was taught what to look for by my fellow Marines. They showed me what booby traps to be aware of, procedures to get across mine fields, how to approach buildings, and they gave me some suggestions for climbing the mountains. About four days prior, they had encountered some heavy fire in this same area, and there were several wounded in the fire fight. I replaced the wounded platoon corpsman. My heart was in my throat, as I did not know what to expect," Brown said. Although the patrol was uneventful, Joe said that he had his first look at the carnage caused by war. "There was a body of a civilian woman lying in a creek bed. How her death occurred, I don’t know, but it did impact me. I found it difficult to understand why she had been left to nature’s treatment."
As incoming corpsmen arrived at battalion aid, there was little coaching from the veteran corpsmen. "It was taken for granted that we knew our job," explained Joe. "They did advise us as to what gear to take up to the lines, because what we took we carried." Unnecessary winter clothing, such as the extra pair of field shoes, sweater, and long johns, were held at battalion aid. In their stead, the incoming corpsmen received something far more necessary for the front line: more battle dressings in their Unit One medical kits.
Navy corpsman training and other pre-Korea training had taught Joe Brown many things that served him well during combat. However, he said that "on the job training" in Korea is how he learned to survive in a war. "The Marines were extremely helpful and understood that our previous training didn’t cover many things that they [the Marines] had learned in theirs. I learned how to pace myself on patrol; how to set up my bunker or trench; how to pitch my pup-tent in an orderly fashion; how to stand inspection with a pistol." When asked why, with a war going on, did the government not provide him with more thorough training in combat readiness, Joe responded, "Beats the hell out of me. We had four weeks at Montford Point, Camp Lejeune training, during which we were given instruction on the M2 carbine--not enough for inexperienced people. We had one landing practice that was more compared to a beach party and a child’s war games." Brown also said that honor graduates were selected on a popularity basis, and generally a Chief received the highest acclamation. "Until the day I die," he said, "I will believe the training we got did not prepare us for the future."
Calm Before the Storm
From June until late July or early August, he and the other members of the platoon were in the same place. They were located at the Punch Bowl near the 38th parallel in eastern Korea. The primary responsibility of the men assigned to Easy-2-5 during this time period was going on patrols to determine the enemy activity—their advancement or withdrawal, and how they were prepared. Corpsman Brown stood watch with the Marines, treated minor injuries, extracted ticks, and kept sanitation at an acceptable level. The combat veterans he had joined up with in Korea had already discovered the dangers that Joe was not immediately aware of upon his arrival in a war zone. In the coming months, Joe would discover the true horror of war, but for the first couple of months in Korea, he was simply learning to live in the field, with battle-seasoned Marines helping him to adjust. During this time period, his company saw relatively little enemy action. Shortly after his arrival in Korea, Joe’s platoon had a brief firefight while on patrol, but there were no casualties.
Being new to combat can be a frightening experience, but Joe said he thought at the time that he was holding up emotionally. However, when his time in Korea was over, he had another opinion about how well he had coped as a green corpsman in Korea. "I was carrying a lot of internal fear, but didn’t realize it until years later." He said, "I guess the fact of being exposed to all this stuff for the first time didn’t sink in until I matured mentally. You know, like a child riding a bicycle for the first time doesn’t realize what dangers there can be." World War II veterans serving in his unit helped Joe and other newcomers adjust to their new situation. "Their experiences were invaluable for the new men," said Joe. "On patrol it is difficult for the lead man to maintain a pace that allow the tail end of the patrol to keep up. We had a sergeant (don’t remember his name) who was a World War II veteran and an outstanding patrol leader whose combat experience was a great plus for all of us."
Upon joining the outfit, even though he was new on the job, the men treated him with the greatest respect. Joe nevertheless felt that the platoon leader was reserved toward him. "Our platoon lieutenant was close to going home and I felt slighted by his attitude," he said. "As time passed, I realized it was self-protection not to get too close to the new guys. I didn’t get too close with men in my unit, as the vets were cautious about making new relationships. It felt strange at first, like I was being shunned, but after a while I had the same attitude. My closest friends were corpsmen that had gone to other duty assignments, and those that were close to me made it back."
While Joe was a relatively "new guy", E-2-5 went into a reserve area in the town of Inje in late July, after French troops relieved the Marines. It wasn’t much of a "town" at the time, remembered Brown, because Inje had already been leveled by war. In this rest area, there were hot showers, hot meals, and clean clothes. "A different atmosphere came over the men as we were more or less out of harm’s way," said Brown. He helped the E-2-5 Marines set up bivouac and patrol the surrounding country. While with a line company, a corpsman was on somewhat independent duty, said Brown. "I reported to the medical officer at battalion aid and was the medical representative while in the field. The Marine officers followed our direction as long as we acted in a responsible manner. It was our job to treat the sick and injured, and if we made bad decisions it was our butt on the line. I never was questioned by a Marine why I did or said what I did," Joe recalled. In return for providing the troops with his medical expertise, the Marines provided their corpsman with combat readiness expertise.
His company went through a battalion size maneuver and stood inspections at the Inje area campsite, Joe said. "The Marines taught me how to stand inspection under arms, and when we had a high-ranking Marine officer come for inspection, I was ready. It was to be the first time for me to stand inspection with a .45 automatic. As it came time for me to present my weapon, the inspecting party just glanced at me and continued down the line. I was so disappointed that he didn’t take my weapon, I unconsciously said ‘shit’," recalled Brown. "The gunny looked at me with that look only gunnery sergeants have, and he went on." Corpsmen carried two canteens, and it was required that they be filled with water, Brown said. "As the inspection party passed behind me, the inspecting officer lifted both canteens—I think to pacify me. After the inspection, the gunny told me the officer had a hard time keeping from laughing."
Life in a Combat Zone
E-2-5 stayed in this reserve area for only a short time before moving back closer to the front line of action. The taking of Hill 812 (which Joe Brown recounts in the next section of this memoir) was the major battle in which Brown saw combat action and cared for slightly and severely wounded Marines, but in the few weeks before that happened, Joe’s company experienced a lull in fighting. From the reserve area at Inje, his company moved to an outpost for a very short time. After that, it moved to the staging area for the attack on Hill 812.
When they left the Punch Bowl area back in July/early August, the E-2-5 Marines were relieved by French troops. "Their platoons were smaller than ours," recalled Brown, "but they were a tough fighting unit. They had about ¾ the manpower we had in the same location. The ROK Army was near us, and I treated a couple of their men for minor injuries. Their injuries were not combat related. We had a ROK 4.2 mortar unit near us, and those men were rugged individuals. It was in somewhat of a reserve area." In addition to these foreign troops, American Marines came in contact with civilian men who carried supplies to the troops, dug trenches and bunkers, and acted as interpreters and guides.
These civilian carriers were about the only "luxury" offered to Marines and corpsmen on the front line. Even the simple tasks of bathing, shaving, and generally keeping clean weren’t easy, recalled Brown. "While on the lines, we did our best at mountain streams or sometimes with canteen water when we knew we would be able to fill up soon. We tried to do some personal housekeeping every day when possible. Shaving waited until we were in reserve most of the time. Clean clothes were at a premium, and in most instances we waited until we moved into a reserve area to get them." The dirt acquired on clothes and bodies came from living in bunkers and trenches.
With regards to the bunkers—those relatively safe living quarters built on the side of a mountain with logs and lots of earth for the roof, Brown said, "Some places we were not in danger and in others we were. It was a good idea to have an escape plan in mind and a weapon nearby." Bunkers were on the reverse slope of mountains, and the entrance was usually covered with a blanket to keep in heat and light, he said. Foxholes and trenches were more open and vulnerable, and much more susceptible to the cold and snow.
Brown said that, "C-rations were the gourmet food of the day on the lines." The most popular were franks and beans, ham and lima beans, and spaghetti. "Also in the rations were chocolate disks, harder than my skull, for cocoa." There was also jelly, usually some fruit cocktail, and toilet tissue. Prior to going to Korea, Joe drank and smoked. These two habits were fed in Korea with government rations. "We were periodically issued beer rations, and cigarettes were free and plentiful," Brown said.
When in reserve, the troops got hot meals that included meat, potatoes, vegetable, and dessert. "The only native food I had was a special treat for the Koreans," said Brown. "When in reserve we were able to send our house boy home with some Military Personnel Currency (MPC). He got through with most of it, and as a sign of thankfulness, his mother made this special cake for us. His father sent us Papa-san pipes he had made. To be honest, the cake didn’t do too well. The only thing I can compare it to today is Styrofoam. It was very dry and had very small air holes in it. Not too much was consumed, so we didn’t have any adverse reactions." Joe said he was also given a box of vegetables once for treating a couple of ROK soldiers. The best thing he ever ate while in Korea arrived in a package from home. "Believe it or not, it was some olives my parents had sent me. It may not have been the tastiest item in the world, but it reminded me of home." He said that the stateside food he missed the most was roast beef, brown potatoes, and carrots.
Still, in spite of missing home-cooked meat and potatoes, Joe Brown understood that he was faring better than the natives of Korea. "I have a vivid memory of children scavenging food from the garbage," he said. "Natives were chased into the back mountains. We were on patrol in the low lands and it appeared a Korean family was returning to their ravaged home to pick up belongings. When they saw our troops advancing up through the rice paddies, they ran back towards the mountain. There was a great distance between us and there was no way we could catch up with them. We had a South Korean civilian who was our guide/interpreter, and he was not able to have them stop. Where these people were living I have no idea, but they had been chased from their familiar surroundings and had to exist off the land." According to Joe, civilians left their home and lived deep in the mountains for safety.
Being in a combat zone was a combination of "hurry up and wait," remembered Brown. "When the shit hit the fan, there were no good times. In reserve areas, there were some lighter moments, like kidding each other (barracks talk stuff), and talking about home, girlfriends, school, and plans for future." Generally in reserve, but even occasionally on maneuvers, humorous things happened that veterans remember decades later. Brown recalled, "We were on a battalion-size maneuver and were to get to the top of a distant mountain. Across the river, to the rear of us, were big shot politicians and military brass watching the grab-ass. It was very hot and I saw no reason to run up this mountain, so I was lying back, but close enough to be there if needed. There were mortars, .50 caliber and .30 caliber machine guns being fired along with small arms weapons. As the procedure progressed and the Marines were tactually moving forward, I heard a scream for ‘corpsman.’ I proceeded to the area of the call as Marines were getting away from it. I couldn’t understand why a Marine would leave his injured buddy alone. As I got nearer, I discovered why they were making tracks. A gung ho Marine, being faithful to his training, was charging forward and occasionally would go into a full prone position, being sure he had cover on each dive. Unbeknown to him, as he hit the earth in a bunch of bushes, one had found a ground level cesspool that was totally grown over. The odor was horrendous, and every stitch of clothing and gear the man owned were saturated with well-fermented feces. At the conclusion of the exercise, the man had to give up his complete uniform and walked back to camp in the river. I can well imagine if he is living today he can still recall the smell!"
Relief from the drudgery of war also came in the form of mail from home. "Our mail was known to be rather slow at times," recalled Brown. "My parents wrote; my sister wrote once or twice; and a girl my mother knew wrote a couple times. I received a camera from my parents and film." The camera, which Brown had asked his parents to send to him, was later stolen. He said that home-baked things were a big item among the troops. "Most of the time the stuff was stale," he said, but it still tasted good to the men who appreciated a reminder of home. On special holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, there were traditional dinners when possible. Joe spent Thanksgiving at the field hospital, and ate a good meal that day. "In fact, there was plenty of food and all the trimmings. Christmas was a huge feast at the hospital." Other than meals, however, there wasn’t much celebrating, he said.
He and other men in his company did have the opportunity to see a couple of USO shows while in Korea. "I saw Danny Kaye," he said. "We were some distance from the stage and it was tough to see him. I wasn’t impressed with his show. I saw Jack Benny and truly enjoyed his show. Both shows had lots of pretty girls, music, singing, dancing, and jokes." Joe recalled that he saw the USO shows in the July period while E-2-5 was at the Punch Bowl.
From Inje, his company went into a staging area and eventually ended up in the attack in the Kumwah Valley area. Brown remembers the transition from reserve area to front line even these many years later. "We remained in Inje until the second week of September," he said. "One afternoon the word came down we were to be ready to move out at daybreak. Pup tents were taken down, weapons cleaned, gear packed, and we slept under the stars that night. The scuttlebutt was we were jumping off in the morning. Nothing was explained to us, but all the signals were there. Tensions and anxiety could be cut with a butter knife. In the morning, we boarded trucks and traveled several hours only to overlook another bunch of mountains. We were there about three days and then things truly got hot. Everybody was moved to a staging area where we experienced a hot meal—you know, the Last Supper thing."
Early the next morning, they were moved closer to the scene, and additional ammunition and medical supplies were made available. The quartermaster asked what he would do with any mail. "We knew something big was up," recalled Brown. "We reached a jumping off point shortly before dark," he continued, "and were told to try and sleep. My heart was pounding, my throat was dry, and I thought I would toss my cookies any second. How I survived that night without getting sick I’ll never know. I knew I was on the verge of experiencing combat in its full intensity for the first time."
Combat veterans each experience a "baptism of fire"—that point in their military career in which they come under fire for the very first time, and they are well and truly in mortal danger. For those who have not experienced this test of nerves, it cannot be fully understood. Veterans find themselves at a loss of words when trying to explain it to a non-combatant. "How do you tell someone in a decent way that you had the crap scared out of you," questioned Brown. "You have to realize that I had never been under fire before other than sitting in the butts on a rifle range. To hear the rounds snapping over your head is awesome. It didn’t keep me from doing my job," he said, "but I was involved in something for the first time."
Although Joe arrived in Korea in June, he did not see a dead enemy, or a dead Marine, until mid September. "It’s difficult to explain my feelings at the time," he said, "But it was hard to accept the dead Marines. Under the conditions we were in, one had to ‘suck it up’ and go on. The loss of any Marine has stayed with me since then. The dead enemy was a release for what they had done to our troops. Little did I think of them as equals, but then, we all are made in His image." Brown recalled that the enemy he saw was varied in age. "Some were young and some were a little older. By older I mean 30 and 40 age bracket. They were entrenched when we encountered them and had their positions and escape routes all prepared. In my estimation they were good fighters, as they did inflict many casualties on us." Most of those casualties took place in September of 1951.
That September, on the 17th, Joe’s company suffered 80 percent casualties in the taking of Hill 812, one of three enemy positions on Kanmubong Ridge. Much of what happened during that assault has been pushed to the back of Joe Brown’s memory, but an account of the 5th Marines attack on Hill 812 can be found on pages 194-198 of US Marine Operations in Korea, Volume 1V. The book notes that a subsequent fight west of Hill 812 was not only the last action of a nine-day battle, it was also the last action of mobility for Marines in Korea.
E-2-5 had three reinforced platoons when the assault on Hill 812 began. "We moved out before day break, and were in the assault at day break. We were to take 812, and met heavy resistance by the North Korean army. Some of our men thought that the majority of the enemy troops were Red Chinese. They did have a lot of Russian weapons and supplies. Fighting took place from dawn to dark, and the opposing enemy was made up of good soldiers who caused us 80 percent casualties. Brown recalled that casualties were caused by shrapnel and gunfire. He said the first day was clear and the night was cool. "Our original assault took place on September 17, 1951," recalled Brown. "Action began right after daybreak and ended late afternoon."
As the Marines moved up the mountain, they took cover in the natural vegetation that grew on the terrain. Meanwhile, the enemy was fairly well entrenched, but were visible as to positions. "We approached our objective from two different sights and we were under heavy enemy fire from small arms, Red Chinese machine guns, with some Russian weapons included," recalled Brown. "All means of fire power seemed to erupt at the same time from both directions. We were shelled by mortar fire after securing the top of the mountain. That is when the shrapnel wounds were heaviest," he said. "As our unit had assaulted and gained the top of the mountain, we referred to it as ‘Sacred Heart Hill.’ We dug in for the night and repelled several attacks the next day. But on the second day, it started to rain and the hillside became very slippery." Midday of the third day of the attack, his platoon went into reserve.
Throughout the long hours of fighting, Joe and only one other corpsman were kept busy taking care of all the casualties of a reinforced company. He said, "I was treating wounded Marines, and I could hear the bullets—for lack of a better word—snap over my head." When asked if he ever felt overwhelmed at what was expected of a combat corpsman during a battle of such magnitude, Joe replied, "I don’t believe there was time to be overwhelmed." Injuries were treated, casualties were tagged, orders for evacuation were given, and then the corpsmen simply moved on to the next wounded Marine who shouted, "Doc!" Brown said, "One thing that helped me keep my sanity was taking care of wounded Marines. It seemed everywhere there was a Marine needing help. Many of them asked how bad they were wounded and would get up and continue up the mountain as soon as a battle dressing was applied."
When the fighting was over in the late afternoon, the Marines had met their objectives. "Success was ours," said Brown. "It was costly, but we did obtain our objective." One man in Brown’s platoon had been killed. Shrapnel had wounded Doc Brown, like so many others. On the first day, just after they had taken the mountain, Joe was laying down alongside of a Marine, just taking a break. "An enemy artillery round hit to my rear and the shrapnel entered by my left ear," Joe said. "It would have been much more serious if I was a few feet lower on the mountain. I was the only one hit from that particular explosion." He said that he didn’t really feel pain when it hit. "It felt almost like getting an injection," Brown said. The Marine he was laying next to looked at the wound and said it didn’t need a dressing.
After things calmed down, Joe had time to reflect on the events that had just taken place. "I was one lucky puppy to get out of it in one piece," he said. "It was the major battle of my time in Korea and thankfully a lot of it has slipped far beyond that gray matter." Brown said that after they secured the mountain, he walked across a short trail and jumped in a foxhole. "The next morning a Marine Engineer removed several shoe box land mines from the same trail. It was from that experience the poem ‘Footsteps’ became so significant to me." This and other events surrounding the attack on Hill 812 impacted Joe Brown’s life forever—and even affected him before he left Korea.
Shortly after the fight for Hill 812, in late September or early October, E-2-5 moved into company reserve for a short time. It then moved into battalion reserve. The difference between the two was readiness to move. In company reserve, the men were in pup tents and ready to move out on a moment’s notice. In battalion reserve, said Joe, "we had pyramidal tents and the situation appeared more permanent." In company reserve, Joe checked out his unit (which is the corpsman’s term for his medical supplies). In battalion reserve, he carried out day-to-day duties as a company corpsman.
The duties of corpsmen in the Korean War were routinely rotated. Generally, they were assigned to a line company first. Later, they were transferred to battalion aid. Finally, they moved even further back from the front lines to a field hospital called "Easy Med." For Joe Brown, his experiences as a front line corpsman ended in the fall of 1951. It was time for him to rotate back to the two medical stations that were set up behind the lines to treat the wounded. Joe was first transferred to Battalion Aid, and then later transferred to Easy Med as a ward boy. "I spent a good share of the coldest weather in Battalion Aid or Field Hospital," said Brown.
Battalion Aid was quartered in a double pyramidal tent. Even with such close quarters, however, Brown remained impersonal to the other staff members. "I was still in the combat attitude mode," he explained. One half of the pyramidal tent was a living area, and the other half was sickbay. "We had pot belly oil-fed stoves for warmth," recalled Brown. The men further tried to keep warm by wearing long johns, woolen caps with earflaps, heavy socks, field trousers and jacket, heavy sweaters, parkas and Mickey Mouse boots.
At Battalion Aid, medical personnel treated gunshot and shrapnel wounds, frostbite, frozen digits and burns. Burns were treated with layers of Vaseline gauze that created an airtight seal. In many instances, this caused infection and extended healing time. Brown said that it was later determined that ice was a better choice. To tend the wounded, there was a doctor, HM1, and four or five corpsmen at battalion aid. The corpsmen stood watch and took care of sick call. "We were on call more or less 100 percent of the time," recalled Brown. The seriously wounded were evacuated via helicopter to the field hospital, where there were operating rooms and hospital-type equipment.
Field Hospital (Easy Med)
The significant and negative impact that his experiences on Hill 812 had on Joe Brown first became apparent (although Brown was not aware of it at the time) at Easy Med. "I don’t advertise what happened after September 1951," Joe said. "I’m not too proud of that time period in my life. There was much drinking and lack of duty." The men made raisin jack, Joe said, "and 190 alcohol was very handy."
In late October or early November, just weeks after the attack on Hill 812, Joe was transferred to what was known as a "field hospital". This was composed of several Quonset-type tents with staff quarters in one area, surgical tents in another area, and living quarters in another. Many of the more seriously wounded Marines arrived at this field hospital by helicopter or jeep ambulance. It was not uncommon or difficult for a rotating corpsman to learn the outcome of injuries that had been sustained by the Marines they had treated while serving as a line corpsman.
At Easy Med, Joe’s first duty assignment was as a ward corpsman. His duty was to administer medications, change dressings, and do general nursing duties. While on this duty, he inquired about one Marine in particular. Joe explained to the doctor in charge that on September 18, a Marine forward observer had received a major wound to his left shoulder from shrapnel. "There were other wounds, but I don’t remember them," he said. During the attack on Hill 812, Corpsman Brown had to make a snap decision on how best to treat the Marine’s wound. "I made a decision about cutting his clothing or not. I got a battle dressing on his wound and got some morphine into him." He said, "I don’t even recall how the man was evacuated."
The doctor on duty at Easy Med said that the Marine was, indeed, a patient there. He had survived his wounds. When Joe told him that he was the corpsman who had treated the Marine at the time of his injury, the doctor was not pleased. "He looked me square in the eye and said I didn’t do my job," said Brown. "Flabbergasted, I asked what he was talking about. He said I should have cut more material away from the wound. That was the only objection he had. I replied that I thought of that at the time, but felt necessary support would have been lost. The shoulder was badly damaged. There were bone fragments visible, and I thought the arm would experience additional injury if the support of the clothing was removed," said Brown.
Joe’s expertise as a corpsman had not been questioned before he arrived at Easy Med and had to face the disapproval of the doctor. "I was speechless." He said. "It truly bothered me to think I didn’t do the job I was supposed to do." The doctor didn’t tell him why he should have cut more material away from the wound. "The only reason I could figure was that one of the corpsmen in the battalion receiving station must have complained that he had to do a little more work," said Joe. "Finding out about that wounded field observer would mean a great deal to me." It is believed that the field observer in question was with the 11th Marines, assigned to E-2-5, when the company took Hill 812 on September 17, 1951.
Although Korean War combat corpsmen were not licensed medical doctors, they nevertheless took their duty to care for the wounded and sick very seriously. Joe Brown was no exception. When the doctor reprimanded him, Joe said, "I was ashamed, embarrassed, and didn’t have a very high regard for myself after that. I started drinking, and eventually was moved from the ward to X-ray, and finally just being a ‘go-fer’. My self-esteem was at an all-time low. Today I know I should have addressed the issue at the time, but didn’t have the spirit or the gumption." He explained that the toughest thing about being a corpsman in Korea was coming to grips with the fact that--no matter how hard medical teams and individual medical personnel tried to help the wounded—not all of the casualties survived. War inevitably took its death toll. "A lot of men lost their sanity in different ways," he explained. I thought I was okay until I realized I was drinking far too much." At Easy Med, Joe’s previous social drinking turned into a severe drinking habit that lasted for many years after he was discharged from the Navy.
When thinking back on their time in Korea, many combat corpsmen—and not just Joe Brown—often introspectively ask themselves, "Did I do enough?" Considering the odds, considering the circumstances, considering their training, considering so many, many things--they generally conclude that they did the best they could. Joe, however, did not reach that conclusion. Besides, he had to deal with one other determining factor in the self-evaluation of his performance as a corpsman: the doctor’s reprimand at Easy Med.
Adding to this blow at his self-esteem, Joe also struggled with another problem: the memory of a Marine named Tom Henry Johnson. As mentioned earlier, during the taking of Hill 812, there were an overwhelming number of casualties. Included in them were at least three Marines whose wounds were mortal. One of the KIAs was Tom Johnson. Corpsman Brown did not know him any more than he knew the other men of his platoon, and Brown was not physically near him when Johnson died. "We were in the attack on the mountain and he was a BAR-man," Brown said. "I was in another area, and I saw his body as the men were carrying him out. The thing that stays with me about Johnson was when some Marines were carrying his body to a designated area," he said. "They had laid the litter down and one thoughtless idiot said, ‘Damn, he’s heavy.’ I couldn’t get over the fact that a brother Marine could be so callous. The majority of my time was with the Marines. This was the most disrespectful attitude I ever saw. I knew this young man, not as a close friend, but I knew him nonetheless. I was on patrols prior to this, and after this, and there was never a wounded or killed Marine left behind. In all situations, the incidents were handled in a truly professional and caring manner. That’s why I remember that one Marine."
Joe said that because he died of a headshot, Johnson’s death was mercifully quick. His wound was such that, even if the unit had been closer to a better-equipped medical facility, Johnson still could not have survived. "There was absolutely nothing that could have been done to save him," recalled Brown. "But it has stuck in my mind, and I can still see his body on the stretcher." After his return to the states, this memory stayed with Joe. "I thought of trying to contact his family, but I didn’t," he said. "I feel the reason for not trying to find them was I didn’t know how to act if I ever saw them. I wanted to be the bearer of the event of his death, but didn’t have the courage. Thinking about it, I really don’t know what I would have said to them."
The doctor’s reprimand and remembering the handling of Johnson’s body were hard enough for Joe Brown to handle. In addition, he said he found it painful to remember the general horror that all combat veterans must witness: "the killing, maiming of humans, hunger of the civilians, children without a home and family, the conditions we were living in: a hole in the ground, a bunker, the rain, snow, and the uncertainty of our outcome." When he first arrived at Easy Med, Brown had started out as a ward corpsman, but eventually he ended up just the odd job guy. "It was obvious to others—but not to me—that the drink had taken over."
When his year was up and he knew it was time to go home, Joe was relieved. "It was exciting," he said, "knowing I was going home and still in one piece. I was very glad. I felt my drinking problems would end and I would get home to my family."
In July or August of 1952, Joe and other veterans left the field hospital complex in 6x’s to begin their journey back to the states. They were deloused, and they put their weapons and unnecessary clothing in a truck. Although he doesn’t remember the name of the ship that brought him back to the states, Brown does remember that the Marines and Navy personnel on the ship were very upbeat about going home. "The trip home was good weather," Joe said. "From Korea we went to Japan to pick up our sea bags. We went to a huge wharf and the sea bags were laid out. We were directed to the area where ours were being held. I don’t remember what system was used, but it worked very well for most. I had a combination lock on my bag and had forgotten the combination. As a man was approaching with a hack-saw, I recalled the combination."
Two weeks later, the ship passed under the Golden Gate Bridge. "It was the third and best time for me to pass under the Golden Gate Bridge," said Brown. "When I left for Korea, we sailed from San Diego to Treasure Island, which made the first two times under the bridge. There were fire boats spraying water in the bay and as we neared the dock, the band’s music and people waving to loved ones was exciting." The ship docked at Treasure Island off the coast of California. "There were some family members there," recalled Brown. "There was a military band—I don’t remember if it was Navy or Marine. Thee were representatives from the Red Cross passing out cookies and coffee and just telling the guys they were glad to have them back home. After being told where I would be quartered, I made a phone call home", said Brown. Then, "We did a lot of partying," he admitted. "A close friend from back home was in the Air Force and stationed in an airfield close to Frisco. He was able to join us for a night of celebration. His name was Peter Mizera, and he has since died."
Brown spent the remainder of his time in the Navy with the 3rd Engineer Battalion, 3rd Marine Division at Camp Pendleton. "Along with sick bay duty, I went on hikes with the guys over hill and dale," he said. "I guess you could say I went wild a lot. Fortunately, I was with some Marines that had combat experience, and they took good care of me. When I was too drunk to maneuver, they led me in the right direction—like to the rack." Joe decided against rejoining the Navy, or "shipping over", as there was a problem with his records catching up with him at the time. The first class petty officer who was in charge at the time, didn’t believe Joe when he told him what his proficiency marks for the second class test were. "I left for home and later joined the active Marine Reserves as a corpsman."
Joe struggled with an adjustment period after he left the service and became a civilian once again. "When I left the service I had an uneasy feeling. I didn’t care to take up any formal schooling as I had enough of regimentation in the service. Some folks didn’t know what to say to a returning vet, and often conversations were difficult. It took some time for me to get used to civilian life, and I believe the association with the reserves helped, as I was with a good many men that had experienced active duty and combat."
During the years that followed his discharge from the Navy, Joe started training as an X-ray technician in a local hospital. "The program that was offered did not materialize as the VA requirements were not satisfied in order to receive GI Bill benefits." Dropping the X-ray technician studies, he started working in a commercial dental lab. He stayed there for six years and did receive the GI bill at that time. Since there was no health or retirement plan with the company, Joe decided to join the active reserves. "I felt the reserves were a good place to get some benefits," he said. He stayed in the reserves for eight years, receiving his final discharge in 1962. During that time, he attended drills twice a month and summer camp for two weeks each year. The reservists were paid according to their rate for a day or week’s duty. "I wasn’t concerned about being called for another war," Joe said. "My primary purpose for joining the active reserves was for retirement," and his time in the Marine Reserves allowed him to qualify for retirement benefits.
There was another unexpected benefit for Joe because he had joined the Marine Reserves. There, he met a Marine Reserve Officer who worked for IBM in Owego, New York. The officer asked Brown why, with his medical experience in the service, he had not applied as a medical assistant at IBM. "At the time, IBM hired only RN’s and MD’s in their medical department. However, after taking a course in a school in downtown Binghamton, I ended up getting a job at IBM Owego, New York, in the data processing department. I’m sure the Marine officer (named Finnegan) put in a good word for me to help get the job." Putting his corpsman knowledge to work, Brown said that for a few years he was a first aid attendant at IBM on the night shift. However, "There wasn’t much need for my services," said Brown, "and some years later they took only EMTs as assistants."
Although he started in the data processing department of IBM, he had opportunities for advancement during his career with IBM. From his original job in data processing, he went into computer operations, running applications. Next he moved to the service department where he started programming. From there he went into a systems programming department. After that he went into an accounting department, and ended his career working in Fixed Assets. Joe retired from IBM after 31+ years service on August 1, 1991.
In his retirement, he is involved in a jail ministry through the Broome County Council of Churches. "I visit male and female inmates at the local county jail and we discuss whatever they want," he said. Joe has also suffered a number of health problems associated with heart disease. Consequently, he also visits the heart floor at United Health Services just to talk with folks that are experiencing some of the procedures he has gone through. "I also enjoy pencil sketching with black graphite and color pencils," Joe said.
His helpmate through life during all those years was (and still is) his wife, Mary. Born of a Russian mother and Slovak father, Mary Elizabeth Brutvan met Joe in a bar, shortly after getting home from Camp Pendleton. "A friend of mine was dating a girlfriend of Mary," explained Joe. "He vouched for me that I was a good guy." Joe and Mary were united in marriage on August 8, 1953. The couple has four daughters: Barbara Jeanne Ozminkowski, Carolyn Marie Edwards, Anne Louise Brown, and Diane Marie Pakel. Other than very brief talks, never did their father sit down with them and tell his girls what he and other veterans of the Korean War went through for the sake of freedom. Calling it, "one of those returning vet things," Joe said he did not provide his wife with details about his wartime experiences, either. "I sometimes think it was all a bad dream and wonder if it really happened," he said.
Mary told Joe that there were times when he did have nightmares about Korea. "I’m sure they frightened her," he said. "What the dreams were about, I have no idea today." Living with her husband’s drinking problem for over three decades was not easy for Mary, Joe recalled. "My drinking continued for many years when I got home. When I was acting like the total jerk, Mary stood by me," he said. "I went through counseling for a period of time, and did learn some things about myself. Mary never pried into my activities and a few times would spend a night or weekend at her brother’s, but she always came back. The last few years we have been the closest we have ever been," Joe said. Some twenty-plus years ago, Joe quit drinking after a weekend binge. "With a huge hangover, I looked in the mirror one day and said, ‘You dumb son-of-a-bitch, look what you’re throwing away,’" he explained. "And I quit cold turkey. It wasn’t easy, but I’ve been sober ever since. I never went to AA or sought help in any other way."
For decades, memories of Korea haunted Joe Brown. They still do. But, in 1999, Brown met a great bunch of veterans who accompanied him to the Korean War Memorial in Washington, DC, and spent time with him there. It was the first meeting of the National Association of Medics and Corpsmen. "I went with the idea of meeting some of the guys I’ve been talking to on the computer. As it turned out, my expectations were far and above what I expected. We talked of our lives and experiences, and had a lot of camaraderie," he said. He was impressed during his visit to the national Korean War memorial. "I was amazed at the realism the artist had on the faces of the patrol. I could see the thousand yard stare in many of the figures." It brought back memories of the same stare he had seen on the faces of some of the men he had served with and treated for wounds back when he was a corpsman in Korea.
Joe further brought his memories of the Korean War to the forefront when he was commissioned by the Syracuse, New York diocese to visit shut-ins at hospitals, nursing homes, and private residences. "During the program, we were told it would be advisable to have a spiritual advisor." Joe’s advisor was a hospital chaplain. "I don’t know why I told her about the surgeon’s remark, but it came out." She suggested he seek further counseling. Finally, in the spring of 2000, Joe Brown sought counseling at a Veterans Administration medical facility to try to deal with the ghost called "Korea". About that time, Joe began this interview with Lynnita Sommer (Brown). Neither the counseling sessions, nor the interview, were easy for him to do. "I can’t begin to tell how many times I was ready to call it quits on this interview," he said. "It has been one of the toughest things I’ve done."
Reflections on Korea
But Joe is thinking about the Korean War more and more, and some of his thoughts are now positive ones. Some veterans refer to Korea as a "God-forsaken country" that was not worth the American lives it claimed to save it from the threatened Communist take-over. Joe Brown, however, said that he has always perceived Korea as a country well forth fighting for. He has long-remembered the plight of the natives whom he was in contact with during his months in Korea. "There were elderly men who carried supplies up the mountains to us," he said. "They did the majority of the digging of trenches and built bunkers. Their pay was extremely low, but they were doing it for their country." Brown thinks that the South Korean people were grateful in 1951-52 for American intervention, and that they remain grateful to our nation’s Korean War veterans even today.
"In November of 1999 I made my first visit to the Korean Memorial," he stated. "A friend said the best time to see the memorial for the first time was at night. He drove me to it, and we spent a good while looking at the statues, the wall with the pictures, the reflecting pool, and just meditating about it. I overheard a young lady speak in Korean, and asked if she was from Korea. In perfect English, she said no, pointed to a young man, and said he was from Korea. He approached me. I extended my arms and said ‘friend’ in Japanese. He said in broken English ‘Japanese’, and I said yes, and repeated it. He gave me a huge hug, backed up to arm’s length with his hands on my shoulders, and said, ‘Thank you for saving my country.’ I was really moved by this." The United Nations came to the assistance of those that were subject to the invading forces, noted Brown. "We were there for a specific reason," he said. "The United Nations effort should be strongly praised as there were men from other countries that experienced as many hardships as the US troops did. It was a united effort."
For Joe Brown, his strongest memory of Korea and the united effort to keep her free was the horror of war. "There was one instance when we were advancing up a mountain and a North Korean woman was killed. She was a medic for her troops and I was told she was armed. By the time I got to her, she was stripped of any arms and valuables. I am not a believer of women in combat." He said that he has a wife and four daughters, and that he has many female friends and acquaintances. "I just don’t think there is a place in combat for women," he said. "Back up support, okay, but not on the lines. A lot of it is disgusting and brutal, and women wouldn’t be able to handle it. I’m sure that some would do better than some men, but damn it all, it’s just what I believe," he said.
He is also opinionated on why the Korean War carries the name "the Forgotten War." He explained, "Our vintage of GI’s had a different outlook on things. The press was not as prominent as in the Vietnam War, and things were different at home. My mother worked at the local public library in Binghamton, New York, and rode the bus to work usually with a friend of hers. One day, there was a mutual friend of theirs and when the first lady asked Mom how Joe was, the second lady got concerned and asked what the matter was with Joe. Mom said I was in Korea, and her reply was, ‘Oh, that’s nothing to worry about.’ I can picture my mother now getting on her horse when she replied, ‘Not unless you have someone there.’ That was the general feeling for folks who had no one there. When I arrived at Treasure Island, another corpsman and I hitchhiked home. He lived in New Jersey and I in New York. We got hung up in Kyberz County and a state cop asked what we were doing along the highway. We told him our situation and that we had just returned from Korea. He said, ‘Oh, that police action.’ I said, ‘Yes, for a police action there are a lot of dead cops.’ He wasn’t too pleased with my sassy mouth and told us to get out of his state. These tales I think will explain why I think it’s called the ‘Forgotten War.’"
Although he is certain that the United States should undoubtedly have been a part of that united effort, he personally has no desire to revisit Korea to see how the country was changed by the united stand against communism. "I have no desire to go back there," he said. "I don’t have the heart to revisit those places, and I don’t have the finances. If the money was given to me, I don’t think I would go." For Joe, being a part of the war effort in Korea was unforgettable. "It was a million dollars worth of experience," he said, "but I wouldn’t give a wooden nickel to do it again."
He said that his tour of duty in Korea gave him a greater value of life. "Life is so cheap in some situations," he explained. "The hordes of North Koreans and Chinese that were in mass charges, lives were a dime a dozen. The shameful situations that take place in our schools, the homeless, the poor quality of politicians we have to accept. These, and I possibly could think of other reasons, are some values I think I got."
Sometimes the internal changes that war wrought on returning combat veterans were evident on the outside, too. "When I was in Washington last year, we were in a group talk. One of the men asked another man if he was different when he came home," said Joe. "This man said he didn’t feel any different, but his wife said he was definitely a different person than when he went to Vietnam. They were married before his service days. I looked back on my return home and recalled an incident with my uncle and his wife," said Joe. "I had just returned from Korea and went to visit my grandparents and uncle in Watkins Glen, New York. As we were sitting in their living room talking, my Uncle Albert did something I never expected to see. He cuddled close to his wife on the couch and put his arm around her. I don’t recall the subject, but I’m sure it was about Korea. Thinking about the moment, I can only guess I had shown an expression he didn’t recognize and took comfort of his wife. I can well imagine I was not the same guy that had gone [to war] and returned."
Final Thoughts of a former FMF Corpsman
Combat veteran Joe Brown said that FMF corpsmen are unique unto themselves. "There is unity among them and a brotherhood that supports each one of us," he said. "I am proud to have served with the Marines and am associated with a great group of corpsmen and Marines today." He received a Purple Heart because of the wounds he received while serving with them. Brown noted that, although his wound was far less serious than a good many other wounds he saw and treated, nevertheless, it means a great deal to him to own the Purple Heart medal. "I am proud to have been wounded in the defense of my country’s beliefs,’ he said. Of Korea’s veterans in general, he said, "We didn’t do anything out of the ordinary other than get shot at, shelled, and survive in a country most had never heard of."
Police action? No way. As Joe said, "Just being there was impossible." The general public often doesn’t realize it, but the Korean War was so much, much more than a "police action". It took its toll in destruction, death, and injury; and it took its toll by causing mental anguish in the minds of many of its returning veterans. Because Joe Brown is a man who demands a great deal from himself, he became yet another victim of the war. How so? Because for him personally, the hardest thing about being in Korea goes right back to being taken to task for the decision he made on Hill 812 to keep the clothing of a wounded 11th Marine intact.
To this day, he still wonders, "Did I do the right thing, or did I screw up?" Civilians might not understand the "big deal" when it comes to the importance of this question in Joe’s mind’s eye. What they do not realize is that a corpsman is a very unique veteran. His devotion to his duty as "Doc" to combat Marines strongly personifies the Marine Corps code of honor that demands, "never let a buddy down." Joe Brown needs to come to terms with a question that has troubled the veteran corpsman for fifty years. Did he do the right thing on Hill 812, or did he fail in his duty? Probably only one of Doc Brown’s Marines—in particular, a forward observer who once fought and bled on Hill 812--can set Joe’s mind to rest over his unanswered question.
Responses to Memoir
Ralph Fly, Washington - January 02, 2002:
Dr. Birney Dibble, Wisconsin - January 17, 2002: