Richard L. Brown, 81, Pearl Harbor survivor

August 22, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Richard L. Brown, who survived the attack on Pearl Harbor and four years later was a witness to the Japanese surrender aboard the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, died Thursday of heart failure at the Veterans Administration Rehabilitation and Extended Care Facility in Baltimore. He was 81 and lived in Timonium.

Mr. Brown was a 23-year-old seaman on the battleship USS West Virginia when the ship, anchored in Battleship Row, was attacked and sunk by Japanese aircraft Dec. 7, 1941.

"They were preparing to go over to Ford Island to play a baseball game when the sirens began wailing," said his wife of 51 years, the former Mary Ann Streid. "He said the planes were so low that he could see the smiling faces of the pilots. They did what they could, but all of the ammunition was locked up."

Blown overboard, Mr. Brown swam through burning fuel oil to reach the safety of Ford Island. Attacked by six torpedoes and two bombs, and with its captain dead, the West Virginia settled upright on the harbor bottom.

Several days later, Mr. Brown and his shipmates returned to the West Virginia to retrieve personal items. "The water was knee-deep in our compartment. My locker was at the foot of the ladder, right below the hatch, and everything in it was burned to a crisp," he told The Sun in a 1993 interview.

"The next locker belonged to a man who was very religious; everything in it was also burned except his Bible. That gave us more faith to go on," he said.

"Years afterward, he talked about the men who were trapped below. They could hear them tapping. Eventually, the tapping stopped. It always bothered him," said Mrs. Brown.

Born in Leighton Township, Mich., he was reared and graduated from high school in Petoskey, where for a time it seemed that he had become the town's first World War II fatality.

After Pearl Harbor, his father received a telegram from the Navy Department informing him that his son had been killed in the sneak attack.

The local newspaper described him as a "sandy-haired local youth very popular among the younger set and lost in action." Flags were flown at half-staff.

At the memorial service, one of the candles on the altar wouldn't go out when it was time to extinguish it, recalled Mrs. Brown.

On Christmas Eve, a Western Union telegrapher took the last message of the day before closing. It read: "The Navy Department is pleased to advise you that a report has been received that your son Richard L. Brown, seaman first class, previously reported lost in action, is now accounted for."

"The word spread through the town, and every church tolled its bell for Dick that Christmas Eve night," said his wife.

On May 8, 1942, while serving aboard the USS Lexington as a baker, Mr. Brown had to abandon ship again after the carrier was attacked and sunk during the Battle of the Coral Sea. He was then transferred to the USS Block Island, a small escort carrier that protected North Atlantic convoys. After one voyage to Belfast, Northern Ireland, he joined the first crew of the Missouri, which had been commissioned in 1944 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

A German U-boat torpedoed the Block Island and sent it to the bottom on its next voyage.

Perched on the Missouri's superstructure, Mr. Brown had a ringside seat for the Japanese surrender Sept. 2, 1945.

"Just before nine o'clock, I watched the Japanese come up the gangway; one guy [Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu] could hardly walk," he said in the newspaper interview. "General [Douglas] MacArthur didn't shake hands or anything, he just pointed to where they should stand."

The crowd witnessing the formal end of World War II anchored in Tokyo Bay grew quiet.

"But it was silent. With MacArthur's presence, it would have been. I don't recall any jubilation, and as soon as it was over, we went right back to continue our duties of guard and patrol," he said.

He was discharged in 1946 with the rank of chief petty officer and returned to his hometown, where he opened a bakery. He later went to work for Swift & Co.'s baking division in Chicago, eventually becoming a researcher in the industry and moving to Timonium in 1967. He retired from Watson Foods in the mid-1980s.

He was active in the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association Maryland Chapter No. 1, and he is the only Maryland-Virginia member known to have been at Pearl Harbor and the surrender.

"There are not many left who could say that," said Gerald W. Hamill, a member of the organization and an Army Air Corps tail gunner who was at Hickam Field on Dec. 7, 1941.

Mr. Brown was a member of Havenwood Presbyterian Church in Timonium. He enjoyed gardening and reading about World War II.

Plans for a memorial service were incomplete yesterday.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by a son, L. Bruce Brown of Fallbrook, Calif., and a daughter, Marynette Bollinger of Atlanta.

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