Interviewed by Kinue Tokudome
So you were only 16 when you enlisted.
Yes, I quit school starting my sophomore year in high school and went into service when I was 16 years old. In 1940, the war was going on in Europe. My brother was already in the military and my best friend was going in. I wanted to go. So I coerced my parents into signing that I was 18 years old. I enlisted in the US Army Air Corps on October 2, 1940 and was assigned to the 34th Pursuit Squadron. When I got to the Hamilton Field Air Base near San Francisco, I sat down on my bed at night and asked myself, "What am I doing here?" Well I got myself into this and I was certainly not going to back out. I was a tough kid. My brother was older and my sister was younger. I was in the middle. My father believed in the oldest kid and my sister was an apple of his eye. That made me have more drive than they had.
You did not feel you were loved?
Well, I knew I was. I came second, put it that way. But that made me tougher. I worked from the time I was 12 years old. I used to caddy at the golf course every weekend. I had a paper route. I milked cows at my grandmother's farm. This was during the depression. I was a pretty tough boy. Both sides of my family were wagon trainers in California in 1849 and 1850. Those were tough times and I was blessed with their genes. I believe that was one of the reasons why I survived the hell I went through. I worked hard then and worked hard in the military later. I attained the rank of Chief Master Sergeant by working hard. You've got to go for it.
You sent this telegram to your family on October 31, 1941, the day before you were to be shipped to the Philippines from San Francisco, telling them not to come the next day. Given what would happen to you in the next four years, I found this telegram very poignant. Why did you send it?
Well, it would take them five hours to drive from Marysville to San Francisco on a two-lane road and we were leaving at 7:00 am. It was just too much, so I sent that message. On Bataan, we tried to write letters but I didn't know whether they got out or not. I never got any mail. From the time I left to go overseas, I never got a word from home. So I was making myself hate my mother and father to get them out of my mind. That's one method of survival.
That's very sad.
I was going through a hard time. My God, I had malaria, dysentery. I had yellow jaundice and beriberi. I've got to take care of me. I couldn't sit there pining for my family. They were back in the United States. They had food and I didn't have food. You've got to be tough. That is what it amounts to. After we were surrendered in Bataan on April 9, 1942, I made a 70- mile march in four days witnessing my fellow American soldiers being shot or bayoneted. I was in Camp O'Donnell where 1500 men died in a 60-day period and we were moved to Camp Cabanatuan in June, 1942. Since I was a combat medic, they gave me the worst detail-working in the dysentery ward where people were dying.
Then on October 8, 1942, we were on board the Tottori Maru. It took 30 days going from Manila to Pusan, Korea. It was a hell. When I got to Manchuria, although I weighed only 82 pounds (my normal weight was 165 pounds), my feet were so big because of beriberi.
What kind of work were you made to do in Manchuria?
Because I had learned to speak Japanese by then, I worked for Japanese doctors in the hospital in the Mukden Camp. When anybody came on a sick call, they had to come through me. I would record down their temperature and pulse and what was wrong with them. I pulled over 200 teeth with no anesthesia on any of them as we had none. One of mine was pulled the same way.
They were all POWs weren't they?
Oh, yes. We had benches in the hallway and they would sit out there and wait for the doctor to come from his little office. And I would have to call them to attention. I would say, "Ki-O-Tsuke!" (Attention!) And I would say, "Honjitsu no shindan kanja wa nijyu-go mei. Tadaima mairimashita." (I have 25 patients today. They are here, sir.) Then I would tell them, "Rei!" (Bow!) After that, they went in one by one to see the doctor. I did my work so well that I received two commendations from the Japanese military as well as one from the War Department after the war.
One doctor, Dr. Oki, seemed to have more compassion for us than other
Japanese doctors did. We all liked Dr. Oki. He called me, "Brown
-San" while others called me, "Bura-U-N!" He was not a
typical Japanese. Not at all. He didn't have hate and stupidity that a
lot of Japanese soldiers had. Dr. Oki and I had a camaraderie. I don't
know how to describe it. It was a friendship.
When the war was over, Dr. Oki gave me his saber. I told him, "Dr. Oki, why don't you keep it until we all leave and I will come and get it." Well, then this quack American doctor took it. All officers were that way. Although Dr. Oki had given me the saber, this American doctor turned on to me and said that rank had its privileges. I'll tell you what. I met him in 1974 when we had a reunion in San Antonio, TX. I said, "Hi Herbst, remember me?" He said, "Oh yeah, I still got Dr. Oki's saber." So I told him, "You stay away from me. Or I would break every finger of both of your hands." He never came around me.
But the important thing is that Dr. Oki wanted you to have it.
He wanted me to have it. That is true. He also gave me his picture and address. I wanted to see him after the war. I had never been in Japan because they took me from the Philippines straight to Manchuria. There was an Air Force regulation that for ten years you could not go back to a country that you had been a prisoner of war. They were afraid that former POWs like us might go there and be killing people. And some guys would. But that was not my intent. I wanted to go and see Dr. Oki.
So I got an assignment to Japan and arrived there on 2nd of October, 1955. I was a Master Sergeant by then and got my quarters in Tachikawa. Next day, I went down to the train station and got myself "Kippu" (ticket). I was able to speak Japanese well enough. I went to Shinjuku and got off the train there. I hired a taxi and asked the driver to take me to the address. He took me up to where Dr. Oki lived. I asked the driver to go in and see if he was there. He went in there and came back and said, "This is where he lives but he is not here." So I said OK and paid him money. And I went in. Dr. Oki's wife was standing on a little back porch. I was in military uniform. I could see the horror on her face because she didn't know who I was. I was a military man looking for Dr. Oki. I told her in Japanese, "Watakushi wa Brown- san desu. Hoten no byoin ni imashita" (I am Mr. Brown. I was at the hospital in Hoten.) Oh my God, she had a big smile and started bowing up and down.
So she had heard about you.
Obviously yes. From Dr. Oki. She went to the phone and called him.
Had you been communicating with Dr. Oki until then? Or was this a sudden visit after 10 years?
Yep, it was a sudden visit. He came home and was so happy to see me. We hugged each other. I found out that Dr. Oki had been in a Russian forced labor camp for five years after the war. Dr. Oki was the one who got permission for me to send home a ten-word telegram when I had my appendix taken out in April of 1945. I got a response from my family on 31st of May, 1945. That's the first word I had ever gotten from my home.
What was your home coming like?
When I finally got home, my mother would say, "Bob, what can I fix you to eat?" I would sit down at the table, take about 10 bites or so and all of a sudden I couldn't eat anymore. If I sit there I would vomit right on my plate. American food was too rich. I couldn't sleep on the bed. It was too soft. I would sleep on the rug in the living room. I bought a car. I just couldn't sit still. I had to keep moving doing something. Between Marysville and Yuba City, I would probably drive 150 miles a day, just back and forth, on the move.
I had not had a girlfriend before going to the Philippines. So I had nobody to come back to except my family, my mother and father. The only thing I could do was to drink. That would relax me. I could drink a bottle of whisky and wouldn't get drunk. But it relaxed me. In fact, I still take valium. I have been taking it for 45 years. Veterans Administration still gives it to me. Only 5 mg tablets for night so I can relax to go to sleep because my legs and feet all hurt. My feet hurt all the time. This is a leftover from Kakke (beriberi). Then I went back to the military and you can't be drinking in the military. I went to a night school in Sacramento taking typing courses and some English courses to better myself. In the military, people who worked under me did not know that I was a prisoner of war because I did not tell any one. We were ashamed of it. We felt, believe it or not, we had let our country down.
Wasn't it the other way around?
Yes, it was. But that's the way we felt. We were Americans. We just don't
give up. Americans are damn good fighting men, we don't back down.
Oh, yes. After I got home, I was sleeping on the bed, which I didn't like, and I was having flashbacks. My mother came in to shake me and wake me up. I came out of the bed and held her by the throat. And I woke up and said, "What in the hell am I doing!" I told her, "Mother, don't ever come in and touch me when I am sleeping because I don't know what I am going to do."
Do you still have nightmares today?
Yep, I still do. I saw three men with their heads cut off on the Bataan Death March. They made us watch these men executed. Those are hard things to forget. The reason we never told about some of these things was because they were so horrible that we would think that people wouldn't believe us.
How did you cope with your anger, which I am sure you had in addition to those nightmares? You treat me, a Japanese person, nicely. How did you come to this point?
Well you know, you cannot go through life with hate because that makes you sick. That hurts you inside eventually. If you are going to hate a race for the rest of your life, you will wind up a loser.
Given what you went through, I imagine that it was not easy for you to think that way.
There is one I would kill right now if I were to see him on a street of Marysville. So I hate certain individuals, but you cannot hate a whole country for what a few did to you. And then, for me to learn enough Japanese to sit and converse with them and find out their feelings and to argue with them and talk to them helped a lot. They were so indoctrinated and believed so strongly that they were going to win the war. I said, "You don't know America." I tried to tell them many times, "When the war is over, Beikoku (America) and Nippon (Japan) will be Tomodachi (friends)." They would say, "No, no, no, that will never happen."
It did happen, didn't it?
Yes, it did.
Mr. Brown in a recent photo
-- posted Nov. 2004
Please read also: Former POW Robert A. Brown returns to Mukden camp
Stolen Valor: A phony Bataan Death March survivor was exposed by a real survivor
* Robert A. Brown, CM Sgt US Air Force (ret.), passed away on October 15, 2008.