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SERVING OUR VETERANS: A local connection to the Battle of Attu

By Staff | Aug 2, 2019

In the May 11, 2019 addition of the Pierce County Tribune, I submitted a column titled “Remembering the Battle of Attu.” To summarize, the Battle of Attu was fought from May 11 to May 30, 1943. Attu is a very small island at the very west end of the Aleutian chain of Alaska and is home to some of the world’s worst weather. It was the only battle of World War II fought on American soil and the first time since 1812 that United States territory had been lost to a foreign enemy. During the Battle of Attu, U.S. forces were able to retake the island from the Japanese but at a great cost. Of the 2,900 Japanese stationed on the island, only 28 survived as prisoners of war. At the end, at least 500 Japanese soldiers massed together, pressed grenades against their chests, and committed mass suicide. The toll on the Americans was horrific as well. There were 549 killed and 1,148 wounded. Because of the severe weather conditions (including cold, wind, and fog) quagmire ground conditions, and the “death before defeat” indoctrination of the Japanese soldiers, the predicted three day battle lasted almost twenty days, before the 15,000 American men could liberate the island.

On June 30, 2019, I received an e-mail from retired Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Clayton F. Brown from Dallas, Oregon. His father, Clayton Aubrey Brown, was from Rugby, North Dakota and had served in the 7th Infantry Division, 32 Regiment on Attu. About the only two things LTC Brown recalled his Dad talking about were the cold on Attu and the fanaticism of the Japanese soldiers. Clayton went on to add that his Dad suffered terribly most of his life due to his wartime experience.

Being that Clayton A. Brown was a resident of Pierce County, I would like to relate some additional information that his son shared with me about his father.

Clayton A. Brown was born February 1, 1920 to Harold Brown and Ruby Oksendahl. His mother died when he was still a child and his father abandoned him shortly thereafter. He was then raised by Invald and Mable Oksendahl as well as Herbert and Mable Harmel. His growing years were turbulent. His family is pretty sure Dad was career counselled by a judge to join the Army. He had just been fired from the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) for taking a caterpillar out on a frozen lake to “cut cookies” and dropped the caterpillar into the lake. Hence, he then joined the North Dakota National Guard and was sent to Camp Roberts in California for training. While there, he got into trouble again and wound up recycled into the 7th Infantry Division. They were in desert training for North Africa. But, the Division Commander volunteered the unit for the Aleutian operation. The division was not trained nor equipped for such a mission, and the Division Commander was relieved after the operation. After Attu, Clayton re-equipped, re-trained, and went in on the first wave of the invasion of Kwajalein Island in the Marshall Islands. By then he was the Acting Heavy Duty Platoon Sergeant. The overall operation was well done although there were some tense moments for Clayton’s platoon. At one point they were surrounded by Japanese machine guns and in danger of being wiped out. Two American tanks appeared and then Clayton stood up under heavy fire, got the attention of the tank crews and pointed out the enemy positions so the tanks could dispose of them. For this, Clayton was awarded the Silver Star by General Hap Arnold. The Silver Star is the third highest award for bravery under fire. Enclosed is a photo of Clayton receiving his Silver Star from Brigadier General Arnold. From there, it was back to Hawaii to re-fit, re-train, and re-party. The Division was then sent to the Philippines for the invasion of Leyte. Clayton was now the Platoon Sergeant. On Leyte, he was shot in the leg by a sniper and was evacuated to the Hospital Ship USS Hope. From there, he was sent to the Veterans Administration hospital in Spokane, Washington for recovery. He was discharged from the Army there.

In Spokane, by chance, was Clara Leona Tank, born of Gustav and Amelia Reimann Tank on July 3, 1919 in Rugby, North Dakota. She heard from family back home that Clayton was in Spokane. She was working at the Kaiser Aluminium Plant in Mead, Washington, just north of Spokane, in a “Rosie the Riveter” position. She went to see Clayton and making the story short, they married (see enclosed wedding photo). To this union, three children were born. Clayton went to work for the Great Northern Railroad and spent 25 years there, retiring in 1973 as an operating engineer. Clayton was well liked and respected by the working employees and management.

Late in life, Clayton finally attended a 7th Division reunion. He had avoided going for many years as he presumed the men who served under his command would have hated him for sending men out on missions and getting some of them killed. When he finally did attend, the men were ecstatic that he had survived. They all thought he had died. Some of these old war veterans hung on him and cried. When Clayton expressed concerns, they responded that he was just doing his job; he did it well, and took great care of his men in his unit. Clayton was a changed man after that. Clayton died on February 19, 1992 from heart failure. Clara died on June 28, 1997. They are both buried in Spokane, Washington.

As I read Clayton A. Brown’s story, it reminded me once again how time in service to our nation helped mold many of our veterans into productive and good citizens, despite a rocky start in life. It also reminded me of the suffering, sacrifice, and loss that many veterans and their families endured because of their wartime experiences. Throughout our history, it seems that no matter what war and which battle(s) fought, both large and small, there always seems to be a connection to our community and our local families. It may be difficult or seem overwhelming to honor and remember all veterans. But, I believe we can always commit ourselves to remembering and honoring our own, from our little community. Doing this for our own, in a sense, honors all of them. So today, we remember SSGT Clayton Aubrey Brown and his family for his service to our great nation. May God continue to bless his memory for the sacrifices and hardships he endured helping to preserve our country’s freedom. Thank you also, LTC Clayton F. Brown, for sharing your father’s story with me. And, thank you for your service to our country as well. As Pierce County residents, let us always say, “We will always remember, we will always honor, and we will never forget what our veterans have done for us.”

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