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2014, Aaron Elson



Arnold Brown

90th Infantry Division

    Despite having only an eighth-grade education, Arnold Brown became a company commander in the 90th Division. He remained in the military and retired as a colonel.

Owensboro, Ky.

2014, Aaron Elson

Sept. 8, 1997

    Aaron Elson: Your name is Arnold Brown?

    Arnold Brown: Arnold L. Brown.

    Aaron Elson: What’s the L for?

    Arnold Brown: Lee.

    Aaron Elson: After Robert E?

    Arnold Brown: I don’t know if any of my ancestors had the name Lee, so it could have been. I hope the Arnold wasn’t after Benedict Arnold.

    Aaron Elson: Where did you grow up?

    Arnold Brown: I was born and raised in Ohio County, Kentucky, just about 30 miles from here. On a farm. Of course I was a teenager back during the Depression years. I got tired of eating corn bread and molasses three times a day so I decided to go into the Army. I left home with 50 cents in my pocket and an eighth-grade education. I went out to the little place of Cronos, they called it Equality I believe was the name of the area there, and went out in the bushes and waited till the first freight train came through, and when it slowed down I jumped inside one of these boxcars. It was dark inside, and there was a professional hobo in there. He said, "Where you goin’, sonny?" Like to scared me to death. But he turned out to be a very nice hobo, because he told me when and where to get off the train when I arrived in Louisville so that the security forces wouldn’t pick me up. Otherwise I probably would never have made it into the Army. So this is my beginning of my military career.

    In those days, we were an all-volunteer force,  and of course they got a lot of their men, individuals like me, and other young men who would get into some type of minor trouble with the authorities. A judge would call them before him and give them him a choice of paying their fine and spending 15 to 30 days in jail or going into the military. So a lot of them would take the military. And in those days, the basic training in the military was to weed them out; in other words either make a man and a soldier out of them or out they would go. Later on, I ended up being a recruiting instructor in the same outfit. And this was quite a problem, because as a corporal in those days I had more authority than the majors had later on as far as disciplinary actions were concerned. If we had a problem recruit, we could take him down and put him in the guardhouse and leave him there overnight, with no charge. He didn’t know how long he was going to be there and this would scare the heck out of him. When he came back, why, he’d turn out to be a good soldier. Can you imagine trying to do that today in this type of Army? No.

    While I was drilling recruits, I had trouble with one soldier. I did everything I could to discipline him, and the policy then was, one of the things they would allow us to do was to have the recruit hold a rifle over his head and run down to the parade ground, around the flagpole and back, and believe me, if you do this for a little while, you’re really tired out. I had him to do that a few times and it didn’t help, so I reported him to the lieutenant who was in charge of the recruit training. And he says, "Take him behind the garbage rack."

    If you had a problem with the individual, they had an area behind the garbage rack where you could back and fight it out, as long as you used your fists, and when it’s over you’re supposed to get up and shake hands. The lieutenant told me to take him behind the garbage rack.

    I said, "Did you look at this one? He’s over 6 feet tall and he’s from the mountains" up there in Virginia. These are some of the comical things. You want to get to my story.

    Aaron Elson: Did any of these recruits ever beat you up?

    Arnold Brown: No, sir, I never had any of them invite me behind the garbage rack. But that was a different army.

    Aaron Elson: What year did you go in?

    Arnold Brown: I enlisted on March 18, 1936. And it took me a year and 11 months to make Pfc. But it wasn’t too long after that until I made corporal. But the only reason I got promoted to corporal, a World War I sergeant committed suicide, and this left a vacancy for sergeant, so when they promoted one of the senior corporals, it left a vacancy for a corporal, and they got all the senior Pfcs and they chose me.

    Aaron Elson: Do you know why he committed suicide?

    Arnold Brown: I never did hear. He was pretty old at that time. So I proceeded then and got to buck sergeant, served as platoon sergeant, and I was getting ready to leave the service after my first career. I’d already met my future wife. I was stationed at Rockford, Illinois, and I was going to be separated from the service in March of the following year. In the military at that time a sergeant made $72 a month. On my pay I certainly couldn’t afford a wife, so I was planning on getting out. I was in a position where I could take a trade school, and I qualified and even had a job lined up. I didn’t want to wait – you know how it is, you’re young and full of energy – so we decided to get married. We got married on Thanksgiving Day, it was November the 20th, 1941. Well, you know what happened December the 7th, so I couldn’t get out.

    Well, now I’m stuck. So I applied for officers candidate school.

    Aaron Elson: How did you meet your wife?

    Arnold Brown: I met her at a community dance. It was a USO activity.

    Aaron Elson: What do you remember about the day Pearl Harbor was attacked?

    Arnold Brown: I was stationed in Camp Grant, Illinois, and I happened to be Sergeant of the Guard that day. The Officer of the Day, a lieutenant, came down and wanted me to put extra guards around the warehouse; you see, this was a recruit reception center, where the recruits would come in and train and get equipped and then they’d ship them out to some unit assignment. So apparently he thought there might be some sabotage going on. It was just a precautionary action. Nothing ever occurred around there in that respect.

    Aaron Elson: And what was the feeling of the people?

    Arnold Brown: Everyone was real mad at the Japanese, and of course after that the volunteers were coming in. The volunteers were just about as plentiful as the draftees were. It unified the country. In other words, this was a war that we had to win. As one person made the statement, I think compared with the later wars that World War II was a good war. He said, "There’s no such thing as a good war." He said, "World War II was a must war. We had to win." And I think even among those who were in combat there was never any doubt in our minds but what we were going to pursue it until we won.

    Aaron Elson: What made you put in for OCS?

    Arnold Brown: Do I have to tell it like it is?

    Aaron Elson: Tell it like it is!

    Arnold Brown: They started calling in reserve officers, National Guard officers. Now, I don’t want to put any reflection on the individuals. They were educated, they were smart, but they knew very little about the military. And there was this one lieutenant, he was reading in the manual, trying to learn something. He said, "I understand why we have officers and non-commissioned offers, but who are these bar men?" Browning automatic rifles.

    I thought, "Good gosh, these people are gonna be leading me in combat?" And here I already had five years of training. So I applied for OCS.

    You had to make 110 on the Army General Classification Test in those days to qualify, and they also required a high school education. Well, they had a board of officers there to make these selections to OCS, so they observed me in my handling of my platoon, etcetera, and they gave a waiver for me to go OCS in spite of my not having finished high school. And I might add that I graduated in the upper 10 percent, because they always interviewed the upper 10.

    Aaron Elson: Where did you go to OCS?

    Arnold Brown: At the infantry center in Fort Benning, Georgia. When I graduated, they assigned me to a new infantry division that was being formed. They sent five of us shavetails into this company, and the company commander gave us a form to fill out, giving our experiences and our preference of assignment. I put down rifle platoon leader. I’d been a platoon sergeant and I knew the platoon A to Z, so I knew I could handle this job in spite of my limited education. All the other officers put down company executive officer. Well, who do you think they chose for company exec? And I should have known, because that’s the Army system, if you want something, tell them that’s what you don’t want.

    After being in that position for three months, they promoted me to first lieutenant. And it wasn’t long after that until they were forming another new division, so now we have to send a cadre to this new division. So the company commander called me in. He said one of us would have to go as a company commander in the new division. Then he said, "Since this is my first company, I’d like to stay here." In other words, I had no choice. I was cadred out to help form another division.

    After holding that position for six months they promoted me to captain. So when I first went in, it took me a year and 11 months to make Pfc; now I go from second lieutenant to captain in 11 months. I said, "I must have been a dumb private and a smart officer."

    At the time I got my orders to go overseas as a replacement officer, I was working for the assistant division commander. We were running rifle platoons through a live firing field problem and rating them on their qualification for combat.

    I’ll tell a story now. When these platoons were going through these live firing problems, I had to rate them whether they were qualified for combat or not. If not, they had to go back and take some more training. And I was able to rate all the platoons except one. This platoon did everything wrong as far as issuing their orders and taking advantage of the camouflage. Everything they did was wrong except one thing. They hit every target. So I went to the assistant division commander, a general, and asked him to help me make this decision. And he wasn’t much help, he’s still going to leave it up to me. And this is what I said: "Well, the cover of your own rifle fire is the best cover you can have, and when you’re killing enemy they’re not killing you. So how can I rate them unsatisfactory?"

    He said, "Good."

    So we rated them qualified.

    This is what I was doing when I got orders on the 16th of June to ship out as a replacement officer because of the high rate of casualties they were having in Normandy.

    They put us on a troop ship to ship to England, and we were in a convoy. There were so many ships in this convoy that you could look in any direction almost going over the horizon, and the freighters and tankers and all had the outer perimeter. In other words, if submarines made an attack on us they were supposed to take it rather than let them get to the troop ships. Well, we were out two days, and the ship that we were on was an old German ship that had been scuttled by the Germans in Africa, and we had salvaged it.

    Our convoy was taking a zigzag course, and they were making a turn to the left when the steering mechanism on our ship went out. We couldn’t turn. And there was one of those tankers crossing in front of us and they put this ship in reverse it’s like it’s jumping up and down to stop from hitting this tanker that’s filled with high-octane gas.

    I’d hoped maybe they’d just turn around and take us back to repair the ship, because the convoy just went off and left us, but we were already at the point of no return. So they left us there and they left one destroyer with us. He was circling us all the time while we were getting our repairs done, and occasionally he’d take off and drop a few depth charges. I don’t know whether there was an enemy sub there, the radar picked up something, it might have been a school of fish. Anyhow it did drop a few, and nothing happened. So they got it repaired before daylight the next morning, and then we took off to catch the convoy. This transport ship could travel a lot faster than the other ships, so we caught up without any other incident.

    We landed in England, but I was only there a few days, because they were needing replacements bad. So they shipped me right on through and right up to the front lines. It was so confused and everything I don’t even remember the exact date, but it was around the last of June and they assigned me to the 90th Infantry Division. They assigned me as company commander of Company G in the 358th Infantry Regiment. And this company had lost all their officers and 50 percent of their enlisted men during a prior engagement.

    My mission at that time was to organize these replacements into this demoralized company and make an attack three days later. That was the most trying time I’ve ever had in my entire life. I thought, if I live through this, that I’d have to have some help from the Supreme Being. If there is a guardian angel, why, no one ever needed one any worse than I did with my responsibilities in this situation and the men that I was responsible for, and I believe He came to my rescue.

Interviews                       Arnold Brown, Page 2