Courage and determination are hallmarks of war heroes, but these traits can also help a soldier overcome great personal battles for his health. The story of Command Sergeant Major John A. Brown is a prime example of the triumph of the human spirit in both fields.
After fighting in World War II, Brown returned home and was diagnosed with tuberculosis. After four years of treatment and the partial loss of a lung and the loss of several ribs, he successfully requested the military to return to active service. He then made two tours of Vietnam.
John Alvin Brown was born June 5, 1922 in Lockhart, Covington County, Alabama. Her parents were John Alva and Tupsie Justice Brown. His mother died of probable tuberculosis in November and John was sent to live with his uncle’s family when he was about a year old. The Rufus Justice family lived in the community of Stanley in Covington County, Alabama. They were sharecroppers who led a very frugal and difficult life.
John grew up knowing how to work hard and only completed eighth grade at Stanley School. In 1940, he joined the army, telling them that he was 18, which was the legal age. By the time the army learned of his real age, John was fighting with General Patton’s army in North Africa.
Private John A. Brown trained at Camp Blanding, Fla., Before being deployed with an armored unit to North Africa as part of General George S. Patton’s army. The American invasion of North Africa called Operation Torch resulted in the defeat of the United States II Corps at the Battle of the Kasserine pass in February 1943. On March 8, General Patton was given command of the II Corps. His energetic leadership resulted in the defeat of German Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Corps in Battle of El Guettar end of March 1943. In May 1943, the Allies controlled all of North Africa, preparing the ground for the invasion of Sicily.
Brown was in Patton’s 7e Army invading Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica. He participated in the invasion of Italy and the battles that followed in the north, including the Rome-Arno and Rhineland campaigns.
Towards the end of the war, he was a guard at a prisoner of war camp near Marseille, France. Through his caring nature, Brown befriended a German POW named Franz Weddemann, who was also an artist. Weddemann asked to see pictures of John and his fiancee, Bonnie Parrish and did two charcoal and pencil sketches of them. He presented them to John in thanks for his friendship. These sketches are shown with this item.
John A. Brown was a sergeant upon his return to the United States and was discharged after the war. He married Bonnie Mae Parrish on November 3, 1945 in Covington County, Alabama. They would have three children, Andre Brown of San Francisco, California; Rebecca Brown Dworkin of Medford, Oregon; and Susan Brown Stewart of Greenville, South Carolina.
John joined the Army and was sent to Fort Bliss, Texas. While there, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1949. He was sent to Fitzsimmons Army Medical Center in Aurora, Colorado, where he was treated from 1949 to 1953. During this time, he was unable to see her family only through a window in the tuberculin ward. This was before the widespread use of sulfa drugs for treatment and John underwent surgery in an effort to save his life. The operation removed part of a lung and six ribs.
Over the next three years, John underwent pulmonary rehabilitation while graduating from high school and attending business school. He asked the Army to resume active service and in 1956 he was accepted and assigned to a tank unit at Fort Knox, Ky.
In 1959 John was sent to Butzbach, Germany. It was during this first tour of Germany that he began to experience dizziness and hearing problems. Even with his physical problems, he took his family to historic sites in Germany, Holland and Belgium, teaching them about the Battle of the Bulge and other war stories. In 1962, he was returned to the United States and assigned to the 7e Cavalry Division stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia. John recalled that his colonel marched the troops five miles a day in full combat gear. The colonel explained that during the fighting in Korea, his troops were overtaken and massacred because they could not outrun the Chinese. John remained there until 1965 when he was assigned to Army 2sd Armored battalion in Erlangen, Germany.
During his second tour of Germany, John was promoted to Command Sergeant Major. Still suffering from what would later be diagnosed as Ménière’s disease, he traveled with his family through Italy, Austria and Switzerland. He remained in Germany until 1968 when he was sent to Fort Hood, Texas.
John was assigned to 35e Armored Division, also known as the “Hell on wheels” division. He spent 10 months at Fort Hood before his first deployment to Vietnam in June 1969.
On his first tour of Vietnam, John was assigned to 1st Air Cavalry Division. He carried out missions as a crew chief and door gunner. John recounted an experience from July 1969. He was watching the moon landing on television when his compound was attacked with mortars and rockets. John said he hid under a table so he could see the landing. In the fall of 1969, he was returned to the United States due to his wife’s cancer diagnosis. She was successfully treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC. The family at the time made their home in Columbus, Georgia.
After six months, John returned to Vietnam for his second tour. This time he was assigned to the Army Corps of Engineers, 69e Construction battalion, which built everything from tracks to roads and bridges. Everywhere he went, John befriended all the children in the village and the “mums-miners” who worked in the dealerships and always handed out candy. John’s friendly demeanor and gift of candy earned him the nickname The candy man.
John returned to the United States in 1971 and was posted to Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. He commuted from his home in Columbus, Georgia. John Meniere’s disease had gradually worsened despite several surgeries to correct it. During the last surgery, his middle and inner ear were removed and he was medically removed in 1974. His wife, Bonnie, died the same year.
John A. Brown’s ribbons and awards included Four Bronze Stars, Air Medal, WWII Victory Medal, Occupation Army Medal, Europe- Afro-Middle Eastern, Army Medal of Honor with 4 oak leaf clusters, Army Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal with two palms, Vietnam Service Medal, the Vietnam Cross of Bravery with two palms, the combat infantry badge as well as several other ribbons and awards.
While visiting relatives in Gantt, Alabama, John met Olivia Hudson. They married in 1975. She had a daughter, Susan Crosby, from a previous marriage. John and Olivia moved to Gantt in 1977.
John was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1976, which he said was likely linked to his exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. He was successful in overcoming colon cancer and in the early 1980s they moved to Niceville, Florida where they resided until his death.
Command Sergeant Major John A. Brown died April 10, 2006 in Niceville, Florida. He was buried in the Andalusia Memorial Cemetery in Andalusia, Alabama. He is survived by his wife, Olivia, his children Andre [Marcia] Brown, Rebecca Brown [Joseph] Dworkin, Susan Brown [John] Stewart and her stepdaughter Susan Crosby.
The author thanks the children of Sergeant Major Brown, Andre Brown and Susan Brown Stewart, and his longtime friend Presley Boswell for their help in preparing his story.