1.29.2005

Innocence lost in war's carnage

The Herald Journal - 6.19.04

On a shelf above the workshop desk in the basement of his Logan home, there's a framed photo of Marriner Brown as a young man.

In the black and white picture, a seated Brown leans forward in his Army dress uniform. His dark hair combed back just like the 80-year-old Brown still wears it, albeit with a bit more gray these days. The teenage Brown smiles the confident grin of a recent high school grad and just-married man on the way to serve his country, cocky and sure of himself and his mission. There's no fear in his eyes, and the photo version will never speak about what he was headed for in the military.

But the real Marriner Brown, who now patiently builds grandfather clocks and furniture on the desk below the framed photo -- surrounded by medals and ribbons from his service time -- can talk about what he saw.

The real Marriner Brown uses a cane, and slowly climbs down the stairs to the workshop where the old olive uniform is folded over a hanger in the corner. The real Marriner Brown traded the uniform of a soldier for the uniform coveralls of a man who owned a service station for 30 years. The real Marriner Brown pulls out a thick, red photo album full of newspaper clippings and photos from 1943 until 1946, places souvenirs from Germany on the workbench, and runs a large hand along a map to point out where his tank traveled with the 86th Infantry Division during World War II.

And often, he grins.

He can still smile like the kid in the photo when he thinks about how fortunate he was to survive German shells that rained down on his Allied camp and a blow to the head that left him unconscious and bloody. But the youthful look in his eyes is drained when he recounted other stories, many of which illustrate the difficulty of crossing the Rhine River with a refurbished M-7 tank in the summer of 1944 to engage in vicious combat before his 21st birthday.

"We had several incidents that were hard to stomach for a young boy," said Brown, as he paused to close his eyes and take a deep breath, a frequent occurrence during an interview last week. "I guess I was 20 years old."

He was a part of the unit that reclaimed and returned the crown jewels of Austria. He had his tank and crew personally approved by legendary General George S. Patton near the town of Ingolstadt -- "He gave us a thumbs up as he went by," said Brown. And he was also a part of a battalion that shelled villages and German military strongholds in the southern part of the country as the Allied forces moved, and more than once rolled through the wreckage to discover women and children were in the path of the advancing war.

"It's hard to say who you are when you see arms and legs, and bodies in half," said Brown. "But it's war. We were always told 'kill or be killed.' That was our motto."

That was also the attitude of the German SS troops, he said.

On a road one day during the war, a foot soldier in front of Brown's tank was shot. As the unit braced for the surprise attack, a medic responded to the wounded man. Another rifle crack and the medic crumpled, shot while he attended the soldier.

Brown said a nearby American saw a window shutter close in a small German home immediately after the shot rang out. So the tank turned it's 150-caliber Howitzer fury on the dwelling, and subsequently the enemy combatants the rest of the afternoon.

"That day, I shouldn't say it, but there wasn't a prisoner to come down that road. To shoot a medic, that wasn't right," said Brown. "But they were fighting for their lives too."

So were the occupied citizens of Germany, as Brown saw first-hand as well.

On the outskirts of a liberated prison one night, the Americans were told stories that Nazis had been shooting prisoners. That night, camped in a German farmhouse, an enraged Polish man asked the Allied soldiers for a gun to go shoot the German who had killed his brother.

A captain denied the request, but the next day the Polish man accompanied Brown's group when they surprised four German soldiers hiding in a nearby house. After taking two young Germans back to their Jeep, the captain left the Polish man behind, with the two remaining German prisoners.

"I didn't like the idea ... but this fellow was bound and determined to get even," said Brown. "So we let him take a rifle..."

And he trailed off, the rest of the story left to the imagination.

"It brings back too many memories," he said, and paused to wipe a tear from behind his glasses.

He sighed deeply and exhaled.

"You gotta excuse me," said Brown. "I get a little upset."

But Brown doesn't keep a small toy tank on the mantle of the Logan home he built for his wife and six children following the war so he will be bothered by the old memories.

When he choked up looking at a photo of the 86th Infantry returning to New York City by boat after the war ended, it wasn't from sorrow. When he paused during the story of a man from Hyde Park that was killed in a tank accident, it was because he remembered so many good things about the friend. And when he pulled out 60-year-old copies of the New York Herald Tribune and New York Times with his battalion on the cover, it wasn't to wallow in sadness.

Brown was a part of the only unit to be sent to the Pacific Theater of Operations following a tour in Europe. The unit was on an island off the coast of Japan when the atomic bomb was dropped. He visited the remains of the mansion Hitler lived in when the war began. Above the black and white photo over his desk is a plaque that reminds him of the bronze star he was awarded. The brother of three other World War II soldiers -- De Alton in Italy, Edward in the Pacific Theater, and Francis, a Marine in the South Pacific -- he beamed when he mentioned "the greatest nation in the world."

"I was proud to serve, and have the little part of it I did," said Brown. "I really enjoyed the German people, there was something about them that was genuine. The SS and army group was something different. In the country, those people were very happy to see the war end."

One can only imagine Brown felt the same way.

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