ROTTERDAM — When Harry Brown was 20, prospects for prosperity were not in his favor.
Army soldier Brown was on his feet and moving, walking with other prisoners during the Korean War. It was 1950.
“They marched us at night, not during the day,” Brown said, “because the American planes were looking for us. It went on for possibly three to four weeks in sub-zero weather. We lost many men.”
Life would become harder: Brown was a prisoner of war for three years and can tell stories about harsh living conditions, daring escape attempts and brutal captors.
He can also tell stories about inner strength and faith, qualities that helped him survive Korea and — 70 years later — celebrate a long life. Brown, a 52-year resident of Rotterdam, celebrates his 90th birthday today.
Family and friends in Brown’s Careleon Road neighborhood (off Hamburg Street) will salute the veteran with a parade that will pass by his house today at 3 p.m. Members of the Carman Fire Department, Rotterdam police, veterans, politicians will join family and friends in the mobile party.
Brown, born and raised in New York City, joined the Army during the summer of 1948, when he was 18. The teenager was assigned to the 25th Infantry Division, the “Lightning Division,” and was part of the 35th Regiment, 1st Battalion — the 208-man “Baker Company.”
ERICA MILLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Korean War Veteran and POW Harry Brown will be celebrating his 90th birthday Saturday.
Brown became company clerk.
“I did the reports of casualties, I worked in the administrative branch of the company,” he said in a telephone interview earlier this week. “I did morning reports so I took into consideration everything that happened in the course of a day that affected the men in my outfit, which would be like a diary.”
At first, Brown’s field of operation was the company office. He was stationed in Japan during the summer of 1950, when Korea became a world hot spot.
On June 25, 75,000 soldiers from the North Korean People’s Army invaded the 38th parallel — the boundary between the Soviet-backed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the north and the pro-Western Republic of Korea to the south.
By July, American troops had entered the war on South Korea’s behalf, and Brown’s unit was part of the U.S. response — “Task Force Smith.” Pens, paper and clerking duties were out; Brown was in the field with a Browning automatic rifle.
“My outfit was dispatched to go to that spot to see if we could change the aggressors’ minds about what they were doing,” Brown said. “Of course, it didn’t work. They were defiant, did what they wanted, and continued their operation of invasion … they overwhelmed us, they defeated us.”
Brown and fellow soldiers remained in the country. In November, they were in the “Battle of the Ch’ongch’on River,” which took place along the Ch’ongch’on River Valley in the northwestern part of North Korea from Nov. 25 until Dec. 2, 1950.
Brown said many of the men in his unit were killed in the battle, a defeat for the United States’ 8th Army. He was captured, and with other prisoners, began the long walk — a death march — to the Pyok-Dong prisoner camp on the Manchurian border.
Brown tried to escape twice during the march. He told two other soldiers about his plan.
“I said to my two companions, ‘When I give the signal, run,’ which we did,” Brown said. “We broke off into three different directions. I went to my direction, I was recaptured. I didn’t know what happened to the other two guys. Maybe five months later, I found out they did make it out.”
Brown tried to get away again, believing that conditions would only get worse once prisoners reached their destination. He believed youthful strength would work in his favor, and escaped undetected.
“I didn’t know where I was going to go,” Brown said, adding that dogs he heard barking in the distance were not on his trail.
He headed south and found temporary refuge in a barn, where he found food. But he was recaptured shortly afterward. The soldiers continued north toward Pyok-Dong.
Pyok-Dong, Brown said, was a series of confiscated houses. Brown said 20 men would be housed in a room that measured 12 feet by 12 feet.
“We slept on the floor, we had no bedding, nothing. We didn’t even have heat,” Brown said. “We laid there without medicine, without medication. We had lice infestations. You became a warm item and all the lice that laid there dormant suddenly found refuge on the human body.
“We lived from day to day, never knowing what the news was outside of this prison camp,” Brown also said. “We were perched in the mountains in the furthest northern part of North Korea where they had no electricity. It was very rural. There were no lights, no nothing. It was a horrible place.”
Water was scarce. So was food.
“There were guys like myself, 18 19 years of age, just falling dead all over the place,” Brown said. “It was a horrible, horrible scene.”
Inner drive kept Brown going.
“I became humbled,” he said. “I was sort of a tough kid growing up. I didn’t know anything about humility … I constantly prayed.
“I don’t know where I got the strength or the courage to be able to endure it,” Brown added. “There must have been something in me that I didn’t know that I had.”
Strength and courage played parts in Brown’s next two escape attempts. In one try, he and and another prisoner commandeered a boat.
ERICA MILLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Photo shown when Harry Brown was enlisted.
“I didn’t know anything about navigation, southeast, west or north,” he said. “It was better than just staying and dying. But I was caught again.”
The last time, Brown went out a prison window. “I didn’t get anywhere,” he said.
The final attempt convinced captors to give Brown more secure and more severe accommodations — he was placed in a 12-foot-deep hole in the ground, covered with a lid. He was in solitary for two weeks.
There were some conversations with men running the prison. “Comrade Lin” was one of the soldiers’ tormentors.
“He was also called the ‘Screaming Skull’ because he used to have tantrums when you talked to him, or he would admonish you for some things that you did,” Brown said. “If things were not quite the way he wanted them, he would scream and almost have a blood vessel break in his skull. All you could see was his head.
“He was a treacherous guy.”
The darkest days came when Brown, seriously ill, was taken to the hospital. Prisoners had another word for the place.
“I ended up in the death house, it was a hospital that they put all those who were ready to die, I was brought in there to die,” Brown said.
Around this time, negotiations had started between combative nations America, the Soviet Union and China for an exchange of prisoners. Chinese medical personnel — using methods Brown said had never been used in western civilization — brought him back to health.
The end of the war came in the summer of 1953.
“All prisoners were exchanged across the border by North Korea, the Chinese and the Americans simultaneously at Kaesong,” Brown said of the city on the country’s north-south border.
Brown still remembers the feeling.
“It was the most euphoric feeling one could imagine after three years of misery,” he said. “I can’t even explain how wonderful it felt. I was on cloud nine for the longest time.”
Once again, Brown had electricity, heat, medicine. Three meals a day were also possible, but eating was difficult at first. “When I came home, my stomach was so small I couldn’t eat for about a month,” he said. “It took a long time before I was able to eat properly, but life was beautiful.”
The beautiful life improved. Brown married Josephine Micelli on Dec. 4, 1954, and the couple raised four daughters — Lorraine, Kathleen, Vanessa and Patricia. Harry spent a working career in construction and handy work.
At 90, there are reflections on a long life.
“My wife has to constantly remind me our diet might have something to do with it too because she’s Italian and she prepares a lot of meals where the main ingredients are olive oil and garlic,” Brown said. “I wonder if that’s a good combination?”
There are also reflections about the men he once knew, soldiers who never received the chance for marriage, families, careers and golden years.
“I always think about them,” Brown said. “I always have a prayer for those who didn’t make it out.”
Contact staff writer Jeff Wilkin at 518-641-8400 or at [email protected]