Bataan Death March survivor visits Holloman, reflects on his past

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Terri Barriere
  • 49th Fighter Wing Public Affairs office
Preserve and persevere. Bataan Death March survivor, (Retired) Chief Master Sgt. Robert Brown, said he had two rules when he found himself a prisoner of war, and then on the Bataan Death March during World War II. Rule number one: take one more step. Rule number two: when you think you can't take another step, refer back to rule number one. 

Chief Brown, former Army Air Corps member now and Air Force retiree, visited Holloman Monday after attending the Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., for the first time. 

The 26.2-mile march through the high desert terrain of White Sands takes place annually in honor of the servicemembers who defended the Philippine Islands in early 1942, sacrificing freedom, health and in many cases their very lives. 

"I'd been hearing about the memorial here for the last 18 years but had never had a chance to go - I should have come a long time ago," said Chief Brown. "I just could not believe what I was seeing. All those people were there to honor us." 

Many soldiers who fought and were captured in Bataan felt they were forgotten. After attending this year's event, Chief Brown knew he had not been forgotten. 

"It brought a tear to my eye," he said, referring to the more than 4,000 participants at this year's march. 

"When I first came home I was ashamed," he recounts. "I told my family, of course, but I never told enlisted people I worked with about my time as a POW. I felt I had let my country down. But it just warped my mind to see and know that this many people were there to honor what happened to us." 

Capt. Charles Cosnowski, 49th Operations Support Squadron, was among the participants marching to pay their respects. 

"It felt great to participate in such a significant event," he said. "It was very inspiring to shake the hands of the men who had survived the march and be able to thank them for their sacrifice. There was no way I could even think about complaining about my aches and pains during and after the run. What I went through wasn't even 1/100th of what they experienced." 

No stranger to pain, Chief Brown reflected on his experiences. 

"I was stationed at Clarke Air Base, Republic of The Philippines, at that time," he said. "I had just come from having my tooth fixed at the dentist when a guy walks up to me and says 'the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, we're at war.'" 

On April 9, 1942, Maj. Gen. Edward King Jr surrendered Luzon Forces on the Bataan Peninsula to the Japanese. 

That set the events in motion for what would become a life altering experience.
Though the United States forces suffered from malaria, dysentery and starvation, they were forced to march nearly 70 miles. During the "death march," soldiers were endured terrible heat without sufficient food, water or medicine. 

According to Chief Brown, soldiers who stopped, slowed down or were to sick too continue marching were bayoneted or shot on the spot. 

"It didn't matter what service you were from -- everybody made the march," he said. "If you fell down or stopped they killed you. It's a crying shame to see your guys being bayoneted or shot and know there's nothing you can do about it." 

Chief Brown said that on top of cruelty, having enough food was a major issue during the march. 

"Food was our main concern," he said. "We ate all the horses and mules and later went on to eat monkeys, pythons and lizards. You'll be surprised at what you'll eat when you get hungry." 

Though younger than most of the other soldiers, Chief Brown said his determination kept him going. 

"I was only 17 but I had more moxy than most," he said. "I knew better than to guzzle what water I had ... I came from a family of wagon trainers - they were walkers. I must have inherited those genes. I was blessed and determined and I refused to just lay down." 

The march ended April 14, 1942, for Chief Brown, though others never reached the end.
"We left a trail of dead no matter where we went," the chief said, in referring to the more than 1,500 men he saw die during the four day march. 

On that day, the chief arrived at POW Camp O'Donnell, Republic of The Philippines, where he lived for seven months before being transported to Mukden POW Camp, Manchuria, China. The chief arrived at Mukden weighing only 80 pounds. It was there his combat medic skills would come into play as he operated on and saved more than 50 fellow POWs. 

"It definitely wasn't fun, but it was very interesting," he said of life at the camp.
On Aug. 20, 1945, after nearly three and a half years as a POW, Chief Brown was liberated by American and Russian forces. 

"The atomic bomb saved mine and everyone else's life," he said. "It was my 21st birthday and the happiest birthday of my entire life." 

Chief Brown returned to the U.S. with a Letter of Appreciation from the United States War Department and two commendations from the Japanese Army. He reenlisted in the U.S. Air Force 17 days after getting out the military and went on to lead a successful Air Force career. 

Looking back at his 29-years of service, he said the Air Force has definitely come a long way. 

"The Air Force has improved 100 percent," he said. "When World War II started we had the worst fighters - thank God people invented the great machines we're flying today."

At 82 years old, Chief Brown is the youngest Bataan survivor.