published Thursday, June 2nd, 2011

Cleaveland: Navy hero will not be forgotten

Countless heroes are among the 1.5 million American military personnel killed in action. Many heroic deeds led to commendations, the highest being the Congressional Medal of Honor. Sometimes decades pass before extraordinary bravery is fully recognized. Two soldiers who died in the Korean War almost 60 years ago were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor by the President last month.

In this week of Memorial Day, I pay tribute to Robert Thomas Browne, M.D.

On Oct. 25, 1944, a U.S. Navy task force, code-named “Taffy 3,” suddenly encountered a vastly superior Japanese flotilla off Samar Island in the Philippines. The main U.S. force had been lured away by a clever decoy. Three destroyers, four destroyer escorts and six small carriers guarded Leyte Gulf, where numerous troop and supply ships unloaded.

Adm. Clifton Sprague ordered the ships and all available naval aircraft of Taffy 3 to attack. Fighter aircraft dropped depth charges and strafed enemy ships. Ammunition exhausted, the airmen made repeated dives on the Japanese ships. False radio messages were generated to suggest a much larger U.S. force. Smokescreens were laid.

In a chaotic battle of two hours, three Japanese cruisers were disabled. Believing he faced overwhelming opposition, the Japanese commander withdrew his forces. The three U.S. destroyers and carrier USS Gambier Bay were sunk. Other ships were badly damaged. Casualties were high. A calamitous defeat was averted.

The victory was the one of the most remarkable in U.S. naval history. “The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors” by James D. Hornfischer provides a fine account of this battle.

Heavily outgunned by Japanese cruisers and battleships, destroyer USS Johnston attacked the heart of the Japanese fleet, firing its 5-inch guns and launching all of its torpedoes. His ship literally shot to pieces, Lt. Ernest Evans gave the order to abandon ship. Evans perished. For his courageous leadership, he received the Congressional Medal of Honor.

The ship’s doctor, Lt. Browne, ignored the order to abandon ship as he carried one badly wounded sailor after another from the wardroom to the deck. He helped the more able into life jackets before lowering them over the side. He would not abandon his patients. As survivors watched from the water, a salvo obliterated the wardroom just after the doctor had re-entered.

Lt. Browne was awarded the Navy Cross.

The image has persisted in my thoughts. I have tried with little success to learn more about Dr. Browne.

He was born in 1916 in Detroit. His home of record at the time of his death was Peoria, Ill. He graduated from the University of Illinois College of Medicine, Chicago, in 1942. He appears slender with a slight smile in his class photograph. Following a year’s internship at St. Louis City Hospital, Dr. Browne began active duty in the medical corps of the U.S. Navy Reserve in July 1943. He was the ship’s doctor from the christening of the USS Johnston in Seattle in October 1943.

My repeated searches have turned up no family, friends or classmates of Dr. Browne. I could not locate an obituary in his hometown newspaper. I felt an obligation to keep his memory alive.

Dr. Browne illustrates the powerful bonds of devotion that link men and women in battle. Personal safety is sublimated to the needs of others. Sacrifice becomes a reflex. As a physician, he further embodied the highest ideals of service to patients.

Beyond the sales, cookouts and Indianapolis races of Memorial Day weekend is the obligation to remember and to honor the many who sacrifice to keep us safe.

Email Cliff Cleaveland at

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