Remembering D-Day

Remembering D-Day

June 6th, 2009 by Lauren Gregory in News

Staff Photo by Allison Kwesell Ruebin Leon Brown, 85, talks about his experience as a soldier in D-Day.

Staff Photo by Allison Kwesell Ruebin Leon Brown, 85,...

Doug Brown grew up wondering why he'd sometimes wake up in the middle of the night to find his father at his bedside, yelling at him.

It wasn't until recently when his dad - now an 85-year-old cancer patient - suddenly decided to reveal his role as a medic during World War II that the moonlit rants began to make sense.

"I just thought he was crazy," the younger Mr. Brown, 47, said of his father, Ruebin L. Brown. "And then he started telling me all this."

Ruebin Brown, a Sand Mountain, Ala., native, says he never told his wife and still hasn't revealed to his other two sons the details about his job cleaning up the body parts scattered across the beach at Normandy after the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944.

Now his 78-year-old wife is in a nursing home with Alzheimer's disease, and he's not close to his older sons. Mr. Brown is living in the basement of Doug Brown's Chattanooga home, in remission from lung cancer and fighting melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer.

He's had several strokes that have affected his sight and hearing, so conversing with him is becoming increasingly difficult. And yet once he begins to mine his memory for images from D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge, he doesn't need many words to convey his fear and angst.

His eyes become moist as he recalls floating offshore on a ship during the Normandy invasion, waiting to come in behind the infantry and save as many of the wounded as possible. But often, his job would involve delivery to the morgue, he said.

"Do you know what it feels like to pick up a human head?" he asked slowly, between labored breaths. "It feels pretty funny.

"I've seen every kind of case in the world," he continued. "I've seen people blowed to pieces, and people shot full of holes. You seen what you had to."

Mr. Brown celebrated his 21st birthday in Europe, cowering in foxholes as shell blasts lit up the night. One time, during a dogfight between Allied and German planes, "they shot up a ditch right in front of my toes," he said.

Mr. Brown was drafted into the Army in 1943 and was overseas for 25 months of his three-year tour. After he came home to the Tennessee Valley and launched his career as a truck driver, he kept his past a secret.

"I heard a lot of soldiers talking, bragging about what they did," he said. "But anyone that really did it is not going to talk about it. ... I'd rather not think about it because it's nothing much to think about. And I didn't want to bother anybody else with it."

He said he finally decided to open up to his son, realizing that his children and grandchildren should know the true history of World War II.

"I'd just like for them to know what I've been through," he said.

His decision to share was an important one since historians need to document as much as possible about the war while survivors are still alive to talk about it, said Patty Parks, director of the National Medal of Honor Museum in Chattanooga.

"D-Day was such a massive, worldwide event that is a very significant piece of history, and we are losing these folks," she said.

Unlike current conflicts, which have constant video feeds and reporters embedded within deployed units, World War II didn't have much detailed news coverage, Mrs. Parks said.

"It is absolutely critical that we capture these people's thoughts and stories because it gives us a better picture of the overall event," she said. "If you talk to just one person when it comes to any one event, you'll get just one perspective. If you talk to 10, you're going to be able to build a better picture."

But she wasn't surprised that Mr. Brown was reticent about his experience.

"A lot of that generation, aside from not wanting to talk about the horrors that war create, were told, 'Don't talk about this,'" Mrs. Parks explained. "Have you ever heard the expression, 'Loose lips sink ships?'"

Larry Stewart, adjutant commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Dalton, Ga., said he wants to see World War II veterans continue to come forward because they should be recognized for their service.

"I think we need to honor our veterans, period, because they did a lot of things, not just in war," Mr. Stewart said. "They boomed our economy back up after the Depression, and they deserve a lot of credit for that. The veterans worked in these factories ... and took us from an agricultural society to an industrial society in just a few years."

Mr. Brown says he doesn't want recognition because he doesn't consider himself a hero. He said it simply was luck that allowed him to escape the war zone with no more than a scratch on the head.

"I did what I had to do," he said. "I was just another one of those helpful soldiers doing their job."


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