Remembering a war hero, 58 years later

Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2008, 11:06 pm
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By Jonathan Turner,

MOLINE -- If life was fair, Melvin Brown would celebrate his 77th birthday next Friday. Unfortunately, he was one of the first casualties of the Korean War, killed in combat in 1950, at age 19.

His sister, Sylvia Brown Rich, 69, does have reason to celebrate, though.

She will go to Camp Carroll, South Korea, to attend the Feb. 26 opening of a new $15 million Army maintenance facility named in honor of Mr. Brown, a private first class who posthumously was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Harry Truman.

Ms. Rich, who is making her first trip overseas, said she just found out about the event in January. "I'm real happy about it. I get to be close to the wall where he was killed. This is quite a privilege and an honor."

The new 26,000-square-foot vehicle maintenance shop was designed by engineers at Army Sustainment Command (ASC), Rock Island Arsenal, and will be operated by the ASC.

The Arsenal-based command -- which supports combat operations worldwide -- identifies and resolves equipment and maintenance problems, and issues, repairs, maintains and manages equipment, weapons and vehicles.

When the Army was deciding for whom to name the new plant, it considered all 50-plus Medal of Honor recipients from the Korean War (1950-53), then narrowed it down to engineers like Pfc. Brown, said Bob Foster, an ASC logistics management specialist.

What clinched it was that Camp Carroll is close to where Pfc. Brown was killed on top of a hill, near Kasan, on Sept. 5, 1950.

"It turns out that Melvin worked as mechanic before he joined the Army," Mr. Foster said.

Pfc. Brown was one of 10 children and grew up in Mahaffey, Penn., near Punxsutawney. Three of his brothers also served in the military.

The Army had no idea that a surviving sibling lived just a few miles from Arsenal Island, Mr. Foster said. "It was like, wow! It's a much smaller world than we would anticipate. Communicating with the next of kin has been very emotional."

Pfc. Brown also has a brother in Pennsylvania and sister in Connecticut, but they are unable to attend the ceremony in Korea, Mr. Foster said.

Pfc. Brown's medal citation reads "His ammunition was soon expended, and although wounded, he remained at his post and threw his few grenades into the attackers, causing many casualties.

"When his supply of grenades was exhausted, his comrades from nearby foxholes tossed others to him and he left his position, braving a hail of fire, to retrieve and throw them at the enemy.

"The attackers continued to assault his position and Pfc. Brown, weaponless, drew his entrenching tool from his pack and calmly waited until they one by one peered over the wall, delivering each a crushing blow upon the head. Knocking 10 or 12 enemy from the wall, his daring action so inspired his platoon that they repelled the attack and held their position."

"Pfc. Brown's extraordinary heroism, gallantry and intrepidity reflect the highest credit upon himself and was in keeping with the honored traditions of the military service."

Pfc. Brown dropped out of high school and enlisted in the Army at 17, inspired by his 21-year-old brother Donald, who was stationed in Japan. Melvin was sent to Japan for 18 months before he was shipped to Korea in late July 1950, in the early weeks of the war.

Mrs. Rich remembers her family got a telegram in October, saying her brother was missing. A knock at the door didn't come until 10 p.m. Jan. 6, 1951, informing her parents that he was dead.

"My mother started crying. I was sitting there crying," Mrs. Rich said. Her parents and older siblings attended a White House Medal of Honor ceremony that month, and she has the original invitation, letter from President Truman, framed certificate and flag from Melvin's casket.

"I'm very proud of it," Mrs. Rich said of her brother's many honors. "I never had a real closure until just recently, when I started to collect his things."

The 1st Cavalry Division in Fort Hood, Tex., has a Korean War Memorial Park in honor of Pfc. Brown and a parade ground at Camp Howze, South Korea. A building at an Army engineering school, Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo., a VFW post in Mahaffey, Penn., and an Army Reserve Center in Clearfield, Penn., also are named after him.

Pennsylvania State Rep. Camille George recently introduced legislation to rename a bridge in Mahaffey to honor Pfc. Brown. Residents are organizing an annual Pfc. Melvin Brown Day scheduled for June 21, according to Rep. George.

Mrs. Rich -- who has lived in the Quad-Cities for more than 40 years, since her husband came to Palmer College to study chiropractic -- has fond memories of her brother.

"He was just fun. He loved to ski, he loved to ice skate, swim, fish," she said. "In the evening, he'd go out by himself in the moonlight. ... People around here can't understand why I love the snow. My fondest memory was of Melvin and the fun we had in the snow."

Mrs. Rich said her marriage to Joseph Rich at age 16 helped her deal with Melvin's death. She has two children, two grandchildren and a new great-grandson. Her own mother died in 1957.

"I've missed him and cried over him since I was 12 years old," Mrs. Rich said. "I'm very proud of my brother. He's been my hero since I was 10. He seemed older than he really was.

"He was a protector," she said. "He protected his friends and family. It doesn't surprise me the way he died, protecting his friends and his unit."

He is buried at Mahaffey's cemetery, within view of the family home and the hill where he loved to play. Mrs. Rich will return there in June, when the small town dedicates a new monument and again honors the native son.

"He said he would be like MacArthur," she said of the famous Army general. "In his last letter to his Mom, he said, `Don't worry about me, I shall return.'"


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