Note: This is the second and last installment in a series about local WWII veterans.
ST. ALBANS — After entering the 36th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army on Jan. 1, 1944, Curtis Brown, following four months of training, found himself boarding a ship bound for Europe.
On a 17-day long trip through quiet, lonely waters during nightly blackouts, Brown, who was 18 at the time, headed into World War II to help replace lost men.
“I learned a lot,” said Brown, now 88, on a recent afternoon at his St. Albans home. “I wouldn’t want to do it again, but I don’t think I would have wanted to miss it, either.”
On the move
Brown was in Europe for a little under two years. A Belvidere native, he served during WWII as an U.S. Army infantry soldier, walking most places and fighting, too.
“We were foot soldiers,” Brown said. “We did a lot of walking.”
Infantry soldiers, Brown said, were well equipped with good clothing, weapons and supplies. “We were well set,” he said. “Sometimes we were out for days.”
After waiting for an assignment at a replacement depot in Italy, Brown was on his way to fight. “They deported us wherever they needed us,” he said. “I went from there to France and joined my original outfit, and then we went the middle way up France into Germany and into Austria.”
He added, “We did a lot of hiking in there.”
Brown was part of the action that captured the Haguenau Forest in northeastern France from German soldiers in March 1945. There he got shot at and injured on the left side of his head.
“I got shrapnel in my face,” Brown said, though he added that it was “nothing serious.” His ear was hit through his helmet.
Brown said he fought most of the time while in France and Germany, and at one point, was a bazooka carrier.
“I had to fire at a [German] tank with a bazooka,” he said. “Those things, they go everywhere. He got out of there.”
Brown said that though it was interesting to be in foreign countries and to see how others lived and fought, it was also very grim to see people lose so much.
“It was awful,” Brown said. “I was glad to see it disappear.”
He remembered seeing older men and young kids fighting for other countries. “[They] used them all,” he said.
An unpleasant discovery
At one point in his war experience, Brown and his fellow soldiers came upon the only Nazi concentration camp built on French soil in Natwiller. The camp had been emptied, but remnants of its activity remained, include hangmen’s trees and gas chambers.
“They had some terrible places, those concentration camps,” said Brown. “We were taking that area, [and] we went by those places. You wouldn’t look at them.”
Ends and beginnings
After leaving Austria, Brown went back to Germany to help with WWII’s aftermath. “We organized the villages and got some sort of government started there,” he said.
Brown then went to France, where he waited to go home. When it was his time in March 1946, he went back to the U.S. the way he came: by ship.
“Boy, it was really nice,” Brown said of coming home. “It was a happy time.”
Brown moved to St. Albans shortly after, and he worked construction for a summer before becoming a mechanic for three years under the “Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944,” or the G.I. Bill.
Brown met his wife, Lucille, and married her in June 1948.
In 1949, Brown began working for the U.S. National Guard, and he stayed there until age 60, when he retired. Since then, Brown has been volunteering for various veteran groups, spending time with his seven children and grandkids, and traveling locally.
Brown has also taken some time to reflect on his experience in WWII, both personally and at various monuments and services.
Often, Brown said, he wonders what might have happened if he hadn’t gone into the service in 1944. “I think of that quite a bit,” he said. “I don’t think I’d ever give up that experience. It’s a lot of leadership. It’s what life is.”
Of course, Brown realizes that he had a fortunate outcome when he returned home after WWII. Several school friends of Brown’s also entered the service, but never came back.
“It’s hard to get accustomed to that,” Brown said. “People didn’t care to talk about it.”
Despite the difficulty of the loss and suffering inflicted by the war, Brown doesn’t forget it. In addition to holding on to his own memories, Brown has gone back to the experience by visiting the WWII monument in Washington D.C. three years ago, something he shared with many others.
“[There were] some people who walked, some people in a wheelchair, some people without legs,” Brown said. “That was quite a trip.”
Seeing others at monuments, veteran events and Memorial Day parades to remember wars past is a special thing, said Brown.
“It gives me a good feeling inside when I see people participate in it and celebrate in it,” Brown said. “People haven’t forgotten it.”