It was late November 1944. An Everson farm boy, my father, Pfc. Milton Kroontje, was biding time in England, awaiting an event that all 13,000 members of his 87th “Golden Acorn” Infantry Division knew was going to be momentous.
The Allies had invaded Nazi-held France on June 6, 1944, D-Day, and pushed inland from the Normandy beachhead. During the Allies’ eastward advance, the 87th Infantry Division entered combat near Metz, France, close to the German border, on Dec. 5.
Within four days of the 87th’s battle baptism, a Mount Vernon farm boy, Pfc. Lauren S. Brown, entered the war in Europe through the French port of Marseilles.
On Dec. 15, my father’s battalion was near the French village of Obergailbach, a few hundred meters from the German border. That evening, shrapnel from a German shell tore my dad’s watch from his left wrist, gouging out a wound that left a curious “divot” scar that, miraculously, caused no functional impairment. A mere half-inch difference in the shrapnel’s trajectory would have severed the wrist, and my dad might have lost his life.
On Christmas Eve 1944, 20-year-old Brown, as a member of Task Force Linden’s 222nd Infantry Regiment, entered combat near the French city of Strasbourg, barely 44 miles southeast of where my father, just day’s earlier, had been wounded.
On April 5, 1945, while clearing the University of Wurzburg, in central Germany, the men in Brown’s mortar platoon came under fire, from a sniper, they thought. After the loss of a man, Brown grabbed the M-1 rifle in his jeep and urged his squad to hunt down the sniper. But rather than a single sniper, they were facing a counterattack from perhaps 40 German soldiers.
A moment before feeling pain, Brown saw the muzzle of a Mauser rifle poke out from cover. The bullet went through his arm and entered his chest, bouncing down his ribs before exiting his back. Although seriously wounded, Brown continued to deliver effective fire until ordered to withdraw for medical treatment. He was later awarded the Bronze Star Medal for his selfless and determined conduct.
After the war, Brown used the GI Bill to attend Washington State University, graduating as a doctor of veterinary medicine. “Doc” Brown came to Whatcom County in 1956 and joined a large-animal practice in Lynden. He became a well-known vet to local dairymen, eventually leaving private practice to serve as a veterinarian for the state during a bad outbreak of brucellosis among Northwest dairy herds.
It was in the early 1960s, on my grandparent’s Everson dairy farm, that I, at age 5, first met Doc as he treated our sick cows. Thus began my lifelong friendship with Brown and his family. Doc and his late wife, Delores, were my Cub Scout den parents. Initially owing to my friendship with their son Steve, they became much like second parents to me.
Over the years, our conversations not only deepened my admiration for Doc, they led me to discover that he was due medals and awards for his military service he didn’t know he had earned; a second Bronze Star Medal, a third battle star for the European-Africa-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, the WWII Victory Medal, the Army of Occupation-Germany Medal, the American Campaign Medal with two service stars, the Presidential Unit Citation, and official recognition that he had earned the Combat Infantryman’s Badge.
Unfortunately, in 1973, a fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis destroyed up to 18 million Army and Air Force personnel records from 1912 through 1964. The documents’ loss still presents a challenge to researchers trying to justify claims of former service members, make corrections to military records, or collect facts for scholarly purposes.
Since my dad died in 1984, before the capture of his personal military history became important to me, I determined to do all I could to correct the military record of another man I respected greatly, Dr. Lauren Brown. Over the course of several months, notepad in hand, I interviewed Doc about his Army service. Together, we combed through his scrapbooks, the 42nd Infantry Division’s history book, photographs, other WWII history books, old records, and memorabilia.
We eventually assembled enough evidence to apply for a “military records correction” with the Army Review Boards Agency in Virginia. With Doc’s case well beyond a three-year statute of limitations, agency approval was only allowed if a decision served the interest of justice.
The wait for a decision can last many months, even years. Even after a positive review, it can take several months for the record to be corrected, and even longer for the applicant to receive awards and decorations.
With Doc approaching his 90th birthday and recovering from a broken hip, I enlisted help from the offices of U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene and U.S. Senator Patty Murray. On Feb. 27 this year, the Army put Doc’s application on the fast track. On March 12, I learned his request had been approved. Much to my surprise, Doc’s medals, ribbons and awards were delivered by courier the next afternoon.
The happy and emotional conclusion to the story took place March 14, when Doc’s son Steve and I managed to locate Brown’s original Eisenhower Army jacket at Lynden Pioneer Museum, the very jacket Pfc. Brown had worn in Europe 70 years earlier. We framed the Bronze Star Medal certificate, adorned the jacket with Doc’s medals, and made a presentation to him at Lynden’s Christian Health Care Center.
For Doc Brown and those who love and admire this humble, self-effacing man, it was a very good day!
An airline pilot, David M. Kroontje lives near Nugents Corner.