Courtesy of Carolyn Cloyd, Historian
On December 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy launched a surprise attack on the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Territory of Hawaii. On board the battleship USS West Virginia, which was damaged in the attack, were brothers Harry and Charles Brown of Arcola. Harry survived the attack but Charles was killed and his remains were considered to be unrecoverable. In March 2021, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) announced that the remains of EM3 Charles Brown had been identified. Charles Darling Brown will be coming home. The date has yet to be determined.
Charles Darling Brown was the son of James Allison “Al” Brown and Lillie Wellbaum Brown
of rural Arcola. He was born on the family farm on May 4, 1919. He was the twelfth child and the youngest boy. It was common in large working families for the older children to keep an eye on the younger children. In an interview with Eloise Elder Quinley (the niece of Charles and the daughter of his sister Ada), she said that when Charles was born., her grandmother, Lillie Brown, told Ada that he was hers to look after. It was a responsibility she took very seriously, and she became very the close to him. Quinley said her mother said the family called Charles by the nickname “Chi.” Another niece, Alyson Wright Davis, the daughter of Charles’ sister Sylvia Brown Wright, said that Charles “was the baby, he was the baby boy,” and that he always had people watching over him.
Charles received an eighth-grade education (a normal education at the time) at a rural school named Columbia which was located about 1.25 miles west of the Brown farm. Davis said that once the Brown children completed the eighth grade they went to work on the family farm where everyone was expected and needed to pitch-in.
Life on the family farm was hard. There was always work to be done and chores to be completed.
Charles decided he wanted to join the Navy when he was pretty young, maybe as a way to escape the difficult life on the farm or possibly to see the world. In December 1937, he reported to the Navy Recruitment Station located at the Mattoon Post Office in Mattoon to start the application process. He returned on Jan. 10, 1938, for a physical. He was accompanied by his father who was given a form to sign saying he would not at any time request his son’s discharge from the Navy.
On May 13, 1938, Charles reported to the Navy Recruiting Station in St. Louis where he was formally enlisted for four full years into the service as an Apprentice Seaman (AS). His enlistment papers describe him as 19-years and 0-months old with a ruddy complexion, light brown hair, and blue eyes. He was 5 feet, 7 ¾ inches tall and 125 pounds.
Quinley and Davis both heard the family story growing up that when Charles decided he wanted to join the Navy, his father, Al Brown, encouraged his other son, Harry, to do the same. He wanted Harry to go with Charles to keep an eye on him. Harry obliged joining the Navy the very same day as his brother Charles.
AS Charles Darling Brown and AS Harry Brown reported for boot camp at San Diego on May 16, 1938, and on Aug. 28 they were assigned to the USS West Virginia.
Charles earned several promotions, Seaman Second Class, Fireman Third Class, Fireman Second Class, Fireman First Class, and advanced to Electricians Mate Third Class (EM3c) on Aug. 16, 1940. On Nov. 26, 1941, he requested a change in rating from EM3c to Machinists Mate Second Class, saying that Machinist Mate more closely matched the work he had been doing.
On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, EM3c Charles Darling Brown and MM2c Harry Verde Brown were both aboard the USS West Virginia which was docked on the south channel side of Ford Island at Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Territory of Hawaii when the Imperial Japanese Navy executed a surprise attack on the ships moored in the harbor and the air stations on Oahu.
Within minutes, the USS West Virginia had taken two torpedo hits on her port side, and the ship was beginning to list as a third explosion shook the vessel. The USS West Virginia received seven torpedo hits and was struck by two armor-piercing shells in the attack, causing extensive damage and igniting fires throughout the ship. The ship was also rocked by a massive explosion on the USS Arizona which was moored nearby, shooting burning shrapnel onto the West Virginia, and surrounded by flames burning in the oil which had leaked into the water from the injured ships.
In order to prevent the USS West Virginia from capsizing, two of the ship’s officers began counter-flooding measures. As the crew struggled to contain the fires on their ship, the ship began to sink with some of her crew trapped below.
It is not known exactly what happened to Charles Brown that morning. The Brown family story that lingers with Davis is that Harry was topside while Charles was still below decks getting dressed when the attack began. Harry was injured, but survived, but Charles was missing.
About a week later, Al Brown received a telegram from the office of Rear Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Bureau of Navigation, informing him “that your son, Charles Darling Brown, Electricians Mate Third Class, US Navy, was lost in action in the performance of his duty and in the service of his country.”
Less than a week later, Al Brown received a second telegram, dated Dec. 19, 1941, from Randall Jacobs, Bureau of Navigation, informing him that “later reports indicate your son Charles Darling Brown Electricians Mate Third Class USN previously reported lost is now reported as a survivor.”
Both Quinley and Davis said that their mothers didn’t really talk too much about what happened to their brother Charles, but they knew it hit them hard. They were from a generation that just didn’t talk about such things, they kept things to themselves. But pointing out that her mother helped raise Charles, Quinley said her mother really cared for Charles and was very broken up about losing him, as was the entire family.
She said the family was devastated when they received the telegram saying Charles had been killed, but then they were elated to receive the second telegram saying it was a mistake and he had survived. And with that bit of good news they were able to have a great Christmas.
Harry had been hospitalized for about a week due to his injuries and post-traumatic stress and then he was sent stateside to recover. Harry had married a young woman from Seattle, Wash., named Doris Bogenholm in Oct. 1940, and now considered Seattle home.
For two months the Brown family waited for some word from Charles.
On Feb. 20, 1942, the co-owner and publisher of the Arcola Record-Herald, P.A. Lindenmeyer, sent a letter to Randall Jacobs, with the Bureau of Navigation in Washington D.C. asking for information about the fate of Charles Darling Brown.
On Feb. 26, 1942, Charles’ sister, Allie Brown Floyd wrote a letter to the Information Bureau asking for information about her brother.
Al and Lillie Brown soon received word, in the form of a letter from Randall Jacobs dated Feb. 27, 1942, in which he stated that the Navy Department had been making every effort to locate their son and provided an explanation for the second telegram they received mistakenly telling them their son was a survivor. He went on to say that with the time that had elapsed with no word from Charles, the possibility of his “being alive has been entirely abandoned” and that “the Secretary of the Navy, after considering all of the circumstances surrounding his disappearance, has been reluctantly forced to hold that your son met his death on Dec. 7, 1941, in that disaster.”
One hundred and six enlisted men and two officers from the USS West Virginia were lost at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Some were killed in the explosions, some were lost to the fire, and other were lost below decks with the West Virginia sank.
On May 17, 1942, the USS West Virginia was raised from the waters of Pearl Harbor and moved into drydock in the first step in efforts to repair the ship.
The sailors who died on USS West Virginia were buried in the Halawa Naval Cemetery and Nuuanu Cemetery on Oahu. Only 36 had been identified. In 1947, the bodies were disinterred and another attempt was made to identify the unknowns, with 43 identifications made. Those not identified were considered unrecoverable and reinterred. Charles Darling Brown’s remains were not recovered.
With advanced tools and DNA testing, identifications once thought impossible are now possible, and the Department of POW/Missing Accounting Agency (DPAA), is working to identify all of the unknown remains. In March 2021, the DPAA announced it had identified the remains of EM3c Charles Darling Brown of Arcola.
In July 1944, after two and half years of extensive and permanent repairs and a modernization, the USS Virginia was once again at sea. She participated in the largest naval battle of WWII at Leyte and supporting landing at Mindoro, Luzon, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
On Sept. 2, 1945, as representatives of the Japanese government and Allied forces gathered on the deck of the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay to sign the Japanese Instrument of Surrender, the USS West Virginia and her crew sat watching in the harbor, a reminder of the resolve and determination Japan had awakened at Pearl Harbor.