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Jardine: Veteran 'lucky' his ship didn't come in

You might say Warren Brown survived the attack on Pearl Harbor because he went to the movies.

Or, perhaps more accurately, because the movies came to him.

Either way, he was a Navy electrician aboard the USS Minneapolis on Dec. 7, 1941. The heavy cruiser conducted gunnery practice a couple of miles offshore for the benefit of filmmakers when the Japanese attacked the American Fleet.

"We were just a short ways out to sea with some Hollywood producers aboard," the 88-year-old Modestan said. "They were filming us firing our eight-inch guns at a target. I think the movie was 'The Shores of Tripoli,' and Martha Raye was in it."

He was close on the movie title, though not on its star. "To the Shores of Tripoli" premièred in 1942, headlined by John Payne (not Wayne), Maureen O'Hara and Randolph Scott. None of the actors set foot on the Minneapolis, Brown said. A camera crew and directors gathered big-gun footage to use in the film later described by some critics as an unabashed flag-waving recruitment piece for the Marine Corps.

There are three constants among Pearl Harbor survivors. First and most obvious, they survived. Second, most in their late 80s or early 90s, and are dwindling in numbers along with the rest of the World War II veterans. And third, they have unique stories of where they were, what they did and how the events of that day affected them.

Some escaped bombed-out ships, the horrible smell of burning oil and death etched in their memories forever.

Others remember trying to fight back, as futile as it might seem now.

Then there are those like Brown, a man of incredible good fortune who happened to be out of harm's way during the Pearl Harbor attack and lived to survive the battles at Coral Sea, Midway and in the Philippines as well.

"I saw a lot," he said. "(My ships) didn't get hit a lot. I feel lucky for that."

Beginning with the infamous attack 68 years ago Monday.

"I'd just had breakfast — 'chow,' we called it — and I went out to sit on the bow," Brown said. "I looked over at Pearl Harbor and saw the smoke. It wasn't very long before they sounded general quarters."

The Japanese pilots ignored the Minneapolis along with the three destroyers and tugboat off in the distance to concentrate on pounding Battleship Row and anything else in the harbor, including ships the Minneapolis would have been moored alongside had it not been on the filming mission.

As the attack ended, the Minneapolis went out to hunt for Japanese submarines.

He didn't see the devastation at Pearl Harbor for about a week, the movie crew with them the entire time.

"There was oil everywhere in the harbor," Brown said. "All the battleships were sunk. It was horrible."

The Minneapolis crew months later plucked hundreds of survivors from the water after the Japanese bombed the carrier USS Lexington into a flaming carcass at the Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942.

Lucky? Later that year, Japanese planes bore down on the cluster of American ships that included the Minneapolis.

"They were strafing our ships, and I started running for the bow, although that probably wasn't the best idea," Brown said. "There were 85,000 gallons of high-octane gas up there. One of their planes flew over our bow only about eight to nine feet above us and hit the LSD (docked landing ship) next to us and blew it to smithereens. I don't know why it didn't hit us."

Brown stayed with the Minneapolis through the Midway and Guadalcanal battles before returning to the States to commission a seaplane tender in Bremerton, Wash., early in 1943.

He made it through the rest of the war safe and sound only to be assigned to monitor the atomic bomb testing at the Bikini Atoll in 1946. His ship, the USS Hughes, served as one of the testing targets. He and other Hughes crewmen boarded other ships and steamed several miles away to witness the explosions.

Anchored away from the immediate blast area, the Hughes still felt the impacts of the bomb that scuttled the venerable carrier USS Saratoga. Weeks after the test, the military sent him back to the ship — Geiger counter in hand to monitor the radiation — to see if he could get the Hughes operational again.

"That Geiger counter was just screaming," he said. "I had to take two or three showers" (to reduce his own radiation levels).

Yet he never experienced any of the ill effects usually associated with radiation exposure. In fact, he lost two wives to lung cancer before he himself developed prostate cancer in 1994.

His treatment?

"Radiation," Brown said. "It got rid of it. No more cancer."

He enjoyed a long career as a union electrician in Modesto before retiring in 1981, and maintains his union membership.

Brown finally quit riding his motorcycle a few years ago, but still rides a motorized scooter or a bicycle when he isn't driving.

"I can still get around pretty well," he said. "I'm in pretty good shape for 88."

He's indeed a man whose seemingly endless lucky streak began when his ship served as a movie extra that fateful day in December 1941.

And what did Brown think of "To the Shores of Tripoli"?

"I never saw that movie," he said.

He didn't need to. He'd already survived it.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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