War Stories

One of your Great-Great Uncles was a general for the Union Army and his brother was a general for the Confederate Army during the Civil War. 

This true familial tale of fratricidal brother-fighting-brother was told to me by my grandmother when I was young. My grandmother’s great uncle was John Baillie Macintosh, who was born in the South in Florida. He fought many Civil War battles including the battle of Gettysburg as a Union general and lost a leg from a battle wound at the Battle of Winchester. His brother, also born in Florida, James M. Macintosh, served as a Confederate general, until he was killed in the Battle of Pea Ridge, in Arkansas. Their great grandfather had fought in the Revolutionary War and also the War of 1812, so war and conflict were firmly established in their family DNA. 

General John Baille Macintosh, my grandmother’s great uncle.

Battle of Gettysburg • John Baille Macintosh was a general fighting in this battle

My father was arrested in Florida, in 1962, for the crime of sitting next to a black clergyman and trying to order lunch at a Tallahassee, Florida restaurant.  He was convicted and branded as a felon for the crime. of “Incitement to Riot.” I was probably one of the first Americans to be proud of his father for being a felon.

My maternal great grandfather, Robert Anderson Cook, was named after the Union general who defended (and lost) Fort Sumter in the first battle of the Civil War at the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. His very religious mother, Mary Halsey Thomas Cook, an ardent Unionist, wouldn’t have him baptized until the Union retook Fort Sumter four years later.

Bombardment of Fort Sumter • 1861

My uncle was scalped by the Indian Chief Rain in the Face Charlie.

Throughout my childhood I was told that my grandmother’s uncle was scalped by the Indian Chief Rain in the Face Charlie. I heard this tale many times in my childhood from my mother and my grandmother, never knowing any of the details of the story, never knowing who this relative was or why he had been scalped. I looked into this story and found out that very little of this family legend was true as it had been told to me. 

Lakota chief Rain in the Face

Boston Charley • Killer of my great uncle

My grandmother’s uncle, Eleazar Thomas, was a clergyman in the US Calvary and was murdered during a peace conference with the Modoc Indians in Northern California in 1873 by a Modoc Indian named “Boston Charley,” so nicknamed by US soldiers for his light complexion. Eleazar was on the verge of being scalped after being shot, but his assailants ran away when they thought U.S. Calvary reinforcements were coming. Rain in the Face was a Lokota chief who fought at the battle of Little Bighorn, where the murderous, genocidal maniac General George Armstrong Custer was killed. My grandmother somehow combined the names of “Boston Charley” and “Rain in the Face” in the family fable she spun for me as a child, creating “Rain in the Face Charley.”

She neglected to tell me that the Modocs were in a peace conference trying to agree on terms to return to, live on, preserve and protect their traditional tribal lands when her uncle was killed. I had camped and hiked at the spot in 1995, having no idea that my great, great uncle had died there in the Lava Beds National Monument. There a now a commemorative stone cross on the spot where he and his commander were ambushed and killed during the peace conference.

Murder of General Caneby and my 2X great uncle Eleazer Thomas in the Modoc Wars • 1873

Your grandfather was a chaplain to the troops in the trenches in World War 1 in France.

My father’s father, George William Brown, was a chaplain in the trenches in World War 1 in France, where he contracted the 1918 flu, which killed 50 million people worldwide. He recovered, but his health and heart were forever compromised and he died before I was ever able to meet him. In my childhood in New York City, I often played war wearing a steel helmet that had been issued to him in WW1, while also playing death with a wicked looking bayonet inscribed in German, that he had brought back home from the war.

My maternal grandfather’s brother, Tommy Thomson, graduated from Rutgers University in 1918 and immediately enlisted in the army, sailing overseas to serve in WW 1 in Europe. He served in the trenches in France from June until November of that year, when he was wounded by shrapnel which killed his buddy in the same foxhole, which forever changed his life. During the war he kept a diary and wrote numerous letters home from which he wrote a book many years later, which he entitled “Doughboy Diary.“

Tommy Thomson • Jordan, 1923

After experiencing the horrors of war in France, he felt called to work for a better world by serving God as a Christian minister for the rest of his life. 

I woke up in bed laughing and realized what I had done.

My grandfather, James Claude Thomson said this to his wife after realizing that he had bent over and picked up a clip of bullets and given them back to the man who dropped them and was about to load them into his rifle to shoot him. His good manners saved his life when the soldier was so taken aback by his instinctive polite gesture that he did not kill him. He was in China where he was chairman of the chemistry department at the University of Nanking. He and his family were caught up in a civil war between Chaing Kai Shek’s forces and the soldiers of the Feudal Warlords. His house had been looted by several groups of soldiers earlier that day and everything of value had been already been taken when a soldier demanded silver and gold. When he explained that everything had already been taken the soldier picked up a clip of bullets to load into his rifle to shoot him and dropped them on the floor.

My mother’s family lost everything that they owned, having had their home looted and barely escaping with their lives. From that point on my mother always had trouble discarding anything. They were rescued by gunboats of the British navy in Nanjing and sailed down the Yangtze river to Shanghai where they took a boat to Japan where they lived as refugees under a volcano in the mountains near Unzen. My mother’s happiest memory of that time was befriending and playing with the gunboat’s pet monkey mascot. My grandmother was raised in a home with servants in New Jersey and had to learn how to cook for the first time in the mountains of Japan, using a charcoal brazier to prepare meals for her refugee family.

Yankgtze River gorge

I am sorry gentlemen, but this is war.

My great uncle Seabury Cook was second in command of the Arkansan, a war supply ship that was torpedoed by a German U-boat submarine and sunk in the mid-Atlantic in 1943. Seabury and the captain were taken onto the U-Boat and interrogated when their ship sank, after which the U-Boat commander shook their hands and told them “I am sorry gentlemen, but this is war” and submerged, leaving all nine of them in a leaky lifeboat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, 1800 miles from either America or Africa. Seabury and the captain decided that the currents and prevailing winds were better suited for taking them to South America, so they sailed West after devising a food and water ration plan. After a 38 day ordeal they came to the coast of French Guyana. All survived, and Seabury later reenlisted and became first mate on a Liberty Ship which sailed to and from Italy and Africa, providing supplies for the ongoing Allied war effort. Seabury died in New York City at the young age of 49 of pneumonia, weakened by his ordeal at sea.

Seabury Cook (bottom right) and his shipmates in French Guyana after their 38 day ordeal at sea after being torpedoed by a German submarine in 1943

Tragically, his son Robert was killed in an airplane crash at age 22 while in war training operations in Costa Rica and was buried in Panama.

My great aunt Elise Cook and her son Bobby, who died in a plane crash in WW2

I had one more wedding anniversary than your mother.

My father, Robert McAfee Brown, finished his divinity degree in New York City in 1944 and joined the Navy, feeling morally compelled to help fight the evils of Nazism and the horrors of the Japanese aggression in the Pacific and Asia. He was a chaplain on the USS Bollinger, a troop transport ship. He crossed the international date line steaming across the Pacific on June 21st, his wedding anniversary, and got to have one more wedding anniversary than my mother as the 21st of June was repeated on board the Bollinger after crossing the date line.

USS Bollinger • My father’s ship

By the time he was finished with his basic training and had shipped out, the war was almost over. The atomic bombs were dropped first on Hiroshima and then on Nagasaki three days later, after which the Japanese surrendered. My father was one of the first Americans to travel to Nagasaki after the nuclear holocaust, and the experience of that devastation turned him into a lifelong pacifist and crusading advocate for peace and justice on a global scale. 

Nagasaki from my father’s WW 2 scrapbook

Nagasaki post atomic bomb blast • Photos taken by my father

When I was 9 years old my father took me to the bombed out ruined shell of the 14th century Gothic Coventry Cathedral in England, destroyed by Hitler’s blitzkrieg bombing raids in the second world war, which forever changed my vision of war as a somehow noble endeavor.

Winston Churchill inspects Coventry Cathedral after a German bombing raid

One of our favorite war games as children was to dramatically pretend to die while being machine gunned. The faux gunner would then decide who had died best and that person would be the next gunner and then judge the next death performances.

Hell No, We Won’t Go!

During the Vietnam war I participated in many anti-war demonstrations along with much of my generation. My uncle James Thomson was a White House Asia policy analyst and advisor to presidents Kennedy and Johnson and resigned in protest when Johnson did not heed his counsel and escalated the Vietnam war. I knew several people who were needlessly killed in Vietnam. Joan Baez’s husband David Harris was a student of my father’s and a sometimes dinner guest at our house when he was at Stanford.

My father was very active in the anti-war movement and was in danger of being indicted for “Aiding and Abetting” young men to resist the draft simply by talking to them and encouraging them to listen to their consciences before they joined the military, a felonious crime which some of his fellow activists were convicted of with possible sentences of to up to to five years in prison and $ 10,000 fines.

David Harris was sentenced to two years in prison for refusing to serve in the military along with many like minded young anti-war men who were know as “The Resistance.” I applied for conscientious objector status, having no desire to fight in Vietnam or in any war, or to go to jail for two years for my anti war beliefs. I was told to write an essay to explain to my Draft Board why I did not believe that war was a good way to resolve international political differences, and was told that if my essay was longer than a single, short, double spaced page, that they would never read it or consider my application. 

Anti-Vietnam war protesters

Soon after I graduated from Stanford University, President Nixon devised a new lottery system for the draft, based on one’s birthday. My June 3rd birthday date draft number was randomly drawn 125th, and the cutoff for the draft that year was 120, so I was advised to declare myself ready for service and was thankfully never called up for war, unlike so many young men that year or in endless generations before me.

War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner.

This quote, from Cormac McCarthy’s darkest, most blood soaked book; “Blood Meridian” is still as frighteningly true as it has ever been.

We hid most of the wine in the back of the cave and made a false rock wall so that the Nazi’s wouldn’t find it and steal it.

When I was a University student in France in the early 1970’s, I was given a tour of wine caves on the edge of the Loire River by Rene Loyeau, who was an old French wine maker in the Loire Valley village of  Vouvray, who was spinning tales for us young Stanford students who had just arrived in the city of Tours for a six month sojourn in September of 1971. He clearly loved his own vintner’s products and had a tangle of purple varicose veins on his cheeks that looked like a personal road map to his winery. 

He plied us with endless glasses of Vouvray Chenin Blanc, still my favorite white wine, and regaled us with stories going back to the 19th century when his grandfather had managed the family winery.  Viticulture had existed in Vouvray since at least the Middle Ages when the Catholic Church maintained vineyards at the local monasteries. Wine cellars were built in the region from caves created from the excavation of tuffeau rocks which were also used to build the Châteaux of the Loire Valley. Rene Loyeau had excavated a new secret cave to hide his precious stash of vintage wine from the hated Nazi occupiers during WW II, telling us “We hid most of the wine in the back of the cave and made a false rock wall so that the Nazi’s wouldn’t find it and steal it.”

When we were students there, we witnessed a memorial parade marching down the main street of Tours of older men who had survived the war, many limping or missing limbs. The signage in the Paris Metro designated that those who had been mutilated in the war always got preferential seating on the trains, second only to pregnant women – Brave heroes of the previous generation and our hope for the future generation got seating priority on the underground. 

We drove around France and Europe in an old VW Micro Bus which was legally registered in Germany and had German license plates, which frequently got us pulled over and harassed by police who clearly still hated anything German in 1971. A Dutch motorcycle policeman who stopped us on a dyke above a beach ripped the door off of the bus and suggested that we drive it into the ocean and let the tides take care of our ”Fooking” German piece of junk. 

Buffy Saint Marie: Universal Soldier