Bataan museum receives a survivor’s rare gift

 

NOV. 11, 1998 — He survived the Bataan Death March. He survived the Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. But when Marvin Lee Brown was finally freed from the camps, blind from disease and malnutrition and weighing only 90 pounds, the doctors said he wouldn’t make it.

And they had reason to be skeptical. Of the 900 men in Brown’s 200th Coast Artillery who survived the Bataan March, 300 died within the first year of coming home.

But in Brown’s case, both the statistics and the doctors were wrong. He survived, and with him survived a photo that Santa Fe’s Bataan Memorial Museum thought was lost.

Now Brown, who at almost 90 is one of the oldest survivors of the Bataan Death March, has donated that photo as a Veterans Day gift to the museum, hoping that it will help perpetuate the memory of the events he lived through during World War II.

Brown, who lives in a care center near San Diego, with the help of his daughter, DeeDee Kovacevich, gave the museum a photograph of the 200th Coast Artillery’s Battery B - made up mostly of men from Albuquerque and others from around the state, including Santa Fe - taken shortly before the troops left for the Philippines in 1941.

Brown’s gift arrived Tuesday morning at the Bataan Memorial Museum to the delight of Rick Padilla, curator of the facility on Old Pecos Trail.

“We didn’t have a photo of Battery B,” he said. “I was very anxious to get it. Just this year I have been able to acquire photos of three of the batteries we didn’t have.”

Kovacevich, a former Santa Fe resident, was visiting the state earlier in the year and was given a personal tour of the museum by Padilla.

“I saw that the photo (of Battery B) was missing,” she said Tuesday in a telephone interview from her home in San Diego. “Rick (Padilla) told me no one has that photo. I told him, ‘I know my father has one.’”

When she went back to California, Kovacevich talked it over with her father, who is suffering from Parkinson’s disease and emphysema, and they decided he would present his photo of Battery B to the museum.

“He said that would be great,” Kovacevich said. “He only wishes he could personally make the journey to the museum to share old war stories with his fellow few survivors.”

One of those survivors, Manuel Armijo, a Santa Fe native, said he didn’t know Brown personally but acknowledged that Brown is probably one of the oldest survivors in America of the Bataan Death March.

Armijo said that at 87, he is one of the oldest survivors in New Mexico of that infamous event. “They’re dying at the rate of about six a year,” he said. “I lost five out of my battery last year.”

Agapito Silva, commander of the Albuquerque chapter of the Bataan Veterans Association, said he believes there may be only about 195 survivors left of the 900 members of the Coast Artillery who returned from captivity in 1945.

Brown was born in Gainesville, Texas, in 1908 and eventually moved to Albuquerque. He left Santa Fe on March 25, 1941, as a member of Battery B of the 200th Coast Artillery, destined for the Philippines.

As a corporal, Brown manned a heavy machine gun after the Japanese invaded in late December 1941 and later was captured when beleaguered U.S. and Philippine forces surrendered in Bataan on April 9, 1942.

Under brutal conditions, the captives were marched to various prisoner-of-war camps, where they were starved and mistreated for the duration of the war. “I’m really amazed they could have survived,” Kovacevich said. “There were terrible conditions. What happened to (Brown) was that all the disease and malnutrition killed his optic nerve. He was totally blind.”

Brown weighed just 90 pounds when he was finally freed, and when he left the military, it was on a 100 percent disability discharge.

“He was given only a short period to live after he returned from the war,” Kovacevich said.

But Brown’s health improved. He learned to read Braille, married and then moved to California with his wife and her children from a previous marriage. Brown and his wife later had two children of their own — Kovacevich and her brother.

“Basically my mom went to work and he helped in the house,” Kovacevich said. “They both did an incredible job. It was kind of a reversal of roles in the ’50s.”

Her father is reluctant to talk about his role in the war, Kovacevich said. “When asked about his time in prison camp and surviving the Bataan Death March, he says, ‘I didn’t do anything special — I served my country,’” she said.

 

Bob Quick for The New Mexican

 

Marvin Brown died May 6, 2000 in El Cajon, California.