'Everything was secret back then'

World War II veteran trained for the cavalry, but plans changed when he got to Burma

jwilkinson@thestate.comNovember 3, 2008 

  • ABOUT THIS SERIES

    Each week between Aug. 31 and Veteran's Day, The State profiled a local veteran chosen to visit the National World War II Memorial on the Nov. 15 inaugural Honor Flight.

    Read more about the Honor Flight program

    Click on a name to go to each veteran's story

    • Nealy Sweat: It was just before dawn in March 1945 on the smoking, stinking, moon-like island of death that was Iwo Jima. Nealy Adolph Sweat of Summerville was carefully peeking over the rim of the shell crater that was keeping him alive when a shot cracked out.
    • Henry Austin Browder: Henry Austin Browder of West Columbia began World War II on horseback. Browder — a mechanic in a mechanized war — had never ridden a horse.
    • Mary Crum: Mary Crum still remembers that April day in 1945 when she and thousands of others gathered at Union Station in Columbia. It was Friday the 13th, by chance, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage the day before in Warm Springs, Ga.
    • William C. Wildman: The sky was black with flak over the Brenner Pass in the Italian Alps, the shells bursting like lethal popcorn all around the bobbing B-24 “Liberator” bomber piloted by William C. Wildman.
    • Thomas E. Grove: It was Jan. 5, 1945, and Pvt. Thomas E. Grove watched in horror as the massive German Panther tank slowly raised its long 88-mm cannon toward him.
    • Fred Andrew Shealy: It was midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1944, near the French-German border in Alsace, when the Nazis came down like howling ghosts, apparitions of death in white camouflage.
    • Solomon Bright: Solomon Bright felt the impact, but didn’t see the kamikaze slam into the bridge of destroyer escort USS Bowers as it cruised off Okinawa on April 16, 1945.
    • Irv Levine: Irv Levine didn’t think about the amulet until it was gone. His grandmother gave a kemeye, a cameo blessed by a rabbi, to each of her six grandsons who went off to war in 1941.
    • Fritz Gray: Fifty-two bodies — German or American, Fritz Gray couldn’t tell — lay frozen in a minefield.
    • Anna Bell “Wendy” Wendelburg Zeigler: Wendy Zeigler began work at 6:30 that December morning in 1944, in a sprawling Gothic hospital in Paris, to pandemonium, blood and screams.
    • Russell V. Meyne: Russell V. Meyne was sitting down to breakfast when he noticed, through the chow hall window, a fighter plane skimming the airfield about a quarter mile away.

    How to contribute: Call (803) 582-8826, go to honorflightsc.com, or send a check payable to South Carolina Guard Foundation Inc., 551 Granby Lane, Columbia, SC 29201-4655.

    Official Honor Flight homepage

    VIDEO

Henry Austin Browder of West Columbia began World War II on horseback.

Browder — a mechanic in a mechanized war — had never ridden a horse.

Still, he was shipped to Fort Riley, Kan., and trained in the cavalry — boots, spurs and all.

“I didn’t even know there was a cavalry anymore,” he said. “But I got out there and there were thousands of them.”

But rather than being a knight in an antiquated branch of the service, Browder would end up slogging through the miserable jungles of Burma, trailed by pack mules.

“None of it made much sense,” he said.

Browder, 86, is one of 91 veterans who will be on the inaugural Honor Flight to the nation’s capital Nov. 15 to visit the National World War II Memorial.

The first flight is full. But local organizers hope to raise $300,000 to charter a total of six flights to take 600 veterans to Washington for free over the next year or so.

‘I DIDN’T KNOW WHERE I WAS GOING’

On Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, Browder was eating chicken at a joint on Sumter Street when a newsboy hawking an extra announced that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.

“I went home and worried about it,” he said. “My brother-in-law Willie Hodge was the right age to go.”

At the time, Browder, the youngest of 18 children, was working as a mechanic at Central Chevrolet.

As a 19-year-old husband and father of two, he was safe from the draft, which at the time was selecting single men 21 and older.

But two years and three months later, fighting in North Africa, Sicily and the Pacific had ground down the supply of able-bodied single men, so Uncle Sam reached out and tapped Browder on the shoulder.

He was inducted April Fool’s Day, 1944 — “but it was no joke,” he said — and sent to Fort Riley.

There, he rode, drilled and bivouacked, embarking with columns of hundreds of mounted men of the 129th Cavalry on “rough rides,” sleeping on the trail and practicing maneuvers.

“The horses were trained better than we were,” he said. “They were fine horses.”

Then in the fall 1944, he returned to Olympia for a visit with his wife, the former Ruth Steele, before shipping out.

“I didn’t know where I was going,” he said. “It was really hard leaving a wife and two children.”

Ruth went to live with her patents. “There was nothing you could do but pray and take care of the children,” she said.

‘FEW DAYS TRAINING AND HIT THE TRAIL’

Browder traveled by train to Los Angeles, then by ship on a 32-day journey to Bombay, India.

He couldn’t help but notice their mounts weren’t with them.

When they arrived in Burma, the men were told they would be foot soldiers.

“It was quite a disappointment,” he said. “We were going to carry a pack. But that was the Army. You did what you were told.

“We had to get a few days training and hit the trail.”

The 129th Cavalry had ceased to exist. The were now part of the 475th Infantry.

To this day, Browder doesn’t know why they were trained as cavalry — to be scouts, he guesses — or why they were dismounted.

“Everything was secret back then,” he said. “They didn’t tell us nothing.”

The men were flown to a remote airstrip in Burma. Browder could see the shell holes as they landed.

“The Japanese had attacked it the night before,” he said. “Those were dangerous times.’

The unit was replacing the famed Merrill’s Marauders, elite jungle fighters.

Like the Marauders, the 475th’s mission was to try to keep the Japanese out of India and retake the vital “Burma Road” — a key supply route over the mountains to China.

The men embarked on a weeklong, 75-mile trek through mountainous jungles infested with snakes, leeches and tigers.

Along the trail, Browder stepped awkwardly and broke his left foot.

“I tried to keep going, but couldn’t,” he said. “I felt stupid.”

Browder made his way back to a dry rice paddy used as a temporary airstrip.

There, the only transport was a small L-5 single engine plane already filled with wounded. So, he sat on a wing spar on the outside of the fuselage and held on for dear life for about 30 miles.

“It was pretty comfortable,” he said, “until I looked down through my legs at the tree tops.”

SHOOTING A BENGAL TIGER

Browder spent the next six months in an Indian hospital with his foot in a cast. Early on, he saw many comrades return, bloodied.

“They were apparently ambushed a couple of days after I came back,” he said. “They were all shot up.”

Browder never returned to his unit. After he recovered, he was assigned to the 330th Engineers, a unit constructing a pipeline from Burma to China.

After VJ day (Victory over Japan) — Aug. 15, 1945 — Browder’s engineering unit stayed in Burma for a few months.Some nights, they would hunt big game from a truck bed, using a spotlight.

One night, Browder spotlighted a huge Bengal tiger. “I popped him.”Browder finally received orders to come home, completing an around-the-world trip, courtesy of the U.S. Army: Olympia to Los Angeles, India to Egypt, Gibraltar to New York and back to Olympia.

Browder returned to Ruth and his job as a mechanic — 23 years at Central Chevrolet and 21 years at Love Chevrolet.

They built a house on Ruth’s family farm on Platt Springs Road in West Columbia and raised their four children.

The tiger hide is stored in the rafters of the Browders’ garage.

Ruth said Browder is very excited about visiting the memorial.

“He has been since he found out he was going,” she said.

Reach Wilkinson at (803) 771-8495.

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