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Groton — During a ceremony Wednesday marking the 72nd anniversary of the Battle of Midway — known as the turning point of World War II in the Pacific — naval officers recognized those who were killed and one Oakdale man who survived — retired Master Chief Deen Brown.
For Brown, whose submarine, USS Trout (SS-202), was declared lost on April 17, 1944, the ceremony was bittersweet.
"Most of them, I knew like I would know a family member," Brown said of those who perished on the Trout that day. Eighty-one crew members died - everyone on the submarine - but Brown lived because he had been ordered to attend radar school training at the last minute.
"I must have had a guardian angel on my shoulder, I think," said Brown.
At the Historic Ship Nautilus pier, submarine base commander Capt. Carl A. Lahti and Brown, 91, laid a wreath of red and yellow carnations and vines into the Thames River in honor of the fallen heroes of the Midway battle that came six months after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor.
The attack on Pearl Harbor thrust an isolationist America into the war, Lahti said. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese commander Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto's plan was to lure the remaining American fleet to Midway Island, destroy the fleet and invade the island to use it as a base for attacking Hawaii, Lahti said. But the plan was thwarted because of U.S. aircraft that attacked and sank four Japanese carriers and marines and sailors who defended the island, he said.
Two years after the Midway battle, Allied troops invaded Normandy, France. The invasion, known as D-Day, was the beginning of the end of the war in Europe and its 70th anniversary is Friday.
"From Midway to D-Day was two long years," Lahti said. "But in that time, we assembled the most magnificent fighting force in history, we adapted and improvised, and ultimately, we overcame."
Radioman Brown was aboard one of the 11 submarines that were tasked with defending the island, said Lt. Cmdr. Benjamin Amdur, who is the officer in charge of the Nautilus. Seven other submarines were involved in patrols farther from the island, he said.
"Our force was smaller, not battle hardened, and sometimes at a technological disadvantage when it faced the might of the Japanese Imperial Navy at the peak of their strength," Amdur said. "It was the determination and courage of our sailors and Marines that turned the tide."
When Brown's submarine left Pearl Harbor for its Midway mission it had just returned from supporting the April 1942 Doolittle raids on Tokyo and other locations.
"We were expecting a period of rest and recuperation, but that didn't happen," Brown said. "We frantically had to load up ammunition, food and so forth and turn right around and go right back out into the Battle of Midway."
Brown, who turned 20 during the battle, said the early stages of World War II were frustrating because the military was "ill prepared."
"We lacked adequate identification and that was our nemesis in the Battle of Midway," he said.
There were Army bombers that flew out of Hawaii, he said, to join the battle, but they couldn't identify which submarines were American and bombed submarines such as Brown's, he said.
"Pretty soon we found out that we could not trust airplanes regardless what we thought they were, or who they were; we couldn't trust them and when we sighted one, in self-defense we simply had to dive to protect ourselves," he said.
Before the USS Trout's last mission, from which it did not return, Brown left the crew to complete radar training because radiomen were also electronic technicians at the time, he said.
It was emotional to lose his crew, he said.
"But it was also wartime, we had to become hardened in wartime to the loss of our shipmates," he said.
He was stationed in New London in 1944 and after a medical officer determined he was "too nervous" to go back to war, he was assigned to train sailors on a "school boat" on the river.
"I had been in hot temperature climates in the South Pacific for three years so when I got here in November, I swore I was going to freeze to death and I am still here," he said.