John Brown was wounded while serving in Vietnam. He said a member of the KKK saved his life.(Photo: ANDREW FORD // ASBURY PARK PRESS)
This is another in Asbury Park Press’ series of conversations on race, featuring community members’ reflections and thoughts on how they believe race has – or hasn’t – impacted their lives. We would like to hear your stories. Email them to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bullets ripped through John Brown’s hands, chest and left knee as he lay prone in a village near Bo Tuc, Vietnam in 1967. By the grace of God he didn’t hit in the head. But he was bleeding out in the open, fingers shot off, half of one hand blown away. Suddenly, another member of his team rushed over to him. Brown is a black man. He said his team member was a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Regardless, Brown said the man dragged him away as machine gun bullets hit the ground on either side of them.
From his tidy living room in his home in Lakewood, Brown, now 68, looked back on his life. He said he wouldn’t be there if the man hadn’t saved him. Brown can only recall his first name: Rayford.
Brown was born in Littleton, North Carolina, the youngest of eight children of sharecroppers.
In 1950, his parents moved to Lakewood looking for a better life. His mother told him stories from her years in North Carolina of Klansmen burning crosses in the night, but Lakewood was a diverse community.
Inspiring school teachers motivated him. He and his twin were the first in the family to go to college. Then he was drafted. He reported to Newark induction center on June 15, 1967 and went into the Army.
The first time he encountered racism was on his first vacation from training at Fort Jackson on Columbia, South Carolina. He went to a restaurant with three white friends, a Hispanic person and an American Indian. The whites were served, the others weren’t. Brown complained and the waitress told him they didn’t serve his kind. Her boss came over and started using the N-word.
Brown, a 6-foot-5, 245-pound former football player, signaled his friends, flipped the table, and hit the boss in the face. They all ran to a bus stop.
Seven months later he was in Vietnam, leading a squad doing long-range reconnaissance.
They didn’t stay at a base camp, but lived among the civilians. He and his team saw combat almost every day. At first, Rayford balked at Brown’s orders. Brown literally slapped him upside the head with his NAACP card. Rayford’s KKK card meant as much to Brown as Brown’s NAACP card meant to Rayford.
“I’ve never met a man I couldn’t deal with,” he said.
Brown was wounded twice before the encounter that would send him home. After Rayford pulled him to safety, Brown was flown to an Army field hospital. He woke up days later, doped up on morphine. He still didn’t know the condition of his hands. He saw his thumbs sticking out of bandages, but he couldn’t feel anything and nobody would tell him.
“Oh my God, I don’t have too much left,” he said.
After about 18 operations in Japan, he said he was flown back to the U.S., positioned facing the tail of the airplane with coffins stacked to the ceiling behind him.
He never again got to speak to the man who saved his life. About two weeks after Brown was wounded, his whole platoon was wiped out in an ambush. Only one other person survived, and it wasn’t Rayford.
As he rode on a bus toward Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, race rioters lit the bus on fire. He helped to get people out and onto another bus with a police escort.
He received three Purple Hearts. He retired as a sergeant in 1969 under special presidential orders, meaning he received benefits as if he had been enlisted for 20 years. He worked for New Jersey Disabled Veterans Outreach Program through the Department of Labor for 25 years, helping veterans get benefits and jobs.
Sitting in his home near a spread of military honors and a blinking Christmas tree, Brown shed a tear as he thought about the first time he saw the damage to his hands. Today, he’s 100 percent disabled, his hands are heavily scarred, he struggles to button a shirt or walk up stairs. He suffers from PTSD and still sometimes sleeps on the floor because he can’t adjust to a bed.
He said he wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for the KKK member who saved his life.
“I learned that two people, no matter what their differences are, or races, can come together on one accord.”
For stories, videos and to join the conversation, visit app.com/raceconversation. The series will culminate with a live video broadcast from APP’s newsroom of a discussion on race with various members of the community. Tune in to APP.com at 12:30 p.m. on Jan. 19, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Day to see the broadcast and participate virtually.
For more details, visit www.app.com