Valos Beverly Brownell was at Midway Island when Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese on Dec. 7, 1941.
He was one of just a handful of civilian workers at Midway when Japanese submarines shelled the island at 10 p.m. on Dec. 7, harshly rousing Brownell and the others from their sleep and sending them running to the sandy beach to dig fox holes where they huddled shivering through the night.
The shelling continued through the night, until just before dawn, recalled the 92-year-old Brownell who was a member of the Manteca High Class of 1937.
“They shelled for quite a long time. It lasted, maybe, three to four hours. It was a long time to lay in a fox hole,” said the still sprite Manteca-born nonagenarian who now live with wife Beverly in Ripon.
“They (the Japanese) knew what they were doing. First thing, they shot off the communication poles,” added Brownell.
“There was one boy who was killed. He was up in the anti-aircraft gun. That was the only gun we had then, up in the power house,” said Brownell. He said the lone casualty that night was “young (military) man.
Unlike Pearl Harbor, “Midway Island was not bombed; it was just shelling,” he qualified.
“There’s a reef around Midway Island so (the Japanese submarines) couldn’t get in, but they were half a mile off the islands and the submarines shot from there. They shot into the hangar. There was a big fire in the hangar which burned some of the planes,” Brownell said.
There was no commercial plane on the island that night, but “one came in and refueled that day and then took off right on to Honolulu.”
Two of the five PBY bomber airplanes stationed at Midway Islands were completely destroyed, he said. After the shelling, “the other three went to Honolulu. The PBY bombers were float planes” or flying boats which had the advantage of not requiring runways; hence, they could take off from the ocean.
Brownell also recalled that after Pearl Harbor was attacked, “those PBYs (at Midway Island) all took off and circled around and inspected the area. They came back that evening and they called us all in the mess hall and said, ‘you can go to bed and go to sleep. We’ve been flying around and there is nothing to worry about. They told us we were safe; ‘go to bed, don’t worry about anything.’ So we went to bed and at 10 o’clock that night, we were shelled by the Japanese.”
Brownell left Midway Island “in April or May of 1942.”
During the war, he got a job at Barber’s Point naval air station in Hawaii where he recalled the “Bond Wagon” doing the rounds every week.
“The Bond Wagon came around every week to sell war bonds. When it was pay day, they rolled out the band wagon. I bought a few (war) bonds,” which helped the war effort, said Brownell who still has a copy of the Barber’s Point big book containing photographs of the company showing employees at work, the equipment they used, and pictures of company management members. Brownell did not have any picture in the book, but his name appears in the index containing all the names who worked at Barber’s Point.
Brownell did not go to Midway Island as a serviceman.
“I never was in the military. I went to work for Bechtel Company in San Francisco and they sent me to Midway Island. We installed fuel systems for refueling airplanes, sewer lines; we built homes – we did everything. It was called Contractors Pacific Naval Air Bases at Midway Island in South Pacific. That was before the war. I was there when the war started on Midway Island. We were there until April 1942,” he said.
He had many other job stints after the war. He also worked in Alaska. “We were cutting right-of-way to put the pipeline in, side by side with the Alaskan Highway.”
He was there from 1944 until he came back home.
He also went to work for Joe Myers in Manteca doing land leveling. “I worked for Joe for many years.” After that, he went to work for Karlson Brothers, a trucking business. He “drove a little bit” and later worked as operations manager for 21 years. He remained in that position after Karlson Brothers was sold to a company in Modesto.
Brownell, who was better known as Beverly or “Bev,” married wife Beverly in 1945 by the Rev. Pratt, a preacher in Ripon at that time, at a back-yard ceremony in Ripon. Wife Beverly also lived in Manteca for many years, and was a longtime volunteer with Doctors Hospital Auxiliary.
Both have family roots in Manteca. Valos Brownell’s grandfather owned two blacksmiths in Manteca at one time. His father, Robert Leventon, also served as mayor of Manteca from 1920-24.