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PFC Kenneth John Brown
Birth: 1924, USA
Death: Jun. 16, 1944

Left high school in his junior year to join the Marine Corps, after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He enlisted at 17 on 12/24/1941. Killed on the second day of the invasion of Saipan, among the first of 2,949 American dead. The girl he left behind never married.

A fallen Marine's headstone replaced, a lover's heart left unmended

By Mark Di Ionno/Star-Ledger Columnist. used with permission of author.

May 18, 2012.
MONTCLAIR — Colleen Fay didn't know much about Pfc. Kenneth Brown when she noticed his headstone being overrun by an oak tree trunk. The cross, the words "Marine" and "World War II" and the death date, 1944, told her enough.

"I thought, ‘Here's a guy who gave his life for his country. He deserves better,' " she said.

The odd coupling of stone and tree not only put her on a mission to get Brown a new marker, but raised her curiosity about the man buried there, and those he left behind.

This is the effect of cemetery wandering, which Fay, an orthopedic surgeon admits she likes to do. All those names, and dates from different times, evidence of personal histories. Colleen Fay wanted to know Kenneth Brown's. It took a few years to unravel, but what she found was a love story of profound tragedy and inspiration.

"It's sad and beautiful at the same time," she said.

* * *

The trunk of the tree that embraces Brown's marker is shaped a little like a heart, a heart split in half by the stone.

It is the perfect metaphor for this story, because the broken heart belongs to the girl he left behind, the girl who loved him as she grew old alone, the girl who loved him till the day she died.

Kenny Brown was a Montclair boy, so moved by the attack on Pearl Harbor, he left high school in his junior year to join the Marine Corps. He was 17 when he enlisted the day before Christmas, 1941.

Claire Smith was only 15 when Kenny Brown left their Wildwood Avenue neighborhood for the Corps. She was friends with his little sister, Betty Ann, and lived a few doors down.

No one knows why she wrote him that first letter. Maybe because it was a nice thing to do, to give him a little taste of home. Maybe she had a little schoolgirl crush on him. But she wrote him, and he wrote back. Again and again. She told him about her life at Immaculate Conception High School, where she spent time on the basketball team and the Social Committee. She wrote about big bands, Harry James and Glenn Miller, and she told him what movies were playing in downtown Montclair.

He asked about her parents, and little sister, Joan, and other people from the street.

He did not write about forcing the Japanese out of caves with flame throwers, or watching his fellow Marines die in numbers that remain shocking today, or the battles he fought at Guadalcanal, Tamara, and Saipan. The savagery, the filth, the bad food, the disease, the decomposing bodies, all was left out. He knew the letters were being read by Navy censors, who stamped each envelope once approved.

Over two years, he sent her 39 letters. In the first few he signed off with "Fondly." By the end, the closing had changed to "All my love."

The last one was postmarked May 3, 1944. He was killed six weeks later, on June 16, 1944, the second day of the invasion of Saipan, among the first of 2,949 American dead. He was 20.

Five days earlier, Claire Smith had graduated from high school.

* * *

Within a few feet of Kenneth Brown at Immaculate Conception Cemetery in Montclair are at least 20 other military tablets. The limestone markers are the uniform, arch-white stones that stretch eternally at Arlington and other national cemeteries where war dead are brought home.

All those wars. All that life. All those left behind. All the holes in lives never filled, all the longing and grieving, finally coming to rest all these decades later for the World War II generation.

Who was left for Kenneth Brown?

Colleen Fay wanted to know, as she made efforts to preserve his headstone. She contacted legislators, veterans groups, the Boys Scouts — "I thought it might make a a good Eagle Scout project," she said. Finally, her brother, a former Marine, suggested the Marine Corps League.
kenbrown2.JPGFrances Micklow/The Star-LedgerThe memorial marker of Marine Kenneth Brown killed in WWII at Immaculate Conception cemetery. With help of the Marine Corps League, a new stone will be dedicated May 20.

Commandant Timothy Daudelin of the Saddle River Detachment came out and arranged for a new headstone, which was donated by monument maker Scott Rullis, whose father was a Marine. They planned a dedication ceremony.

Fay then set out to find family members of Brown, to invite them to the ceremony. It was then that she found out about the mystery woman.

* * *

The woman visited often, for seven decades, leaving Easter flowers and Christmas wreaths and Memorial Day flags. Sometimes she came with another woman, but mostly alone. Sometimes she spoke to cemetery caretakers, who told Fay about her.

Fay investigated. It wasn't Brown's sister. She moved away and had since died. The nieces Kenneth Brown never knew were in Florida.

It was in a conversation with a childhood friend of Kenny Brown named Stuart O'Brien she first heard the name Claire Smith.

"She spent her whole life with him in her heart," O'Brien said.

"My sister dated other men after Kenny died, but she never found the right one," said Claire Smith's sister, Joan Eaton. "There was no doubt in mind, if he came home, they would gotten married. It started out as just pen pals, but by the end, they were very close. If he came home ..."

But he didn't, and Claire Smith moved through life without him. She joined the Marine Corps after the war — "I really believe she did that to somehow be closer to Kenny," Eaton said — and she had her share of adventures, once driving cross-country with a few girlfriends.

"She was very independent," Eaton said. "She lived alone and I really believe she liked it that way."

She died last July 9, peacefully, in her sleep, at age 85.

* * *

On Sunday at 4 p.m., the Marine Corps League will hold a ceremony to dedicate the Pfc. Kenneth Brown's new stone. It will not to replace the marker in the tree, but laid in the ground near it.

Clair Smith is also buried in Immaculate Conception in the same plot as her parents, a few hundred yards from Kenneth Brown. The Marine Corps League is now planning a headstone and ceremony for her, the same as for the man she never got to marry.

Because he gave his life. And she gave a part of hers, too.
Family links: 
  Claire Marguerite Smith (1926 - 2011)
Note: His original stone is engulfed by an oak tree. A new headstone was donated, dedicated by the Marine Corps League, and set in the ground near the old headstone.
Immaculate Conception Cemetery
Upper Montclair
Essex County
New Jersey, USA
Created by: AR
Record added: May 22, 2014
Find A Grave Memorial# 130212593
PFC Kenneth John Brown
Cemetery Photo
Added by: Colleen
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