“.... THE FOREST FOR THE TREES” (SFC Nelson V. Brittin, MOH)
By M/Sgt. Charles Willeford, USAF
There are not many men in the Army today who remember SFC Nelson V. Brittin, for he wasn't the kind of soldier who made a deep impression at first meeting. In fact, you didn’t recall the things he said, but remembered rather the way he said them, and he said them very well.
He wasn’t very tall, only about 5 feet, 7 inches, and couldn’t have weighed more than 130 pounds with a rock in each hand; but his movements were quick and he had the wiry toughness of the well-trained infantryman who is kept in shape in spite of himself.
He wore G.I. glasses, and what little hair he had left was cropped to less than an inch. His right arm was much longer than his left. When he walked, springing along on the balls of his feet, he leaned forward, his arms swinging hardly at all.
The first time I saw Sergeant Brittin was at the weekly, mandatory Troop Information hour at the Clifford Theater in Kokura, Japan. He was the 24th Infantry Division’s I & E NCO. As a rule he presented the topic himself, rarely delegating the lecture to anyone else. He was gesturing feverishly, and his eyes bugged out like two neon tubes. The subject concerned the Marshall Plan, and I failed to see what there was to get excited about. I turned to the soldier sitting next to me.
“Who is that character?”
“Sergeant Brittin. I don’t know anything about him except that since he’s been here the last month, nobody sneaks out of the lectures at the break anymore.”
“You mean he’s that good?”
“Not at all. He doesn’t allow it, and if you’re caught, you’ve had it.”
“I settled back and tried to ignore his fervor. He was a good speaker, knew his subject well, and when he finished I, too, knew the purpose of the Marshall Plan. After the lecture he started a discussion, and in no time had heated pro and con men leaping up and down from different sections of the theater; interested to a degree that I had never seen before at a Troop Information, period.
After the session was over, I thought to myself that here was one time the Army had put the right man in the right job.
Not long after that, I got to know Brittin very well. I was station manager for WLKR, the Armed Forces Radio Station covering the island of Kyushu, and the 24th Div. Armed Forces Radio was under the supervision of the I & E Section, and Brittin being chief clerk, all of my paperwork and reports had to go across his desk. I liked the man from my first contact with him. I had him pegged as the “non-soldier clerk-type” in my mind. This was understandable, as his desk was stacked so high with paper and reports he was almost hidden. I talked to him about it one day.
“Brittin, you’d better check your workload. It looks to me like you’ve got too much work for an eight-hour day.”
“This isn’t all mine,” he said. “These are all reports from the regiments and Divarty. They do their reports wrong all the time, then when they hit here, I have to do them over.”
“Bounce the stuff back, then. You don’t have to do their work. Just write a nasty indorsement telling them to get on the ball.”
“I’ve sent memorandums down on how to do all these reports, so it’s probably my fault. Besides, if I do them, they are right, and none come back from Corps.”
I didn’t argue with him. There are several guys like him in the Army. It’s too bad there are not more. He was that way about everything he did. It was torture for him to memorize anything, yet he memorized the 50-minute speech he delivered each week. I discussed that with him too.
“Nobody expects anybody in the Army to memorize an hour’s lecture every week. All you have to do, trooper, is take a few notes, and glance at them from time to time. Either that, or break the subject into sections and detail three or four men from the company to give each one.”
“'I know all that,” he said. “But this way I know that the men who listen to me will go away knowing what the subject is all about. And when I look them in the eyes, they don’t fall asleep.”
He was right, the hard way, but he suffered while getting his speeches down. Monday and Tuesday nights he wrote his speech, then memorized it the remaining nights before Saturday morning. This was all done at night, on his own time, after putting in a full day at the I & E office. I have never seen any Army enlisted man work harder than he did so consistently.
Perhaps I have put over my point. Sergeant Brittin was sold on the idea of the American soldier being the best informed soldier in the world. It was his job to sell it to others. He was being paid for it. He did it.
I wish I knew more about his family background, but I don’t. Brittin never spoke of his family and never received mail from anyone.
He finally found a Japanese girl who suited him, and he entered into which was probably the happiest period of his life. He rented a small house five miles away from the compound and rode back and forth each morning and evening on a bicycle.
I didn’t see him much after that, and I never met the girl. I saw her once in awhile waiting for him in front of the post exchange. She wasn’t pretty, even by Oriental standards, but her figure was good, and she had the shy old-fashioned look that is quickly disappearing from the modern Japanese girl. I hope she was good to him. I know she was good for him.
A few days before I left Japan, I ran into Brittin at the bar in the NCO club. He was drinking a double shot. I bought him another.
“On me. I’m going home next week.”
“Home. Where’s that?" he asked.
“I mean the states.”
“You should stay here. There’s nothing in the states. Anything that will happen will happen here. You’ll miss out.”
“Thirty months is enough for me.”
“I’m never going back.”
“I like it here. There’s nothing in the states for me.”
That was the last time I saw Sergeant Brittin. I returned to the states and re-enlisted in the Air Force. Knowing that Brittin never got any mail, I wrote him a couple of times. My letters, as I expected, were never answered. The Korean fighting came along, and I read everything I could concerning the 24th Infantry Division.
The other day I read where Sergeant Brittin got the Medal of Honor. As a squad leader he killed 20 enemy soldiers and destroyed four automatic guns. As he charged the fourth heavily defended position after destroying the first three he ran into a burst of automatic fire and was killed instantly.
After I read the piece in the paper, I wept. I wept, and I don’t know why. If any soldier in Korea knew what he was fighting for, Sergeant Brittin knew.
Perhaps I wept because I didn’t know, and never will.
(Reprinted from The Taro Leaf, Vol V, No 4. page 4, Jan-Feb 1952.)