GROTON -- What J. Deen Brown remembers most now is the crew, how the 81 men worked around the clock to ready a submarine that was "in a state of disarray" for battle.
"It didn't matter what their normal job was. If they weren't working, they just simply helped out the engineers as best they could," said Brown, of Oakdale, a retired Navy master chief who turns 95 on Thursday. "I think about that more today than I have in the past."
Brown, dressed in a baby blue vest decorated with various wartime medals and a picture of the USS Trout (SS 202) on the back, which his daughter Jessica and wife, Lois, spent months stitching in needlepoint, was the special guest Tuesday at the Naval Submarine Base's event marking the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Midway, known as the turning point of World War II in the Pacific.
The ceremony was held inside the Submarine Force Library & Museum because of the rain.
Brown was just 19 years old when the three-day battle started at 4:30 a.m. on June 4, 1942. The battle was still raging when he turned 20, but, of course, there was no time for celebration then. The sub's cook later made him a cake after the battle, and when Brown enjoyed cake at Tuesday's ceremony, he said it was a sign that his life, in a way, had come full circle.
Brown was assigned as a junior radioman aboard the USS Trout, which had just two of its engines online when it left Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, for Midway, Master Chief Ron Clark of the sub base said, in recounting the battle from Brown's perspective. That was because the Trout had been damaged two months earlier while supporting the Doolittle Raid, the first U.S. air raid to strike the Japanese home islands.
During Midway, however, the Trout didn't suffer any, Brown said, explaining the battle was a "highly active" aerial conflict. The more challenging battles for submarines would come later in the war, he said.
However, submarines such as the Trout had to be careful not to be shot by friendly fire. At the time, there was no electronic means of identification, so the only way U.S. Army pilots could identify a ship was visually.
"That didn't work ... They couldn't tell a submarine from a cruiser," Brown said, explaining that it got to the point where "if we saw an airplane, we wouldn't even try to see whether it was an enemy or friendly, we just submerged."
Brown and the other radiomen aboard the Trout had their work cut out for them: copying 25 words per minute of Morse code, Clark pointed out. That information then was fed to the onboard officers and fire control party, those that handled the torpedoes.
Capt. Paul Whitescarver, commanding officer of the sub base, described how the armed forces improvised new tactics and strategies during World War II, such as cracking the Japanese navy's codes.
"With the information revealed by breaking these codes, our armed forces could attempt to counter Japanese offensives throughout the vast expanse of the Pacific," Whitescarver said. "And perhaps the most dramatic illustration and execution of this was the Battle of Midway."
It was intelligence that "allowed us to win the battle," Brown said, when asked whether any lessons from Midway can be applied today.
"Intelligence today in any kind of a wartime situation is really paramount. ... Some of the news I hear today about the leakage of intelligence matters disturb me," he said. "It shouldn't happen. Militarily, we can't afford to have that happen."
Officials also marked the Southeastern Council of Governments' designation earlier this year as a "Great American Defense Community," a national award recognizing the region for its support of the local military community.