Fake news, racism and an unfinished bridge: A Portland soldier’s story

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Hello! Every seven days, for the rest of the year, This Week in Portland History is bringing to light a person or event from the city’s past.

At 9:40 p.m., on the night of Feb. 15, 1898, the battleship Maine exploded in Havana Harbor, Cuba, killing 260 men aboard. By April, thanks to fake newsmakers of the day at the New York Journal and the New York World newspapers — and a war-hungry Assistant Secretary of the Navy named Theodore Roosevelt the United States was at war with Spain.

John Clifford Brown

John Clifford Brown

It didn’t last long. The American victory brought spoils in the form of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and The Philippines.

A little over a year later, Portland native John Clifford Brown enlisted in the Army on June 22, 1899 in Washington. He shipped out three days later, bound for the Philippines occupation. 

Brown started keeping a diary as he traveled to the west coast and continued writing all throughout his time overseas. A rare book now, it gives readers unvarnished access to Brown’s raw thoughts, and keen memories, of his adventure.

Brown was born into a wealthy Portland family on March 28, 1872. He studied electrical engineering at MIT. After graduation, he got a job with the New York Telegraph and Telephone Company. He was known to be tall, blonde and quiet.

Arriving at Manila in August, he saw plenty of combat action, working as a battlefield cartographer, drawing maps of the uncharted jungle roads.

On Nov. 15, 1899 he wrote in this in his diary:

Rain, also rained continuously all night, which means all the rivers are up and I dare say all the bridges and ferries down in our rear. Troops moving to the front all night. The cursed rain keeps me back. I can’t sketch in the rain, but I shall go forward trusting to luck soon as I think the end is very near. It has been a wonderful campaign. No one in the States will ever know what the regular enlisted man has cheerfully done and endured.

Like most soldiers, he was also bored for long, inactive stretches. While other enlisted men gambled their payday money away, Brown spent his spare time working out geometry and trigonometry problems from memory.

He was also an unenlightened man. In his journal, he calls the Filipinos lazy and stupid. He freely uses the N-word, describing black soldiers. On March 8, 1900, he wrote how he, an enlisted man, could not bring himself to salute his superior, African-American officers.

From John Clifford Brown's published diary.

From John Clifford Brown’s published diary and letters.

Brown was sick with fevers in the spring and summer of 1900. At that point, he was supervising construction of a bridge at Parañaque, near Manila — a place that gets 71 inches of rain per year. He longed for an officer’s commission and to be back in the action.

Neither wish came true.

In November 1900, Brown was too ill to continue working and was shipped to San Francisco. When he arrived, a month later, he weighed less than 90 pounds. His mother took a cross country train to see him. She died of pneumonia a few days after arriving in California.

Brown died of typhoid complications Jan. 16, 1901 in Los Angeles. He was 28 years old.

John Clifford Brown's diary and letters home were published posthumously in an edition of just 50 books by his brother.

John Clifford Brown’s diary and letters home were published posthumously in an edition of just 50 books by his brother.

Later that same year, his brother Philip published a 50-book edition of Brown’s diary and letters home to their mother.

John Clifford Brown was buried, with full military honors, in Evergreen Cemetery on Stevens Avenue, a world away from his unfinished bridge in The Philippines.

Disclaimer: I’m not a historian. I owe everything I know to the dedicated research of those who have come before me. These character sketches and historical tidbits are assembled from multiple (often antique) sources and sprinkled with my own conjecture. I’m happy to be set straight or to learn more.

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Troy R. Bennett

About Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.