Telling war stories

For one man, learning and writing about the group of Chico men who fought in World War II together is a full-time endeavor

This photo, taken in August 1940 during a maneuver in Washington, shows Mervin “Bud” French in a white T-shirt; Earl Watson, the star quarterback of the Chico High Panthers, at far right; and Darwin Simmons to the left of French. Simmons, who transferred out of Company G before 1943, still lives in Chico.

This photo, taken in August 1940 during a maneuver in Washington, shows Mervin “Bud” French in a white T-shirt; Earl Watson, the star quarterback of the Chico High Panthers, at far right; and Darwin Simmons to the left of French. Simmons, who transferred out of Company G before 1943, still lives in Chico.

Photo courtesy of Scott Brooke

Celebrate veterans:
This Friday (Nov. 11) is Veterans Day. Here are a few local celebrations:
• Chico’s Veteran Day Celebration will be held at Manzanita Place, with music and lunch. The event is free and starts at 10:30 a.m.
• Oroville’s annual Veterans Day Parade kicks off at Fifth and Montgomery streets at 10 a.m.

Scott Brooke has been captivated by World War II since he was just 7 years old. His father would often talk about his service and the men he went to war with, and Brooke listened.

“I’ve spent more than 50 years infatuated with the subject,” said Brooke from the living room of his mother’s house in north Chico. “And I’m still learning things.”

Names and dates flow easily off his tongue as he talks about the 91 men from Chico who joined the National Guard together before the outbreak of World War II and were then transferred into the Army. They formed Company G of the 184th Infantry Regiment. Of those 91, just 25 stuck together through the duration of the war (the others transferred to other companies around the country). One of those men was Brooke’s father, Glenn “Squeek” Brooke. Another was Mervin “Bud” French, who was interviewed along with the younger Brooke three years ago for a CN&R article about the so-called “Chico boys.” French passed away in March 2010, leaving very few of the original group of Company G alive to tell their story.

That’s where Brooke comes in. For the past four years, he’s been painstakingly studying the route these men took, many of them starting at childhood. He’s contacted several of the men who survived the war and lived into their 80s and 90s. For others, he’s talked with family members—spouses, children—and collected stories, photographs, anything to round out what happened so many years ago.

“I talk about these guys like I knew them, when really I didn’t,” Brooke said. “But my dad did, and he talked about them all the time.”

What makes the story of the Chico boys so compelling is the way in which they all enlisted, following in the footsteps of their beloved football coach at Chico High. Lloyd Madsen had led the 1939 Panthers to victory, and the boys—and many others in town—idolized the man. He’d joined the National Guard four years prior, and it paid fairly well ($1 a meeting). So, many of the boys joined alongside him, some of them as young as 15 with their parents’ permission.

“Many of these young boys looked up to Maddy Madsen like he was God,” Brooke said. “He was the inspiration to these boys to join the National Guard. Another main character that all the kids looked up to was Earl Watson. He was the star quarterback, a big leader, and as time went by he was made first sergeant—the top dog.”

Scott Brooke, who lives in Livermore, has spent the past four years researching a book on the “Chico boys” who fought together in World War II.

Photo By Meredith J. Graham

Brooke is not a historian by trade. In fact, he never finished high school, opting instead to join the workforce. The summer after junior year, when he was sure he’d be drafted into the military because the Vietnam War was still roaring, he took a job with his dad at a bakery in Oakland (he grew up in Livermore, where he still lives). He stayed there until he retired, at age 50, seven years ago.

Brooke never was drafted—the war ended shortly after his 18th birthday—but the stories he heard from his father and his father’s friends, like French, never left his mind. Four years ago, after being inspired by the movie Flags of Our Fathers, he made a decision to put his father’s story to paper.

From there, it turned into a story about the 91 who joined together, to individual stories about each of those men—he concentrates on the 25 who stuck together to the end, but includes anecdotes and details about where each of the others ended up. He even writes about the many men who joined Company G from across the country. He’s compiling all these stories into a book, though whenever anyone asks him when he’ll be finished he says he just doesn’t know.

“Once you get started, you find there’s always another corner to explore,” he said. “The more I research the families, the more I find I just can’t stop here.”

The journey has been a labor of love, to be sure. Many of the men, once they returned from battle, never spoke a word about some of the things they saw or did. Instead, they put their minds to forgetting the horrors of war. That has been the biggest struggle for Brooke in telling his story. And he’s become very close with some of the men and their families over the years, like French, whose death was particularly hard on Brooke.

In talking with Brooke about his book, it’s clear that he’d rather steer the conversation off himself and onto the men he’s been writing about. He talks at length about their service in Alaska, then the Marshall Islands, and finally Okinawa, Japan. In several instances, he’s found—through talking with the men who were there and their families—that some of the stories we’ve read about in history books or seen in the movies aren’t always true.

First of all, Brooke said, when most people think about the war in the Pacific, they think of the Marine Corps. But while the Marines made up a large part of that portion of World War II, there were many soldiers in the Army and Navy who risked—and in many cases, lost—their lives in the Pacific. He points in particular to the Battle of Okinawa, dubbed the bloodiest battle in the Pacific, where Company G held the front line for much of the three-month-long fight. Casualties were many. In one four-day stretch, Brooke said, “60 percent of the company was either wounded or killed.

“There were a lot of Chico guys on the front line,” he added. Among them were his father and French. As for the others in Brooke’s story mentioned here—Madsen was dubbed too old, at 40-something, to fight, so he was put on track to become an officer when the Chico boys were sent to basic training. And Watson was killed in action in the Marshall Islands, alongside many of his friends and former football teammates.

“When Watson was killed, it was devastating to a lot of these guys. They looked up to him,” Brooke said. In many ways, he sees the story of the Chico boys as just as compelling as that of Pacific or Band of Brothers. In fact, among the original 91 from Company G, there were five sets of siblings.

“Talk about a band of brothers—this was the real band of brothers,” Brooke said.