Maxfield Joseph Brown
Corporal — United States Army
Korean and Cold War (1950 -1952) Army Reserves (1952-1956)
Maxfield Joseph Brown devoted years to the military working tirelessly to help engineer and test the groundbreaking technologies of his day. His optimistic outlook on life and willingness to learn brought Brown great success at not only the Redstone Arsenal in Alabama, but in his career after the military where he utilized his skills to become a key figure at a Silicon Valley startup company.
More commonly known as Max Brown, Brown was born in the Queen of Angels Hospital in Hollywood on December 6, 1927. He spent his childhood residing in Beverly Hills and was the first of his family members to serve in the military. His father worked as an apprentice in the bond and stock business, eventually becoming a bond trader. Normally, Brown recalled, his mother would have stayed home, but due to wartime, she worked at Douglas Aircraft writing checks and bookkeeping.
Before entering the military, Brown obtained a college degree. He had little work experience, though he was in training to be a program manager in Los Angeles. Though he eventually left for the military, he believes it was a good way to learn business. Brown went through college and quickly to a job to try and evade the draft. However, eventually Brown was drafted in the war. Though he had not enlisted, he said his family’s reaction was expecting. He described himself as the kind they wanted in the war, “free, white, and 21.” Without a family of his own or other overwhelming commitments, he made an ideal draftee.
Brown served in the 9330 Technical Service Unit, or TSU in the Ordnance Corps of the United States Army. He spent two years in Huntsville, Alabama at the Redstone Arsenal. “‘Hauntsville’ is the way it’s said,” Brown cheerfully added in his best southern accent. He worked primarily on the technical side of the war, not actually encountering combat.
Fort Ord, California was home to Brown for the entirety of his basic training. He remembers exercising and marching on the beach and even in the water sometimes. “We’d have to march out in the water trying to keep our gun dry going through the low waves as far as you could.”
Despite the countless hours of marching and time devoted to training, Brown did not feel that his efforts were being taken seriously. In his views, the officers above him were interested only in the military side of training. Though, as a soldier, he did feel his training was effective. However, the environment at Fort Ord proved difficult, with a mixture of morale. Brown attributes this to the fact volunteers and draftees were not segregated.
One memory from his time at basic training was learning how to crawl under gunfire. Brown remembered crawling through mud and muck to get to the other side as machine guns were really shooting. “You stay down there at about two and a half, three feet, it makes you think.”
At the conclusion of his training at Fort Ord., Brown was interviewed along with other soldiers that have qualifications beyond the normal G.I. to see if they could offer him a place where he would be best suited. After some interviews and a few placement tests which Brown excelled in, he was sent to Huntsville.
Despite his limited exposure to actual combat, Brown still recalls his military training. “That was a funny thing, is I can’t remember how frequently, but it was often, we’d have to go do military training. Monday through Friday, we’d wear uniforms. You’d go to get on a bus, and go to your work assignment, get on the – have lunch, get on the bus, come back to your dorm, your barracks, live like a soldier, and on Saturday morning, you’d go do your drills. Get out there and march. Sometimes you’d go for half a day walking.” Brown also remembered that marching wasn’t made to be easy, often times he had to navigate trails going uphill or through sand.
After basic training at Fort Ord, Brown experienced two month long “refresher” courses of training. One took place in Anniston, Alabama, and one at Fort Bliss, which was right next to White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico. “They psychologically didn’t want us to be spoiled, if you want to call it that. It was stupid, absolutely stupid. If your job didn’t start till ten o’clock, you still had to get up at seven o’clock, and you still had to go over to the mess hall and have breakfast,” Brown said. Though he received gun training, it was extremely minimal because of Brown’s eventual integration of engineering into his military career.
Huntsville, Alabama was home to Brown’s workplace for roughly a year beginning in November of 1950: The Redstone Arsenal. His rank at the time was Private First Class, or Pfc. “The people at Huntsville were very scientifically oriented. Before I got the job, they asked me if I could speak and write in the jargon, and I didn’t know about it. I hadn’t been in the rocket business, or guided-missile business. Only a few people in the world had. And they were there at Huntsville, and so I did the best I could within my learning,” Brown explained.
Brown worked at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, which stemmed from the base of the Ordnance Corps in Aberdeen near Washington D.C. The Redstone Arsenal also had stations that reported to it or completed tasks, including the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena which Brown eventually worked for. As Brown described, “We had in the military three levels for a product: the design, the implementation, and the Field Service. You can imagine Huntsville as the designers.” Another station, the White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico, served as a testing facility for many of the developments made at the Redstone Arsenal. In Huntsville, Brown worked in the Field Service Division. He had a desk job working on logistic support of the guided-missile program. In his words, “How do you move missiles from place to place? How do you take them from the trucks to launchers? What do you do with the troops? What other vehicles are there, and how do you collect them and separate them.”
The time Brown spent at Redstone Arsenal provided him with military experience, but also a new culture shock. “It’s the deep south. I was as much affected by the people, and the way of doing things as I was about being in the army. I mean Huntsville, Alabama is nowhere…” Living in the South for the first time after being raised in Southern California was a large factor in Brown’s army experiences. Adjusting to not only a new location, but a new realization of living with the racial segregation in Alabama proved to be a challenge. “Army guys had a hell of a time adjusting. It took quite a while for us, and they would give us training in terms of lectures and say, ‘This is what it’s going to be like when you go into town. It will be different.’” While in Alabama, he lived in Barracks. “Imagine a building. Got a front door and back door. Stairs in the front and back. All wood. Slanted roof, it’s a very common straight wood building. We slept in those barracks and as time went on we became more accepted and we accepted, they gave us more leniency and we could walk to the mess hall ourselves, things like that.” However, Brown also mentioned at first the conditions were extremely strict. He also remembered that the food was satisfactory in his opinion. Often times he said he would have mush three times a week, at least. He recalled having hotcakes four or five times a week. With his experience in the army, the food was valued for quantity not quality, sometimes he would find eggshells in his eggs. The quantity was nearly overvalued in Brown’s opinion, who remembered an excess amount of food. Often times, extra food was given to the town’s people.
“You know it would be people like me who knew nothing, would be assigned to work with the cooks, who were Regular Army guys. We’d be back there and have these jobs chopping the vegetables or the fruit or breaking eggs. Whatever the dumb things were that you could possibly give us, that was the job. And sometimes it didn’t turn out too good!” From this experience, Brown learned to make grits, which became one of his specialties for his children growing up. Hominy grits, traditional in the South, became part of the Brown family tradition, now continuing to be passed through generations.
In Alabama, due to the desolate location and size of town, entertainment was limited. Brown played pool and ping-pong, enjoyed the luxury of a movie every once and awhile, and played cards to pass the time. He considers himself very fortunate as an engineer, because Brown was able to access newspaper at work, which not all military men in his barracks were able to enjoy.
Overall, Brown felt that in Huntsville people felt very connected to the war and were aware of the direct impact they had. While he felt he was effective in serving the country, Brown also recalled that the mixture of engineers from all over the country was a strange mix. “I mean you get guys that are in their head all the time, you know? They’re daydreamers so to speak, and they are creators, and when they’re not creating something, they’re daydreaming.” Brown was grateful for some of the officers above him, specifically those that assigned him to work back in California. During his time in Huntsville, Brown received a Good Conduct Medal.
Eventually in June of 1951, Brown was selected to be a liaison to the Jet Propulsion Lab, which helped design some of the guided missiles for the military in Pasadena. He worked for Major Colonel Parsons, and still has fond memories of their experiences. Though they worked in close quarters, the whole staff consisting of them two and one other employee, Parsons continued to ask Brown military terms and menial things to remind him he was still in the army despite a unique situation.
Upon his arrival in Pasadena, Brown was timid. He had no idea what his new job was going to entail, simply that he was working for Colonel Parsons. However, Brown was able to live at home and enjoyed home cooked meals from his mother, making the process more comfortable. Brown also recalls restrictions on entertainment wartime provided. “A lot of places, I can remember movie theaters nearby had ‘No Military Here’ signs. They didn’t want military men in the theaters, and that was because they usually messed it up. On the other hand, some places would have big signs saying ‘Welcome Military.’ So you never knew the situation till you got there.”
At the Jet Propulsion Lab, Brown worked to provide technical expertise under management from Huntsville. It was the collaboration point of the military, represented by Col. Parsons, and various contractors working to help the government build missiles. Brown’s personal jobs did not include making decisions specifically, but writing notes, observing and monitoring projects and then returning to Colonel Parsons who would make decisions. Brown wrote reports regarding the work he did, and worked with Firestone and Douglas, one of the contractors. In his time at the Jet Propulsion Lab, Brown became a Corporal.
One of the highlights of his time in Pasadena was the connection to the rest of the world. “THat was one of the great things for me, was to provide technical support or people in the world that were working with the U.S. Army in guided-missile fields. We got a broad connection, which was very helpful to me. It meant a heck of a good start in business.”
Brown got many opportunities to travel around, going back to Huntsville a few times, to White Sands Proving Ground, and many places where he was able to see new technology develop. He had temporary duty in New Mexico, but did not stay for long. He worked to help answer questions from contractors working to build things for Huntsville while in New Mexico. He even got to interview Wernher von Braun, who developed the technology for the V-2 missile and served first as a German engineer, and then as an American engineer. “I was in awe. It changed my level of thinking so hugely, to be associated with people who were so sharp.”
Brown spent some of his military career with many German peers. Many of the German scientists he worked amongst were offered jobs as an alternative to capture. Many of Brown’s American peers were suspicious of the Germans and reluctant to work with them. However, they were still employed because of the advanced developments Germans had made with missiles such as the V-2. Though the German population in the United States Military was somewhat sequestered from the other population, Brown recalls they had a good living situation for themselves that acted like a military post.
Throughout his time at the Jet Propulsion Lab, Brown’s jobs changed as he learned more and grew as an engineer. “As I grew in knowledge, I got more important things to do,” he said.
In September of 1952 Brown was discharged from service. He served in the Army Reserves for four years after that until 1956 and continued to work at the Jet Propulsion Lab during that time.
After his discharge, he experienced mixed emotions. “I had to start again, get a new thing going. I didn’t feel like I had finished the training, education-wise, that I should have. I was uncertain what to do. When you’re in the military, and you’re getting assignments, whether they’re technical or shoot-em, you still follow the rules, and you do what they say. When you’re on your own it’s a different business. Starting out and trying to prove myself to a contractor was a bit intimidating.” However, Brown was able to transition to the workforce easily from the army, eventually finding great successes through hard work.
He first worked for Gilfillan, a company he was already familiar with, making it a somewhat seamless transition. Brown eventually earned a Master’s Degree. Education was one of the most important aspects in Brown’s life through his military career. “I felt education was extremely important. It had differentiated achievement from non-achievement, from people that could make things happen to people that followed. And I chose to continue as much education as I could. At Jet Propulsion being around strong technical guys and working with Col. Parsons, it kind of inspired me to keep studying.”
Brown’s career led him to work for a friend of a friend working at Data Measurement Corporation, which later became DMC. The business worked to provide instrumentation for data, as Brown described it. “My job was pretty much an interface between the technical people and the manufacturer’s.” The company experienced tremendous growth and eventually became a Silicon Valley company. Through this, Brown got to know the bankers and venture capitalists as well as top people in the tech industry which allowed him to continue prospering as a manager.
Brown gained many friends throughout his time in the service, though now many of them have passed on. The most difficult aspect of his service was learning to live in two situations. “One was the Army, you’re now a private all by yourself. And living in the South, which was night and day to me. I didn’t know how to behave. I didn’t know how to just be friendly to people. And so learning the South and the military at the same time was kind of complicated for me.”
His scariest moment was a rocket launch he experienced at White Sands Proving Ground. Though he was confident, Brown still felt nervous. Before that experience, he had only watched test launches from afar through cameras rather than being at the landing site. Brown also remembers many humorous moments throughout his time in the Army. “There were some really fun things happening with us non-Southerners living in the South. We would make mistakes all over the place. And you don’t mean to be impolite, but as far as they’re concerned you are.” Though it was his scariest moment, it also was the most memorable. “You can hear the loudspeaker, so you know the countdown. And then there’a big whoosh! Huge whoosh sound, and a splash of light. And then the thing goes whew! But it shakes. It stands there and shakes and catches. Then whoom! It goes out of sight and that’s spectacular.”
In his opinion, Brown’s experience and time in the military is justified. He received a good education and believes the Army got good use of his skills. Throughout his time, his outlook on life shifted. “By associating with so many different people, different ethnic, race, all kinds of training school, it changed me completely. It made me more introspective. I want to know more about people, and what they’re doing, and things like that. I mean when you meet top scientists, you meet foreign intelligence officers, you meet engineers, and you meet draftsmen, and then you meet the white trash of the South.”
In regards to the Korean War, Brown still believes it was futile. “It was a no-win situation. The goal was not clear, except to stop the communists, but we weren’t.” However, he knows how important his personal experiences were to helping the country.
When asked about advice for men and women interested in serving, Brown wisely brought up that, “The military has many businesses besides the shoot-em-ups.” He believes the Ordnance Corps is a good way to achieve that, “You provide weapons and check weapons, but don’t go shoot them.” His advice for future generations brought the focus back to themes from Brown’s life, hard work and perseverance.
“The two things that are really important are education and attitude. If you can find a field that you feel good about, either through your knowledge or your gut feel, don’t just study the first course. Get into it. Become more than knowledgeable. And then keep your eyes open and take advantage of the opportunities that will come to you. Seek them. Go after them.”
Interview conducted by Emily Sweet on December 23, 2016.