North Ogden resident Don Brimhall knows about knockout punches — in the boxing ring and on the battlefield.
The 95-year-old World War II veteran will be honored Thursday during the Ogden School Foundation’s fall author event at the Eccles Conference Center in Ogden. The featured speaker is Rick Atkinson, whose Pulitzer-winning book “An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943” is the first of a trilogy about the war.
Brimhall was part of that “Army at Dawn” as it invaded 70 years ago during Operation Torch on Nov. 8, 1942. In addition to his work in a Sherman tank in North Africa, Brimhall saw action in Italy, France, Belgium, Holland and Germany. For his service during the war, Maj. Brimhall received the Bronze Star Medal, a Purple Heart for an injury he sustained firing a tank gun, a battlefield commission and seven battle stars.
Born in 1917 in Glendale, Utah, Brimhall is married to Dawn Hill, who recently celebrated her 90th birthday. Wed in 1941, they are the parents of three sons, Darwin, David and Dennis, and have eight grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren. Brimhall worked as a science teacher in the Ogden School District from 1956 to 1983. He began his teaching career as a vocational-agricultural instructor in Star Valley, Wyo. He played football for Brigham Young University and has coached boxing.
Brimhall is in declining health, but will be attending Thursday’s event in dress uniform with family members who are grateful to the foundation for honoring Brimhall and other veterans.
Darwin shared some passages from his father’s journal during an interview with the Standard-Examiner. In the journal, Brimhall writes about his experience during the war, including the two-week ship voyage from the United States to Casablanca, during which Brimhall wrote that he was sick the whole time.
Upon his arrival in North Africa, one of his first experiences was combat of the entertainment variety. Brimhall, who boxed as a youth, was recruited to get in the ring with another soldier by the name of Johnny Kaplan — a heavyweight champion from Maryland.
“We boxed two or three rounds and I covered up as best I could and played the role of a punching bag,” Brimhall wrote in his journal. “During the third round, he began hooking me with both hands simultaneously on each side of my face. This was something that I had never encountered before and it really shook me up.”
The 500 or so GIs watching the match thought it was funny watching this young Utah man get pummeled, but Brimhall was not amused.
“I became really angry and embarrassed while he was clowning and I kept watching for a good opening,” he wrote. “I had had enough. The opening came and I hit him with all my power. His knees buckled and he fell over the ropes.”
That victory in the ring surely gave Brimhall a boost, but the seriousness of the military mission became all too clear when Gen. George S. Patton addressed the troops. Brimhall was serving in Patton’s famed 2nd Armored Division, aka “Hell on Wheels.” The division played a vital role during the war in North Africa, as well as western Europe.
“General Patton gave us a slam-bang orientation,” Brimhall wrote. “He reminded me of a football coach during the halftime at a championship game. His pep talk was short and to the point. He indicated that we should be honored to be in his ‘Hell on Wheels’ division and that the fun and games were over. We were immediately going to start winning the war.”
The Allied forces did go on to win the war, but not before an unimaginable amount of sacrifice and bloodshed, including the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion of Normandy, where Brimhall witnessed firsthand the troops storming Omaha Beach.
Darwin Brimhall said he and his brothers always tried to get his father to talk about D-Day, but he was always reluctant to do so because of the horrific nature of that day. Brimhall’s journal tells how he watched in horror as a tank full of his comrades drove off a landing craft and sank into the ocean. All of the men aboard lost their lives. Those deaths were among the estimated 10,000 Allied casualties of the invasion. Although exact numbers are not known, losses on the German side are estimated at 4,000 to 10,000.
“Wave after wave of American troops lost their lives on the initial landing on Omaha Beach,” Brimhall recounted. “This day has been a nightmare and I have tried to close it out of my mind.”
Gen. Omar Bradley later remarked that every man who set foot on Omaha Beach that day was a hero, but Brimhall had different thoughts on the matter
“I don’t consider myself a hero,” he wrote. “I was only doing the job my country required of me that day.”