Robert Burnham Brewer, Sr.
A prominent theme has emerged from this review of the Brewer line: service to the church, the nation, or the local community. These men and women were pilgrims and ministers, soldiers and teachers, and leaders of non-profit community organizations. One of the best exemplars of this proud tradition was Robert Burnham Brewer, Sr. - known to everyone as Bob. He may not have known the details and scope of his family's long dedication to service, but he seemed to embrace that spirit with deep conviction. His intelligence, physical strength, sense of humor, and integrity helped Bob Brewer achieve success in the military, in his family, and in his efforts to support the less fortunate members of his community.
Childhood through High School
Bob was born in Fresno in 1924 when his father worked as a broker of dried fruit in the central valley of California. Home life was interrupted within four years when Bob and his sister Elizabeth lost their mother to some unidentified illness. The impact on the boy must have been significant although he would later state that he was actually pleased by the prospect of going to live for a while with his grandparents on his mother's side. Two years later the two children rejoined their father after his marriage to Frances Bimrose, and they all moved into a house in Berkeley just south of the Claremont Hotel.
The Brewer home was probably not very warm and nurturing for the children. Wheaton was a distant figure with an occupation that required frequent travel, while Frances disciplined her willful stepson with punishments that were both physical and verbal. The Burnham relatives provided the best reprieve during his childhood and adolescence as he joined them on summer vacations to their rustic cabins on banks of the Truckee River near Lake Tahoe. There, he learned the values of hard work, respect for authority, self-reliance, and nature study. The same lessons were reinforced by three years of participation in a Boy Scout troop. Of his father's interests and pastimes, Bob acquired an appreciation for literature and fly-fishing. Although Wheaton concentrated his athletic involvement in rugby, his son excelled at practically all the other sports available to learn: baseball, basketball, football, track-and-field, skiing, tennis, golf, and ping-pong.
As a high school student, Wheaton had attended St. Matthew's Hall in San Mateo, a boarding school that included military training and Episcopal instruction. If this academy had continued to exist, perhaps Bob would have followed his father and grandfather as a student there. Instead, Wheaton sent his son to a similar school in Los Angeles called Harvard School for Boys. There, Bob's competitive drive found an outlet in sports and academic achievement. He also developed leadership skills in the military hierarchy of the student body. During these years his good fortune was capped by an introduction to Ruth Bradfield who was a daughter of the organist for Harvard School. Bob and Ruth were married in 1945, three years after they had graduated high school.
World War II and Korea
Completion of Junior ROTC training in 1942 led soon to a commission as Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army during the early part of World War II. He chose the paratroop infantry and was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division despite being too tall (6' 4") for this type of service. After training in Georgia and England, Bob landed in Normandy on the eve of D-Day in 1944. Books and Films have dramatized the preparation for invasion and the ensuing action on the continent most notably in "A Band of Brothers" by Stephen Ambrose which was turned into an HBO mini-series. Bob was, in fact, one of the officers in Easy Company and was mentioned in a scene from the battle at Eindhoven when we was seriously wounded by a sniper.
During the war, Ruth attended Pomona College in Claremont, California majoring in music. During one of her vacations, she got a job in a nearby assembly plant for P38 fighter planes. When Bob returned after the war, she left college before graduating to get married and move to the San Francisco Bay Area where Bob enrolled in a pre-med program at U.C. Berkeley. After his first year as a student he accepted an offer to return to work for the U. S. Government - this time as a secret agent for the OSS which later became the CIA. His cover occupation was US Army officer.
One of Bob's early posts was Ft. Benning, Georgia where his first child, Mary Elizabeth, was born. Then Bob was sent to join the American forces governing Japan in the late 1940's. Along the way, the couple's second child, Robert, was born in Pasadena, California. Their home for the next two years was Tokyo where Bob served not only in the occupation of Japan, but also on intelligence gathering missions in Korea. In his spare time, Bob coached a recreational basketball team while Ruth helped as a score keeper. After Japan and the Korean War, Bob was transferred to Ft. Knox, Kentucky. There, another son, Nathan, was born while the family lived in a cramped apartment of an Army barracks building.
Virginia and Maryland
The next home for the Brewer family, in Camp Peary, Virginia, turned out to be more comfortable and lasted for five years. The homes on this CIA training base were refurbished farm houses with ample space between them. Lakes and forests alternated with acres of open land that had once been dedicated to raising crops. Bob was now a trainer of young soldiers who were learning covert action techniques along with their basic military instruction. The Brewer children loved their countryside home not far from Williamsburg, and a fourth child named Virginia was born in 1955.
Two years later, the Agency brought the family to the Washington, D.C. area so Bob could work at headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Bob and Ruth decided to buy a house in Bethesda, Maryland for their expanding family which soon included a fifth child, Wheaton II. Shortly afterward, Bob's father arrived for a brief visit documented by a black-and-white photograph showing the grandfather gently holding his new grandson. Although Bob understood that his career would require constant moves to new locations, he undertook numerous home improvement projects as if the Brewers would stay in Bethesda forever. In fact, two years after settling in, they had to uproot themselves to move to Karachi, Pakistan.
To Pakistan and Back
Karachi in the late fifties and early sixties was an exotic but peaceful location suitable for expatriate families even while espionage occupied numerous agents on both sides of the Cold War. Bob later told of harrowing missions recruiting double agents and planting audio devices to eavesdrop on strategic negotiations all while serving as a military adviser to the Pakistani government. Another of Bob's projects was managing the U2 spy flights over Russia by Francis Gary Powers in 1960. It was during this three-year tour in Karachi that Bob revealed his covert role to his two older children stressing that they keep the information secret indefinitely. To his family, Bob seemed totally confident and capable of handling any hazardous situation that could arise. The large rented home was maintained by a family of servants, leaving Bob with abundant free time for family trips, social events with other Americans, and involvement with his children's school work and extracurricular activities.
The Idyllic life in Karachi ended in the summer of 1961, but Bob and Ruth stretched out the adventure on the way back to Camp Peary by taking the family the long way around via Hawaii and California. Their trusty Chevy station-wagon, purchased in Bethesda, shipped to Karachi, also followed them to Los Angeles. From there, the Brewers embarked on a memorable road trip through several western states and eastward on the trans-Canada highway. There were only two small mishaps: after stopping at a gas station the family left unaware - for a while - that Nate was not in the car; and later, driving by the rugged peaks of Glacier National Park, a rock slide hit the car smashing a backseat window next to which Mary was sitting. She was frightened but fortunately uninjured. A few weeks later, on arrival at Camp Peary, Bob learned that the house designated for his family on base was still under construction, which required staying for three months in a large trailer on the grounds of a Williamsburg motel. If Bob felt slighted by this situation, he never complained and soon relished the move into a brand-new house on the shore of a lake at Camp Peary.
The Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand
It was a nostalgic return to "The Farm" for the Brewers who had left it five years before. But within a few months after settling in, they started planning their departure for the Philippines where Bob would be sent to direct the training of the Filipino Special Forces at Fort Magsaysay near Cabanatuan on the island of Luzon. Old photographs from the early sixties show Bob reviewing troops on parade grounds, chatting with Col. Fidel (Eddie) Ramos (later to become president), and camping with trainees in the jungle. In 1964 he was offered a chance to attend the Army War College in Pennsylvania in preparation for promotion to general. Bob declined the opportunity as it would mean another family dislocation to return to the States, and it would be especially troubling for his daughter Mary as she would be unable to attend her final year at the excellent Brent School in Baguio.
One of Bob's most important assignments came in 1966 when he was appointed the Senior American Advisor in Quang Tri Province, Vietnam. The role suited him well as he could exercise his many talents in civilian-oriented nation-building while falling back on his military experience when necessary at the Battle for Khe Sahn and repulsing the wave of attacks during the Tet Offensive in 1968. During these years he was passionately committed to the US mission of shoring up the South Vietnamese regime and supporting the population through the Rural Pacification program. The growing protests in the States against the war affected him personally, especially when some doubts were expressed by members of his own family. After ending his tour there in 1968, however, he came to realize the futility of continuing the campaign without American public approval.
The next post was at CIA Headquarters again, and the Brewer family moved back into their home in Bethesda, MD. Within a year, Bob received another offer to attend the War College, but after due consideration, he turned it down again to return one more time to Asia before retirement from government service. It was 1969, and the CIA was embarked on clandestine missions to turn back a communist insurgency and to disrupt opium production in the Golden Triangle. Bob became the local manager of this campaign operating from Chiang Mai, Thailand with the cover role of Foreign Service Officer at the US Consulate. The Brewer family found themselves on another rewarding expatriate adventure, learning about Thai culture and making lasting friendships among people of many nationalities.
Retirement in California and Nevada
Bob's retirement from the CIA and from his cover occupations in the Foreign Service and Army Reserve as a full colonel came in 1973. He received a medal for meritorious service to the nation, a low-profile form of recognition befitting the clandestine nature of his occupation. At this point, he was just 50 years old, still healthy and ready for an active new role in civilian life. His youngest son, Wheaton, was already in high school and needed a challenging academic environment to match his academic gifts. Bob's solution was to join the faculty of a preparatory school in La Caņada, CA where his old friend Spence Edwards was the headmaster. While Wheaton studied there, Bob taught a new course in outdoor education and orienteering. In his spare time, he also helped the Explorer Scouts of America as a special adviser. The only problem with this lifestyle for Bob was that Southern California was too far from his beloved Sierra Nevada mountains near Lake Tahoe. When Wheaton graduated high school in 1976 and left home for college, the family nest was empty, and the way was cleared for a final move to Reno, NV, just a 45-minute drive from Burnham Hill.
Bob and Ruth found the ideal retirement spot in Reno. In addition to the mountains nearby, the city has a fine university where Ruth finished her music degree in preparation for teaching piano lessons. Bob enjoyed the desert and found good subject matter in the Nevada ghost towns for painting and pen-and-ink sketches. Trinity Episcopal Church welcomed the Brewer couple as active lay leaders particularly for encouraging the participation of children in the choir and in the annual Christmas pageant. Bob also volunteered for various community events and humanitarian efforts around Reno. One of his annual traditions for example, was to auction backpacking trips for charitable causes. The winning participants enjoyed week-long excursions that Bob would lead into the Sierra wilderness every summer. A major part of his time in spring, summer, and fall, however, was devoted to maintenance on the Burnham Hill cabins owned by his cousins. His knowledge of carpentry, plumbing, landscaping and electrical work served him well as he labored to preserve and enhance the gathering place for a growing network of friends and family members who spent vacations there.
In the fall of 1996, two months after his final camping trip, Bob came down with pneumonia resulting from lung cancer. The news was shocking to everyone who knew him as a rugged mountain man. At Thanksgiving he was home from the hospital after starting a course of treatment. Those who joined him at the dining table found him cheerful and ready to resume normal activities. But less than a week after the guests had left, he started coughing again and was admitted to the hospital once more. He died two days later on December 5, and his devastated wife and family gathered for a memorial service at Trinity Episcopal where most of his ashes were placed in the funerary vault. Since then, the rest of his ashes have been buried at Burnham Hill and sprinkled into Twin Lakes from a small footbridge by Tamarack Lodge in the Southern Sierra Nevada during a family reunion in 2004.
Bob Brewer was an eloquent speaker who often inspired others with sound advice. His commencement address at the Harvard School graduation ceremony in 1966 serves as a case in point. "Each of you", he said, "must find a cause or theme beyond your individual cares and ambitions. A strong sense of responsibility will enhance your life and deepen your contribution to society." This message should be his epitaph.
Elizabeth (1946 - )
Robert Burnham (1948 - )
Nathan Hale (1952 - )
Virginia Ruth (1955 - )
Wheaton Hale (1958 - )
Questions for further research:
1. Were Bob's strident political views more of a help or a hindrance in his career?
2. Since he worked closely with Fidel Ramos and other political leaders in the Philippines during the 1960's, what impact did Bob have on the history of that country?
3. Did Bob's admirers ever try to persuade him to run for political office?
4. Are there any of Bob's reports and analyses just waiting to be declassified at the CIA and Sate Department?
The sources for this biographical sketch:
A Band of Brothers, by Stephen Ambrose
Oral history from numerous friends and family members
Unpublished correspondence and personal documents
Return to The Brewer Line Home Page