Ernest Brien, second from right, together with his daughter, Kathie Giering, right, along with Janet Villiotte and James Rowe, who worked with Brien on an oral history project about Fort Williams in Cape Elizabeth. The fort is in the background. Courtesy / Cape Elizabeth Historical Preservation Society

CAPE ELIZABETH — Like many war veterans, Ernest Brien signed up because he wanted to serve his country in a time of need.

“It’s just something that had to be done and that’s it,” he said. His humility belies his accomplishments, being wounded twice in combat during World War II, participating in the Battle of the Bulge and being wounded once again during the Korean War.

Brien celebrated his 100th birthday on Oct. 5, prompting the Cape Elizabeth Town Council to declare Oct. 5 “Ernest Brien Day.” The council has also authorized a special celebration to take place at 11 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 17, (rain date of Oct. 18) at Captain Strout Circle within Fort Williams Park. Brien and his family will be escorted by the color guard of the Cape Elizabeth Police Department to Fort Williams, where he will be met by other town dignitaries to honor his service.

Brien, a Portland native, was stationed at Fort Williams for much of the time he wasn’t deployed overseas, which drew the attention of James Rowe, president of the Cape Elizabeth Historical Preservation Society. Rowe said he first met Brien in 2016 while interviewing him for an oral history project on the fort, which closed in 1962.

“About halfway through this interview, my eyes kept getting bigger and bigger,” Rowe said. “His story is really amazing.”

Brien grew up on Caleb Street in Portland, in the house his father built in 1926, which is still there today. He went to St. Patrick’s for grammar school and graduated from Cheverus High School in 1938. At first, work was hard to come by. He did some manual labor, working in a factory, as a truck driver and briefly for the Civilian Conservation Corps, clearing forests in Maine and New Hampshire following the Great New England Hurricane of 1938. He also did some work as a brakeman for the local railroads.

Private First Class Ernest Brien, circa 1940. Courtesy / Cape Elizabeth Historical Preservation Society

“Things were tough. We were just getting over the Depression,” he said.

His life changed when some friends talked him into joining the Maine National Guard in August of 1940. The war wasn’t on yet, at least not for the U.S., but the federal government federalized his unit, bringing him into the army on Sept. 15, 1940.

“We were supposed to go on active duty for one year and we stayed a little longer,” he said.

By 1942, Brien had become an officer, second lieutenant. He could have stayed at Fort Williams operating the teletype machine he was assigned to, but like many young men at the time he wanted to be more involved, and signed up for officer training school and a commission.

“I wasn’t doing anything at Fort Williams,” he said. “I was sitting behind a desk.”

Brien went to France with the 4th Armored Division. He was wounded in November 1944 by a piece of shrapnel while clearing a small French town on the German border, but got out of the field hospital in January 1945, just in time to join the effort to break the siege and relieve beleaguered allied forces at Bastogne, Belgium, marking the end of the Battle of the Bulge. He was a company commander at the time, in charge of 170 men.

He was wounded once more before the war ended, in March of 1945, peppered with shrapnel as he jumped off a tank that had been hit. He survived, and when the war ended he returned to the U.S. as a civilian, going back to his job as a brakeman, based in Rigby Yard in South Portland. He worked on a train line that ran from Portland to Bartlett, New Hampshire, and said that the winter of 1945 reminded him too much of the war.

“Here I am, just gone through the worst winter in Europe and here I was in snow up to my neck in New Hampshire,” he joked.

So he reenlisted and was stationed at Fort Williams again until once again he joined a different war effort, this time going to Busan, Korea, in 1950.

“I never saw so many mountains in my life,” he said.

Ernest Brien in 2016, working with the Cape Elizabeth Historical Preservation Society on an oral history of Fort Williams. Courtesy / Cape Elizabeth Historical Preservation Society

He was wounded again, this time shot in the upper left leg, on Sept. 27, 1950. He made it home and went back to Fort Williams again. He stayed there until 1955 when he became an instructor for the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. at Bowdoin College until 1960. He went back to Korea, now stationed in peacetime, for a year and was stationed in Pittsburgh briefly before retiring from the military in 1961.

His total decorations: two bronze stars, two silver stars and two purple hearts.

Despite his distinguished service, Brien still doesn’t consider himself worthy of the attention he’s now getting. When asked about the upcoming celebration, he said he was pleased, but couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.

“Oh geez, they’re making a big deal out of this,” he said.

Today, Brien lives in Buxton with his daughter, Kathie Giering, the eldest of his four children. She said she had memories of her father in uniform and of living at Fort Williams, describing him as “being very strong, very tough,” but she said her father didn’t talk about his war service. He just came back, she said, and upon retiring from the service, went on to work for 20 years for the U.S. Post Office in Portland.

“I didn’t know a lot of the story until I got older, much older,” she said of her father’s military background.

It was when she happened to tell Rowe that her father was turning 100 years old that Rowe began working to honor Brien.

“Jim Rowe took this ball and went flying with it,” she said.

Today, Brien leads a quiet life of retirement. He drives a tractor on his family’s property, helping as they harvest wood. He spends a lot of time reading and doing sudoku puzzles. When asked about the secret to his longevity, he said it runs in the family. He pointed out his father died at 104, that he had two uncles who lived to be 100 years old, had one brother live to age 96 and another sister who also passed away in her 90s.

“I think it’s a matter of genes,” he said.

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