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Dateline: Guam, 1941

Posted by Aaron Price on February 14, 2012 - 3:18pm

A special membership application is uncovered in the AAVSO archives. (Updated at bottom)

Recently I've been analyzing the responses to the member demographic survey we conducted last November and December. One of the questions I have been trying to address is whether the "greying of astronomy" is real. That is, are variable star observers (and amateurs in general) getting older, on average. It's a complicated question that I'll save for a later post.

In the process of doing that research, I went into the AAVSO archives to compile the ages of random past members to see how ages may have changed over time. I looked at the original member applications kept since our founding in 1911 (we still have around 90% of them by my count). This was great fun as I ran across many famous observers (Leslier Peltier, Sir Patrick Moore). But one particular application caught my eye. It is below.


Note the day and the location of the application (click here or on the image for a higher resolution version if you cannot read it). A feeling of melancholy came over me as I read it. A young, American male on Guam 11 months prior to the Japanese invasion probably did not stand much chance of survival. I checked the AAVSO International Database to see if we had any post-World War Two observations by Mr. Brunton to confirm his survival. However, we had no observations from him from any time. He probably never had a chance to even make a first observation.

So, knowing the Internet is what it is, I thought to look for casualty lists from Guam in WW2 thinking that maybe we'll find his name on such a list. It only took about 10 minutes of Google-fu to find the truth. He worked for the U.S. Navy Bureau of Yards and Docks. And I'm happy to say that he survived. He was taken by the Japanese as a civilian prisoner in December 1941 and spent the rest of the war in an internment camp near Kobe, Japan. He was released in September 1945. You can see his name on the prisoner list here and get a description of the camp here. So the story ends well, but I'm sure not without hardship. And it's a reminder that behind every observation in our database, and every member application we receive, is a real human living a real life.

120227 Update: The AAVSO centennial book includes an entry about the experiences of other AAVSO members in World War Two including three other prisoners of war.  Tom Rutherford (RTH) sent an e-mail pointing out that the December, 1941 issue of Sky & Telescope magazine has an article by Foster Brunton about the September 21, 1941 solar eclipse, which appears on page 5 of that issue (and is available on the Sky & Telescope DVD). Also, Robert Hill, via the AAVSO Facebook page, says: "The gentleman appears to have returned to Guam after the war, as recorded in the ASP report of 1947: 1947PASP...59..101".

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