Friday, November 9, 2012

My Grandfather, Brawley Vaughan

On a cold and snowy evening in Rhinelander, WI, a ten year old boy trudged through the snow on his way home his toes numb in his boots.  He had spent his day shining shoes of the businessmen in town, and he suddenly realized the quarter he had been holding, the entirety of the money he’d earned for the day, was no longer in his hand.  He felt the blood leave his face and a stone seemed to settle in his stomach.  It was a whole day’s efforts and it was missing.  Ignoring the deep snow and cold temperatures, he dropped to his knees and plunged his bare hands into the surrounding snow, digging furiously in search of the coin.  He later recalled, “It felt like I dug for hours looking for that coin.  I never did find it,” It was a hard lesson for a ten year old boy.   It was 1937 and that little boy was my grandfather, Brawley Vaughan.


Brawley Vaughan was born poor in rural Wisconsin in an area known as Rhinelander.  His father died when he was young, so he, his mother, and sister grew up with very little.  Being the enterprising sort, he’d take on odd jobs, even as a kid to make some extra money for his family.  He was born during a time of global unrest, World War II began to rage when he was a young teenager and Vaughan wanted to be a part of the fight.  He was smart, but he also had a mischievous streak while in school.  He recalls being sent to the principal’s office as a senior and being asked, “Do you know how many steps to the principal’s office?”  To which he replied, “267.  I counted when you sent me there yesterday.”  

Vaughan joined the Army a month after turning 17, on January 11, 1944, lying about his age in the process.  Having already lost her husband, my great-grandmother was hesitant about his choice.  So, he made a promise to his mother that he’d come home, but when he walked out the front door he only hoped he could keep that promise and accepted whatever fate awaited him overseas.

He was assigned to Fox Company, 274th Infantry Regiment, and 70th infantry division.  They would see major campaign action beginning in December of that same year.  On December 20, 1944 the regiment boarded 48 box cars and traveled north toward the front line from Marseilles, France and on Christmas Eve, 500 cold and snowy miles later they arrived at Brumath, France.  From there, they walked carrying full field gear and weapons the seven miles to Bischweiler ready for commitment.

Their division was known as “The Trailblazers” and they participated in numerous critical campaigns in France and Germany.  Landing first in Marseilles, France they saw brutal combat in Phillipsbourg, Francea town nestled deep in the Hardt Mountains near the German border.  This village was important to both sides because it was located at an important intersection on highway N62 and also on a key rail line. The Germans wanted control of this village so badly that they would sacrifice almost anything.  The fighting was brutal, but the 274th Infantry was as determined and in the end, prevailed.  During the firefight, their radio became disabled; his unit was pinned down under heavy fire and needed to relay their position to a contingency waiting half a mile back behind a tree line.  Without regard for his safety, he exposed himself to enemy fire and sprinted across a half mile stretch of an open field to reconnect with the waiting support.  A German sniper picked up my grandfather in his sights and as he neared the tree line, a trail of bullets bit into the ground following his running footsteps, narrowly missing him with each step as he finally made it to the safety of the trees.  

274th Infantry won the Presidential Unit Citation for the capture and liberation of Wingen. This battle was the initial mission of this battalion. They became veterans overnight by decisively defeating the best in the German Army, in what later proved to be a major battle of the winter campaign. In this victory, the battalion destroyed two German battalions, liberated over 250 Americans from another division being held there as prisoners of the German forces, and recaptured a significant number of American weapons and vehicles.

The first week of January, 1945 they were in the city of Rothbach, France.  It was a critical week for the American Seventh Army fighting in France. The Battle of the Ardennes was still in a decisive stage. The Germans held the initiative from Belgium to Strasburg, and from Bitche to Hagenau. This is the German operation North Wind. 274th's 3rd Battalion helped plug the gaps which finally stops the German's final offensive of their winter campaigns.  It was here my grandfather stayed hidden in the upstairs of a church while German forces occupied the basement.  With no ammunition in his weapon and needing to escape, he decided to fix his bayonet and run screaming at a Nazi Officer who stood fully armed with an MG 42.  The officer immediately surrendered and my grandfather happily disarmed the Nazi officer, taking his sword and pistol, two keepsakes he still has in his possession to this day.

The Battle for Spicheren Heights is where my grandfather was injured.  This was an important battle for the American forces and for the Trailblazers.  First, the regimental objective was not just another piece of high ground to be taken and held, it was a holy land to the Germans who were currently occupying it. Atop Spicheren Heights is a German military cemetery the plots of which are allocated to the regiments of the German Army that have marched in a dozen wars and have cost the world much bloodshed. To Hitler and the German High Command, Spicheren Heights was holy ground, a Nazi shrine and symbol of Germany's armed might and military invincibility. Consequently, nothing was to be held back in defending it.  At 0800 on February 17th, following softening preparation from artillery, mortars and tanks, the assault companies, including the 274th attacked.


On the 2nd battalion side Fox Company worked on Kerbach and Love Company headed for Kreutzberg Ridge. G Company started up the Wingertsknopf, and the company's rapid movement so surprised the defenders, they were driven off quickly. By early afternoon the 3rd battalion had reached its initial objective-the south slopes of Kreutzberg Ridge.  The Germans were able to regroup and began shelling Wingertsknopf hill and probing its defenses with patrols.

On the night of February 20, Division directed the 274th to take Spicheren and this job fell to 1st Battalion, which was without two of its rifle companies then serving in 2nd Bn. Therefore, Fox Company was given and 275th's Item was attached to the 1st. The plan of attack was to go after the high ground north of the town, which was expected to fall after its isolation. Starting the next morning on separate courses, both Able and Fox were hindered by enemy artillery. On the left, Fox's route took that company to Forbacherberg, where machine guns added hindering fire and halted the Fox advance for the night. Able company, following a network of trenches on the east side of Spicheren sent a patrol to investigate the situation in town before rejoining the company and its mission.

On the morning of February 22, Able and Fox companies, supported by tanks, launched an attack on Spicheren Heights. During Fox Company's advance to make contact they surprised an enemy battalion as it was deploying for a counterattack and killed or captured practically the entire unit. Meanwhile, Able Company cleared a large number of pillboxes. By noon the two companies had scoured the complex of trenches and had taken any survivors found as prisoners.

The night of February 23 began a series of coordinated tank and infantry counterattacks by the German forces.  During the night the Germans had infiltrated their lines and at daybreak they were ready to hit their frontline positions. Easy company was the first to receive a strong attack and before long contact with platoons was lost. Enemy counterattacks were also being launched against other assault company positions and the situation was dire. The entire regiment was shocked by the suddenness of the German counteroffensive, and it nearly crippled their forces. The swiftness and power behind the offensive threatened the entire front. Something had to be done before the Germans reached the top of the hill, for then it would be too late.

The only reserve the Regiment had was Fox Company, and it was down to less than 50 percent strength from its vicious fighting against enemy counterattacks on Spicheren Heights. Platoons from Baker and Item were quickly assembled and put under the command of the C.O. of Fox company as a composite unit. Supported by tanks, it was started forward against the German penetration. After a day of fierce fighting at close range, the counterattack against the German forces was successful. Soon the enemy was on the run across the Metz Highway. The hill had been saved, and once again they dug in and held on. 
They were not out of the woods yet and by dawn on the 25th, they weren’t thinking about an offensive, but concerned they could hold their gains.  A thin line of American troops stretched from the Kreutzberg Ridge to Spicheren Heights. Battle weary and understrength, the units dug deeper and waited for the next German attack. Losses had been heavy and there were no reserves. All rifle platoons in the Regiment were on the front line.


It was at this time that Jig Company was organized from about 150 replacements that were being held in the Division rear area. The replacements came from a number of branches other than infantry-air corps, quartermaster, medical corps and the like. With little or no infantry training this unit was hastily organized and equipped. Then it moved forward to occupy and defend the Pfaffenberg. Their performance of duty, in a defensive role, was deemed to be satisfactory.

At 0400 hours on Feb 26th the Germans found and exploited a gap in the lines behind Easy and Fox companies The Germans attacked in force and quickly established strong positions behind each company. Both companies were quickly cut off.  Thankfully, the CO of the 2nd Bn had foreseen the possibility of such a penetration of his defensive position and had planned a fallback defensive position. The Regimental CO quickly approved the Battalion request to withdraw Easy and Fox companies and the move to the alternate position was completed, with not a moment to spare.

The new 2nd Bn defensive position provided a solid defense for the Battalion. The defensive line was shorter and the position had much more depth than the original position. All approaches to the defensive position were effectively covered by small arms, mortar and artillery fires.

On Feb 26th and 27th the enemy launched one attack after another at the 2nd Bns positions and each was repelled with heavy German losses. Late in the day on Feb 27th the Germans made one last desperate lunge that failed. The Germans then withdrew, broke contact and set up their own defense on the lower slopes of Kreutzberg Ridge. For all practical purposes the battle for Spicheren Heights was over and the Americans had won.  It was in the February 26th attack that my grandfather was wounded.  A shell blast nearby and all he can recall is being thrown into the air.  He awoke three days later in a military hospital with back and knee injuries that would end his time overseas.  He was honorably discharged May 16, 1945 and later joined the reserves.  When he finally retired from the Army, he held the rank of Captain. 


He was awarded a Purple Heart for his injuries and returned home.  In addition to his Purple Heart he was awarded a Bronze Star, Good Conduct Medal, European/African/Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with two service stars, Army of Occupational Medal with Germany clasp, Combat Infantry badge first award, Honorable service lapel WWII, Expert badge with rifle bar.

His division, the 70th Infantry Division, was deactivated in October, 1945. In the 1950s the 70th Infantry Division (Training) was formed as part of the Army Reserve and continued until inactivated in 1996. In 1996 the 70th Regional Service Command was activated, and then later renamed 70th Regional Readiness command. In 2007, the 70th RRC was inactivated, in 2008, the 70th Division Training (Functional Training) was activated. It is this unit that carries the 70th's colors.

My grandparents (from left)
Brawley Vaughan, Theresa Vaughan, David Adams
When he returned home, he set out to create a life for himself and build a family.  He met my grandmother, a stunning brunette and former Homecoming Queen at a wedding, knew he wanted to marry her, and soon after they started a family.  He recalls that on their wedding night they had no more than, “a kitchen chair” for furniture, but he had big plans for his life.  He went to college, and worked in pharmaceuticals sales until retiring comfortably at age 60.  I lived with him twice growing up and he is like a father to me.  He would tuck my sister and me into bed and tell stories of the war, of fishing in Canada, of growing up in Wisconsin… his eyes would light up and his hands would become animated as the story would unfold.  I loved to listen to him speak, his voice low and he knew how to use words to weave a tale that you felt like you were a part of the action.  He is a father to four, a grandfather to six, a great-grandfather to six, whom we affectionately refer to as "Papa."  He was the first to call me Care Bear and the nickname is one that only the closest to me ever use.  

He taught me how to love history – particularly military history.  He had me reading books like Killer Angels and All’s Quiet on the Western Front when I was in middle school and the first article that I ever had published as a writer was about him, called, “A Soldier’s Promise.”  It was about coming home to his mother.  And of the night he came home safely from the war he said, “I was glad I could keep my promise to my mother, but I would have given my life at any moment for what we were fighting against.”  My grandfather sustained wounds that still affect him to this day, and he’s very proud of his military service.  He lost friends and struggled with what we now recognize as PTSD.  He suffers from Parkinson ’s disease and Lewy Body dementia, but he has never lost the twinkle in his eye or the mischievous personality.  He can still play a mean hand of cards and is quick with a joke.  He’s one of the most extraordinary men I've ever known.  I’m very proud to be his granddaughter. 

[Writer’s Note: My other living grandfather, David Adams was an Air Force pilot that flew B-25 Bombers in the South Pacific in WWII.  I will also be telling his story.  He’s well into his 90’s now and still living independently and also has the incredible knack for story-telling, it’s no wonder I’m a writer with these men in my family tree.  His stories about bar tending John Wayne cocktail parties are infamous.

Happy Veterans Day. Those who know me, know that the military, their men and women have always been something I've supported and their stories are ones I'm honored and grateful to tell, this one definitely resonated.  To those of you who have served, we are a grateful nation.  And one day of gratitude can hardly do justice what you've done to ensure that we can breathe free.]