It was an anxious November on Riffle Run for the widow Dochie (Graff) Vankirk. It was the second anniversary of her husband's death. Jim had died in 1942. Of her six children, Helen, 21 years old, was still at home and the older girls had married and were busy raising families. But both her sons had been drafted. Young John had been pulled from high school and Charles had been still a newlywed when the draft took him. Doshie watched each day for Pres Bragg, the Route 2 Orlando mail carrier, hoping that a letter would come from one or both of their two sons serving in the United States Army in Europe. It had been a cold November. Snow had fallen on several days and a crust of icy snow lay on the ground. The radio news sounded optimistic that the war would soon be over and her sons would be coming home, safe and sound. But soon the news would come in telegrams from the War Department. It would be a cruel November for the Vankirk family.
The James and Dochie Graff Vankirk Family
Top left: Doshie (Graff) Vankirk
James Robert Vankirk was a timber man. In his younger days, when he was known as “Jim Bobby,” there was plenty of timber in northern Braxton County, and many trees had felt his axe and cross-cut saw. In 1942, although the easily reached tracts of timber had long been cut, there were still pockets of hard-to-reach timber on the ridge dividing Oil Creek and Little Kanawha waters that a timber man with a portable sawmill could cut for the landowner. Although he was 65, Jim still felt like a young man when he was in the woods looking up at a tall tree, visualizing which way it should fall.
In early November 1942 however, Jim did not go to the woods because he was too sick to arise from his bed. Dochie sent for Doc Trimble in Burnsville who shortly arrived in his 1937 Chevrolet, with bag in hand. The doctor gave Dochie the bad news that Jim was suffering from typhoid fever and that his condition was sure to get worse. For ten days the ravages of the disease made steady progress in Jim’s weakening body until it prevailed. As war raged in the Pacific and in Europe, Jim died on November 20, 1942. It was a cruel November for the Vankirk family.
Right below: John Vankirk
On D-Day, June 6, 1944 Private John Vankirk now part of the 121st Infantry Regiment of the 8th Army Division, had been on a transport ship in a convoy half way across the Atlantic. Two weeks later, as the first light of day illuminated the sea and wispy fog evaporated into the early dawn sky off the coast of Normandy, the convoy, warships of every description, filled the sea to the horizon. The sight was astonishing and terrifying, depending on from which side the view was seen. Such an invasion armada had never before been seen. It was a time of history.
Upon landing in Normandy on June 18th, the 121st Infantry Regiment immediately engaged in hotly contested battles with entrenched German forces in the western-most peninsula of France. Protected by hedgerows and heavily fortified pill boxes, the German forces were skillful fighters and did not give up easily. By the end of September 1944, and after nearly 13,000 casualties, the 8th Division finally secured the Crozon peninsula. Fortunately, John Vankirk emerged from this campaign battle weary but unscathed. The war was not going so well, however, in northeastern France. In early November 1944, John and the 121st Infantry Regiment were transported by train to eastern France to the edge of the foreboding, and German occupied, Hurtgen Forest.
The battle for the Hurtgen Forest had started in September 1944 but had gone poorly. Air support and tanks were mostly useless because of the cover of the forests and the inability to know the location of the enemy. German artillery adjusted the fuses of artillery shells to explode on contact with the treetops which resulted in a downward blast of shrapnel and splintered wood. Needless to say, foxholes were useless in providing cover from these direct overhead blasts and casualties mounted. At the end of November, John and Company “L” were slowly advancing through the low-hanging fir branches when the tell-tale scream of the German 88’s brought the unit’s advance to a halt and a frantic search for cover. For Private John Vankirk there was no cover as hot shrapnel dug deeply into the top of his shoulder. It was not a fatal wound, but for the time being, the chunk of metal which had shattered his collar bone, rendering his arm useless, ended his further involvement in the fight for the Hurtgen Forest. John became one of the 33,000 American casualties to German artillery, mine fields, and snipers to fall in this wooded cathedral for the dead. The American forces finally routed the Germans from the Hurtgen Forest in February, 1945, five months after the initial assault.
Left above: map showing the Hurtgen Forest
Right: photo of the fighting in Hurtgen Forest
Meanwhile, John had been evacuated to a military hospital in secured France where the shrapnel was removed and surgical repairs were made to his collar bone. He spent two and a half months recuperating from his wound. After arriving at the hospital, the obligatory Western Union telegram was sent to his mother, Dochie (Graff) Vankirk, advising that her son John was wounded in battle. Little did John know, but his mother just the week before had received another military telegram informing her of the death of her oldest son, Private Charles Henry Vankirk, who died on November 26, 1944 of wounds received in combat. It was another cruel November for Dochie Vankirk. After a two month stay recuperating at a military hospital somewhere in France, John returned to duty with the 121st Infantry Regiment throughout the remainder of the war in Germany. Afterward, John and his regiment were re-posted to Camp Lucky Strike in France to ready for re-deployment to Japan. Then there was Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the end of the war for John.
Charles Henry VankirkBorn on Riffle Run in January 1919, he was known to his family and friends as “Henry.” His first brush with education was at the Riffle Run School which was a short distance from his home. In 1933, after completing eight grades, he began high school at Burnsville, a three mile walk over the rock-based road built by convict labor from the state penitentiary at Moundsville. The Depression was a bad time to start high school; times were hard and money was scarce, and an able bodied young man like Henry felt an obligation to leave school and help support his family. Consequently, Henry left school after his freshman year and went to Clarington, Ohio for employment. Henry’s sister, Olive, and her husband, Lester Mick, also lived in Clarington, and were a big help to him. Henry was a good worker. Even though times were tough and jobs were scarce, he worked steadily enough to support himself and to send a little money home. Henry also found time to take a shine to Charlene Mick of Fleshers Run, the youngest sister of his brother-in-law Lester Mick; and that “shine” led to something permanent. Henry and Charlene were married in March 1942. reen, inadequately trained soldiers were quickly processed through rudimentary training and by October 1944 Henry was in France with his military unit, the 26th Infantry Division.
Right: Henry Vankirk
Left: 26th Infantry Division Patch
A November Without End
Private Charles Henry Vankirk was in France just more than a month when he suffered his mortal wound. He did not see the rolling hills, placid rivers and romantic fields of grapes and wheat. The France he saw was cold, muddy, ear-splitting noisy, and deadly.
Today, sparrows fly high over the Moselle and the white crosses of the many military cemeteries which are the final resting places for the tens of thousands of American servicemen who fell on the soil of France during the second great war of the 20th century. Although Henry’s mortal remains were first interred in the United States Military Cemetery at Limay, France, a silent companion to his equally silent comrades, his mother Dochie felt that Henry, her oldest son, would be better off buried in the home of his shortened youth. Petitioning the government for a re-burial, the mother’s request was granted. Henry was re-interred by military funeral in the family cemetery on Riffle Run, there to rest until his government once again asked for another sacrifice from Henry for the construction of the Burnsville Dam.
We remember our fathers and uncles, now our grandfathers and great uncles, only a few still living, who saved the world 65 years ago. Let us remember them all, living and dead, on Armistice Day November 11.