Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Cruel November

by David Parmer

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
James Vankirk, born in 1877, was the son of Robert Vankirk and Etta Riffle Vankirk. In 1910, James married Dochie Graff, the daughter of James Graff and Mary Ellen Blake. James and Dochie took up married life on the left fork of Riffle Run and joined together as a peaceful farm family. Children came fast for Jim and Dochie. Daughters, Rose, Retha, and Olive were first three born, followed by the first son, Charles Henry, who was born in 1919, the fourth daughter, Helen, and the youngest child, John, who was born in 1925. In 1926, the oldest daughter Rose married Pearl Wine. The following year, Rethe married Emmett Conrad, son of Dr. Ord Conrad and Effie (Ocheltree) Conrad. The third daughter Olive married Lester Mick in 1935. Charles Henry also decided he liked the Mick family and married Lester’s sister, Charlene in 1942. By the time the Vankirk’s peaceful farm life on Riffle Run was changed by bombs falling from the air at Pearl Harbor, only the two youngest children, Helen and John were unmarried. John was a sophomore at Burnsville High School and Helen was at home. The oldest son, Charles Henry was employed in Akron and living there with his bride, Charlene.
Top left: Doshie (Graff) Vankirk
Left above: brother and sister, John and Helen Vankirk

The Vankirk Family. back row: Henry, Rethe, Olive, Doshie, Jim, Rose. front: Helen, John

Death of the Father

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 above: James Robert Vankirk
Right below: John Vankirk

Selective Service Calls for John
A war in Europe and a war in the Pacific being fought on an all-out scale devoured the ranks of young American men. More and more manpower was needed by the armed services and the Selective Service System was up to the task of furnishing it. John was still in high school when he turned eighteen years of age, and Uncle Sam said “I Want You.” John was inducted into the United States Army in December 1943.

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.

John was off loaded on the Normandy beach. His infantry regiment had received its training at Camp Croft in South Carolina and had left in convoy for Europe in May 1944. John Vankirk recalls that the convoy trip to England took 28 days and he was “sick 31 days of them.” John was well enough to go up on deck one day and recalls that there were ships as far as the eye could see. The convoy arrived in England on June 16th, 1944 and two days later the regiment was again in landing ships and was being ferried across the English Channel to Utah Beach at Normandy.

In the early 1800’s, John Vankirk’s maternal great-grandfather, Andrew Graff, left Germany and came to America, not only for the opportunities it offered, but to also avoid the chronic generational wars which plagued the European continent. It seemed cruel irony that, in June 1944, a hundred years after his great-grandfather left Europe to avoid war, John Vankirk found himself face to face with the German Wehrmacht in western France in a fight for his life.

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 Hurtgen Forest
Roughly fifty square miles in size and situated along the Franco-German border, the Hurtgen Forest was thickly covered with fir trees, with few openings or clearings, and crossed only by trails. The forest was dark and dank, and stiffly defended by German forces well familiar with its terrain, and well armed with the dreaded 88’s and other equally deadly artillery pieces.

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 Vankirk

Born 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.

The Selective Service Calls for Henry
The initial World War II military draftees were single men and at first the pool of single men was more than adequate to fulfill the needs of the military services. However, by 1944 the requirements of the military exceeded the ranks of single men and consequently married men without children were placed in line for conscription. In April 1944, Henry received an induction notice from the Selective Service Board in Monroe County, Ohio and was sent to Camp Fannin, Texas for basic military training. To answer the call by the War Department for more troops, green, 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
The Moselle region of northern France is a picturesque place in normal times, much visited by tourists. However, during two wars in the 20th century, many young men found Moselle to be a deadly place, despite the rolling hills, placid rivers, and romantic fields of grapes and wheat. To a country boy like Henry Vankirk, the scene was pleasing, but fraught with danger.

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.


  1. What a sad, tragic post. This family gave much for their country. I am honored to know their history. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. Thanks for writing, Granny Sue. I'm glad David Parmer will be telling the stories of more of Oil Creek's WWII soldiers. I'm so proud to know of the sacrifices my people made in those dark days.

  3. I'm just reading the book 'Battle of Hurtgen Forest' by Charles Whiting. I'd never even heard of Hurtgen Forest before this book. What a sad loss of life for all concerned, all for the sake of 'American Military Pride'.

  4. Hi
    My name is John Van Kirk, also. I live in Boise, Idaho and I noticed this website and it is very interesting. What is very strange to me, is that I served also in the 8th Infantry Division in Germany, from 1967-1969. I was very surprised to find another John Van Kirk that also served with the same unit in WWII! Lord bless him for his service.
    Lots of love to your town and proud heroes.
    John Van Kirk
    Boise, Idaho
    My email:

  5. May God bless the veterans of your proud community!
    My name is John Van Kirk and I also served in the 8th Infantry Division from 1967-1969 in Germany. I was very surprised to find John Van Kirk in your community who was in the 8th Infantry, earlier in WWII. May the Lord bless him for his service!
    John Van Kirk
    Boise, Idaho