Secret tragedy behind father's posthumous Purple Heart
Charleston Daily Mail
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Calhoun County native and former Charleston resident Robert Vincent was a known storyteller, but the World War II veteran kept the tale of how he became eligible for his Purple Heart a secret for many years.
Vincent, who died on June 17, 2011, in Orlando, Fla., at the age of 92, was awarded a posthumous medal for sustaining injuries in a tragic train crash at the French Village of St. Valery, France.
Like so many young men in what has been dubbed the Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw, Vincent answered his country's call when he was drafted into the U.S. Army.
He was a member of the Army's 1471st Engineer Co.
He shipped out for Europe around Jan. 3, 1945, as the war in Europe was moving closer to the German fatherland.
Vincent was one of hundreds who boarded Troop Train 2980 at the French port of La Havre bound for the front lines. The train was also bound for history, one shrouded in secrecy for many years.
As the train, which was packed full of GIs to the point that some where dangling their legs out of the open doors of the cars, headed toward battle, it crashed into the train station at the French village of St. Valery on Jan. 17, 1945, at about 10:30 a.m. Eighty-nine soldiers were killed and 152 were injured.
Vincent was among the injured. He did not sustain serious injuries and he continued to serve in the European Theater during the remainder of the war.
However, the injuries qualified him for a Purple Heart that his family members hope will be delivered before Vincent's ashes are interred at the Donel C. Kinnard Memorial State Veterans Cemetery in Institute on Aug. 27.
The medal is being processed and could arrive any day, said Vincent's daughter Judy Chaney, of Charleston.
Vincent could often be heard telling stories about his service in both World War II and during the Korean War.
However, his family members heard not a word about the train accident because Army officers told survivors not to talk about it, Vincent's daughter Helen White said.
He took the order to heart. In fact, he never discussed the tragedy until after he saw an article about the crash in "World War II" magazine in 2002, White said.
"He figured the world already knew about it then, so he started talking about it," she said.
Vincent told the story about how he initially boarded the first car of the train. More cars where hooked to the train in front of Vincent's sometime during the trip.
"He probably would have been killed if he was in that first car," Carney said.
He also told his family stories about how he was thrown violently through the air when the train crashed and that he was nearly crushed and smothered by other men when they landed on him. Vincent even wrote down an account of the incident and gave it to family members.
The account holds the gory details of the crash.
"As I was crawling out of the car . . . I looked to my left and I saw a soldier lying on a car drawing his last breath," Vincent wrote.
"I moved toward the wreckage of the station and as I neared the wreckage, I had to pass some blankets and tent halves, which now were being used to deposit bodies and body parts."
Vincent searched the wreckage with several other soldiers in search of survivors.
"There were soldiers crushed and mangled terrible and begging for help," he wrote. "And everyone available was trying to help as much as they could."
White was surprised that Vincent kept this story a secret for so long considering he was never shy about talking about his service.
"He kept his silence all those years," White said. "It was like a relief when he got it off his chest."
Both said they were proud of their father and are elated he will finally receive his Purple Heart.
"There may be some men who survived this train crash that are still alive today," White said. "It's important that we recognize these men."
White was a bit angry that Army officers ordered the men to remain quiet.
"What did they tell the families of the men who died?" she asked.
The train that hauled the men to their fate was an aging British locomotive that did not have a speedometer, according to an article in "World War II" magazine by Russell C. Eustice.
Eustice was at the scene of the crash and helped treat the injured. His article in 2002 sparked Vincent's decision to start talking about the crash.
The train's engineer had protested that the brakes were inadequate to stop the loaded locomotive. Officers were desperate to get men to the front lines to replace soldiers lost in the Battle of the Bulge, and so they ignored his concerns.
Train cars splintered under the impact as the engine slammed through a metal guardrail and into the station, according to Eustice's article. Open doors slammed shut on soldiers' legs.
Cars "accordioned" into one another behind the train's coal car, crushing and pinning men under the debris, the article reads.
"Pinned men crawled from the debris as they gradually freed themselves," Eustice wrote. "Ten cars were piled as high as the station roof while wreckage to the rear formed an even higher pyramid."
Despite the deaths and injuries, replacements were brought in and the units were sent into action, according to Eustice.
Officially, the accident never occurred, and military police confiscated cameras from soldiers and French citizens alike, according to an article written for "The Tribune Democrat," of Johnstown, Pa., in 2008.
The paper's article was about another survivor of the crash.
A military account dated June 12, 1945, states that the crash occurred because the train was overloaded for its breaking capacity and was driven by an inexperienced engineer without the benefit of a speedometer, according to Eustice's article.
"Despite two protests, the engineer was ordered to continue his trip by U.S. Army Transportation Corps officials under pressure from higher authority," Eustice wrote. "It was a tragedy based on ignorance and poor judgment, for which there was no alternative of satisfactory outcome."
Randall Bare, 63, of Sandyville, W.Va., has served as state commander of the W.Va. Veterans of Foreign Wars from 1999 to 2000. Bare said he had not heard of the accident but he was not surprised that Vincent never spoke of it until late in his life.
"He obviously took the orders to heart," Bare said. "They were told to keep quiet and that's what they did."
"But this is something that needs to be brought forth and recognized," he said.
However, although his father was following orders, White is still saddened that the U.S. Army has never officially recognized the accident.
She pointed to the conclusion of Eustice's article about how some survivors were refused treatment by Veterans Administration hospitals on the basis that there was no train wreck involving U.S. soldiers at St. Valery.
In 1994, the citizens of the French city gathered to dedicate a plaque to the victims and survivors of the crash at the rebuilt station.
"These men deserve to be recognized," White said.