Salted with Sharks

2014 Bruce Catton Award Winning Essay: “He Was Lost, but I Found Him”

In Community Alert, Culture Bluffs, Education, GOOD NEWS, Our Men and Women in Uniform on April 18, 2014 at 2:02 pm

The following story, by J.J. Swander, took first place this year in the annual Bruce Catton Awards event. Each year, freshmen at Frankfort–Elberta High School compose essays inspired by their reading of Catton’s Waiting for the Morning Train, about his life growing up in Benzie County. J.J. Swander is a fifteen-year-old freshman at Frankfort–Elberta High School. He is the son of A.J. and Molly Swander, and the second eldest of five siblings. He enjoys reading, video games, working out, and hanging out with friends. Here he’s written a wonderful tribute to an Elbertian veteran. To read more Catton Award essays, visit this page on the Frankfort High School News site.


By J.J. Swander

I walk slowly through the thick grass of the cemetery, making my way down the paved trail, searching and searching. I examine headstone after headstone, peering at the inscriptions, looking for the surname, “Van Brocklin.” The sun beams down through the clouds and superimposes me with the blinding light of spring.  The wet leaves slide and mat under my shoes with every footfall. SQUISH. SQUISH. Down the path a few yards, I finally discover it. “LaVaughn Van Brocklin.” My great-uncle. An American flag is poised beside it, the Stars and Stripes rippling in the chilly wind of Memorial Day. His headstone depicts his life as a World War II fighting man, displaying two crossed rifles, along with a symbolic engraving reading, Killed in the Service of his Country. I gaze at his name, and his resting place, and smile.

LaVaughn didn’t live past the war. He never left the sandy beaches and jungles of the Philippine Islands. He never left his boyhood. He was a typical American, drafted and thrust into the nation’s war like so many other young men. He was a prime example of the workingman of America during the time period. He was, as a young boy, a member of the 4H Club in Benzonia. He was, as a teen, a laborer in the Crystal Canning Company in Benzonia, working with fruit. As a young man, he was a prominent member of the Elberta community, participating in children’s events and occasions. He lived in the building next to the post office. He worked on the car ferries on Lake Michigan, and the Ann Arbor Railroad, which extended all the way from Frankfort, to Ann Arbor, to Toledo. He married Charlotte Pierce in the Elberta Methodist Church in 1940. He fathered two sons. All of these life events added up, molding and shaping his young life. All of that was taken away from him when he read his name in the draft notice he received in early 1944.

The day before he departed for boot camp, his in-law’s held a party in his honor. They celebrated his dignity and bravery. Before he left, he had a last dinner at his mother’s home in Benzonia, in the Homestead Township area. She saved his breadcrumbs in a bag. He went to Beulah with the other draftees, and they promptly were shipped out to Detroit before entering boot camp.

After months of training, in various locations around the United States, he learned of his destination. Mindanao. Mindanao is an island in the Philippine chain, which was occupied by the Japanese. It is the southernmost island, and the second largest. The Japanese had suddenly become LaVaughn’s enemy. And he was forced to fight them, leaving behind his Benzie County life for good. After only two weeks of fighting the Japanese, in the early morning hours of a May dawn, LaVaughn and his fellow soldiers were in the city of Davao, which is located on the coast of Mindanao, in the Davao Gulf. It is known that the conditions these men were fighting in were terrible, with abaca fields everywhere, which is a plant which can reach twenty feet high and allows visibility at only ten feet. LaVaughn and a group of men rushed an enemy strongpoint that was essential to neutralize, probably amid these abacas. The Japanese responded with a barrage of fire, and mortars thundered down on the men like rain on a stormy night. LaVaughn was struck.

A mortar exploded near LaVaughn, and fragments of shrapnel riddled the left side of his body. His left shoulder, notably, was hit. It was perforated and ripped apart by shrapnel. My grandfather believes that his left arm was entirely torn off. We can never be sure. Either way, a medic came to his side, administering first aid to his wounded form. Finding the wound to be mortal, he was evacuated and sent to the battalion aid station, before being moved to an army hospital. His platoon commander, Ernest Zwerner of the 19th Infantry Regiment, recalled in a letter that, although dying, he was cheerful and in good spirits from the onset of his injury to his removal. This showed a great deal of bravery, courage, and dedication to his country and family left behind. He succumbed to his wounds and died during the night of May 11, 1945.

The next day, he was temporarily buried in a cemetery in Mindanao, Chaplain Lamar S. Clark providing religious services. Meanwhile, a War Department telegram reached the door of Charlotte Van Brocklin, his wife. News spread around the close-knit village of Elberta. My great-grandmother, Ida Van Brocklin (now Ida Mix), on Beech Street in Frankfort was told. Her husband, LaVaughn’s brother, was told. Cousins learned of the news. Charlotte’s siblings in Elberta learned. LaVaughn’s brothers and sisters were told. One vital job remained. The job of telling LaVaughn’s mother of the news. LaVaughn’s mother was a woman who deeply loved him, so deeply, that her emotional level was fragile, with three boys gone in the military, fighting somewhere out in the world. Charlotte and Ida, sister-in-laws, traveled to Benzonia, and informed her of the grim news. She fainted. After finally awakening, she fainted again. She would never sleep easily again. She would need wine to sleep from now on.

Four years after, in 1949, LaVaughn was exhumed from the cemetery in Mindanao and sent overseas to Frankfort. He arrived at the American Legion Hall, flanked and protected by two National Guard servicemen. A funeral was held at the Elberta Methodist Church, H.M. Smart officiating, and a large quantity of people attended. Finally, he was moved to his ultimate resting place, the Crystal Lake East Cemetery in Frankfort. Every year, I visit LaVaughn. I visit him, silently talk with him, and thank him. He literally gave his life for his country. On Memorial Day, my family leaves flowers for him. I dig the holes. We watch the American Legion fire their rifles in his honor.

I just stare at the headstone, and the coarse words engraved, and the Benzie County fighting man’s resting place. I reach out and touch it, the cool rock chilling my fingertips. I trace the words on the headstones, tracing his life, his experiences, and his death with my finger. I feel a sense of power in this moment, being touched in a way no one can ever be touched. There is a heaviness in my chest as I dig a hole in the ground, and carefully place flowers in the Benzie County fighting man’s final resting place.

I appreciate LaVaughn for all that he did. I consistently call him a “man” in this writing. In reality, he was only a boy. He never became a man. He never left his boyhood. He never enjoyed life like he should have. He was only 24 when he died. But, if he had not died, I would have never been born. His widow married again, and from that union, I am descended. Without his death, I would not be writing this piece, nor would I be alive to commemorate his life. I honor his sacrifices, and remember him as the Benzie County fighting man and uncle that I never was able to meet.

I can see him now. I can see him. Not with my eyes. I will never be able to do that. But I can see him. Seeing him in this way makes me proud. Even though his dreams were not dreamt, and his life was not lived, he is an accomplishment in my eyes. Perhaps I can live my life for him. Maybe I can take responsibility, and live his dreams for him. I’ll live for LaVaughn. I look at the inscription on the gravestone, and the dates, and the engraving. Killed in the Service of his Country. I gaze at his name, and his resting place, and smile. Ψ

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