LITTLE VALLEY - It's taken 70 years, but on Jan. 4, Little Valley resident Frank West proudly accepted a chestful of medals, presented to him by New York State Sen. Catharine Young.
During the ceremony, held at Little Valley VFW Post 8734, Young, R-Olean, told those in attendance, "The incredible story of Sergeant Franklin West's service is an inspiration, and I am honored to be able to take part in recognizing him today. For his willingness to put himself on the line for us and bear the wounds of battle for our sake, he deserves our utmost respect and thanks. May the prestigious awards he receives today serve as a constant reminder for us of the price of freedom, and of those who have bravely defended it."
The multiple honors conferred on West consist of: the American Campaign Medal, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with two Bronze Service Stars, the Combat Infantryman Badge, the Good Conduct Medal, the Honorable Service lapel button, the Meritorious Unit Commendation, the Presidential Unit Citation, the Purple Heart with Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster, the U.S. Army's World War II Bronze Star and the World War II Victory Medal.
World War II veteran Frank West accepts a framed display featuring the array of long-deferred medals presented to him by New York State Sen. Cathy Young. The ceremony, held at the Little Valley VFW, was well-attended and included West’s family, friends and fellow vets.
Photo by Arvilla Pritchard
Additionally, West was granted the New York State Conspicuous Service Cross and Conspicuous Service Star, awarded by the New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs.
West seemed overwhelmed by the sheer number of medals. But there was one he said he prized over all the others. "That one's the Combat Infantryman Badge," he said. "You had to be under fire to get that one." Indeed, "under fire" would describe most of West's experience as he slogged from battle to battle through the "European Theater" of World War II.
Drafted from his boyhood home in Napoli as an 18-year-old on June 15, 1943, West trained as a rifleman, and arrived in France on Sept. 1, 1944. Prophetically, he was assigned to the 112th Infantry Regiment of the 28th Infantry Division. Dubbed the "Keystone Division," the 28th went on to sustain countless casualties, becoming one of the most decorated infantry divisions in the U.S. Army.
Under the command of Major General Norman "Dutch" Cota, the 28th, including West, battled through some of Europe's bloodiest campaigns. They took part in the liberation of Paris, then, fought on through France toward Germany. In 1944, they entered the Battle of Hurtgen Forest. Amazingly, this engagement lasted from Sept. 19 to Dec. 16, 1944, turning out to be the longest individual battle ever fought by the U.S. Army.
It was waged over almost 50 square miles of treacherous terrain, strung with miles of barbed wire and infested with dangerous mine-fields. Well-concealed German pillboxes poured down deadly crossfire, and the U.S. forces suffered 33,000 casualties, with West numbered among them. He was shot twice in the head, once in the chest and also took shrapnel to his legs and one foot.
As he lay bleeding on the ground, a fellow American paused to help. That man, 2nd Lieutenant John B. Wine, had just had his own rifle shot out of his hands. Although he judged West to be a "goner," he paused to wrap a blood-soaked rag around his head wounds before "borrowing" his gun and ammo and moving off to continue his original mission.
In an unlikely side-story, nearly 70 years later, an army historian researching survivors of the European campaign, contacted West and furnished him with Wine's phone number. When West called, Wine heard only the words, "I want my gun back," but knew immediately who was calling. The two brothers-in-arms have remained in contact ever since, and in subsequent talks, they've pieced together other parts of their strangely intertwined story.
West, it seems, proved tough to kill. In fact, in the field hospital, he recovered enough to earn the distinction of getting sent back into another famously hard-fought encounter, the Battle of the Bulge. "They needed reinforcements and grabbed anyone who could walk," he joked, in recalling the incident.
Lt. Wine also fought at "the Bulge," and was badly injured there, but managed to make it through as one of only four survivors from his platoon of 41 men.
West continued fighting, with his regiment, from conflict to conflict through the German counteroffensive and on toward Berlin. Eventually, he was gravely wounded yet again, and, as the German surrender grew inevitable, he returned to the states, where he prepared to re-enter the fray, this time in the Pacific theater. Before that could happen, the Japanese surrendered, and West received his honorable discharge in December, 1945.
Back home, West got down to the business of living a normal civilian life. He married Joyce Nobles in 1949, and the couple raised three sons: Ronald, Randall and Charles. In 1954, he found a job he liked as a die maker for Signore Tool & Die Company in Ellicottville, where he worked until the mid-'80s.
Joyce died in 1982, and several years later, West remarried Marcia Evans.
As Young concluded West's medal presentation ceremony, she stated, "Sergeant West's wartime service and the character he has shown in never seeking any glory or praise on his own behalf, remind us what the sacrifice of our veterans is all about, and what he and others have done for us. We can all admire and aspire to emulate Sergeant West, who has our sincerest gratitude and appreciation."