Recently, World War II veteran Frank Brechue passed away. WW2 men are leaving at a fast rate and many people may have overlooked Brechue's passing — but this man's story is one you need to know.
To later generations, men who survived Pearl Harbor are admired. Those who stormed ashore to liberate "Fortress Europa" are revered. GIs who saw the unbelievable atrocities of Nazi concentration camps evoke sorrow for witnessing haunting images. Those who survived artillery bombardments that made sane men crazy to liberate a continent by force are held out as examples of our best.
Frank Brechue experienced all of this and more — combat in two war theaters and numerous medals, although most would only know him as an unassuming neighbor with a big smile.
This, perhaps, is the most enduring legacy of WW2 veterans: They saved the world, but one would never know it by their demeanor. They were humble; just don't rile them because behind their big hearts and smiles were pure steel, forged by adversity.
Frank Brechue's family lived over the "Red and White" grocery store at 15 Genesee St., across from what is now Hunter's Diner. Times were hard, but young Frank was not aware they were poor. His friends were in similar financial straits so poverty was the norm.
He quit school at 16 and worked at Auburn Wood Products on Osborne Street for 75 cents an hour, but longed for adventure elsewhere. Like many in his generation, he tried to join the Navy in an effort to see the world. The Navy didn't want him, so he and friend, Jim Shaw, joined the Army. Both were determined to see life outside small Auburn.
This is how he ended up at Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
Brechue was visiting friends in a machine-gun company at 7:45 a.m. when he heard explosions. Similar to others, he assumed a training exercise until airplanes appeared with Japanese markings to strafe the area. He quickly helped put a machine-gun on a nearby rooftop and witnessed the horrible attack unfold. He saw death and chaos on a grand scale.
Pearl Harbor changed Frank Brechue. A generation of young men transformed from adventure-seekers to avengers overnight. The Japanese had awakened a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible resolve.
The Pearl Harbor attack was widely believed a prelude to land invasion, and Brechue was assigned a jungle coastal area for defense. Troops are useless unless properly equipped so it was decided a road needed to be hacked out so supplies could flow. Frank helped cut trees and a crude road was built in record time.
The invasion never came.
Early 1942 brought promotion and transfer. Now a sergeant, he was sent to San Francisco, then Oklahoma to organize the newly formed 42nd "Rainbow Division" at Camp Gruber. Brechue was a respected Pearl Harbor veteran, and his leadership helped form the communication sector of the outfit.
The Rainbow Division landed in France and slugged through little towns in a race for the German border. Nazi atrocities became apparent as SS troops left piles of bodies on the outskirts of liberated cities. Although he had already witnessed enough death to form a hardened indifference, German murder of civilians affected him.
Christmas day 1944 found his unit on the German border near Strasbourg. Retreating Nazi soldiers were determined to hold the "Seigfried Line" against the 42nd and unleashed a barrage of "88" artillery fire. Deadly and accurate, Brechue endured this horrible ordeal and forever remembered the primal fear he felt as the earth quaked all around his foxhole. It lasted an entire afternoon — which is 10 lifetimes long when you experience it.
January and February 1945 were the most dangerous for American troops. More died then than any other time during the war. Germany was determined to make invasion of the Fatherland as costly as possible. Death was common and random.
Brechue was in an open field getting food from a "chow line" when he heard the unmistakable whine of a German 88 shell. He hit the ground as it landed almost next to him. Three other Americans died simply waiting to eat.
He was now "communications chief," responsible for various "intel" sent to the battalion commander. He learned codes and became expert in coordinates that directed American artillery that was as fearsome as their German counterpart.
Attacks against small towns occurred daily and friends continually died in front of him. He learned to put it out of his mind except for one: Sgt. Ozzie Smith received a bad stomach wound outside Wurzburg, Germany. Frank cradled the man and talked to him as a medic approached. When he gently put the soldier on the ground, the medic examined him and said: "You were the last person he talked to — he died in your arms." Brechue was to re-live that moment for a lifetime.
This one tragic death was simply a prelude to horror unimagined — the liberation of a concentration camp named Dachau.
Early Spring 1944 found the Rainbow Division between Schweinfurth and Nurumburg, the cradle of Nazism. Atrocities were uncovered daily as retreating SS soldiers turned their wrath on their own people. Amid epic rubble left by B-17 raids, the sight of bodies barely rated notice. That is, until they turned south near Munich and approached Dachau.
They first entered a rail yard and were stopped cold by the sight of 2,000 bodies, machine-gunned the previous evening. Blood was everywhere. This still did not prepare them for the camp they were about to enter.
Dachau was a charnel house in normal times but SS soldiers were determined to kill as many prisoners as possible before they left. Hardened Americans were stopped cold by sickening sights. Just when they thought they had seen the worse, something more evil was encountered around the next corner. Imagination cannot conjure the awful scenes Frank Brechue witnessed at one of history's blackest spots. "I'm not an overly religious man" he wrote, but "Lord we ask you — hear our prayer." All were brought to their knees as they wandered Dachau.
This is why Frank Brechue spent his life saying "How can anyone deny the Holocaust? I was there." It also explains his everlasting dislike for anything that "smacked of evil." WW2 veterans were hard as nails when dealing with post-war Soviet Union and this helps explain their resolve during the Cold War. They knew the consequences of appeasement. They paid for that lesson in blood and nightmares.
Later generations don't have these memories, so it becomes critical we know these stories, lest history repeat itself.
On the border of Austria, Brechue heard the war was over May 7, 1945. The celebration was joyous ...he might make it home after all.
The 42nd Rainbow Division left an enduring record:
- First unit to enter Germany.
- First to cross the Danube and smash the Seigfried Line.
- First to enter Capital of Bavaria, Munich.
- First to enter Dachau.
Along the way they captured 51,000 German troops in a trek that took them from the Hardt Mountains of France, through Germany, to the Austrian border.
A "point system" was enacted whereby American soldiers with the most combat experience were sent home first. Brechue had seen combat from Dec. 7, 1941, to May 7, 1945, and was immediately sent home. He arrived in Auburn with five major campaign ribbons, a Combat Infantry badge and a Presidential Unit Citation.
He remained a self-effacing Auburnian one would never know was an American hero. His parting words were written for his grandchildren and future generations to ponder: "Freedom is expensive. When Politicians can't or won't do their job, freedom becomes more expensive ... in lives lost — so protect it!"
What Frank Brechue saw during WW2 could fill volumes of books. He was ordered to do things normal people would recoil at even thinking. These experiences, though, were second place in his thoughts as he bade farewell to his family recently. A simple, yet critical message: "From the bottom of my heart I love you all very much. Take care of yourself, be a good person and have a good life here in the good old USA."
A basic message of love and hope — made possible by a generation all but gone. The life of Frank Brechue is proof American heroes are not sainted commanders — they are your neighbors.