CLAREMORE — Just 5 years old when his brothers left for the Army, Hank Salyer was unable to fully grasp what was going on.
Consequently, the details didn’t stick in his mind.
Were there tearful farewells? Promises to write?
He’d give anything to recall, he said. “But I was just a little bitty kid.”
What Salyer can speak to is the day his brothers came home.
“That’s pretty much where my remembering starts — with the two coffins,” he said. “They were sent back together on the same train.”
Members of different units during World War II, Braton Salyer, 20, and Buford Salyer, 18, died within weeks of each other in 1944, killed in action while fighting in Europe.
Salyer would’ve been 9 by then — when the news reached his family via a pair of Western Union telegrams.
He would be five years older than that by the time the remains were returned, arriving by rail at his hometown deep in the mountains of eastern Kentucky.
Braton and Buford still share a marker there in the small church cemetery where they were buried.
For years afterward, on every Memorial Day, their parents would visit the gravesite, Salyer said. They’d put out flags and flowers, and quietly honor their sons.
Salyer, who now lives near Claremore, thinks about his brothers every Memorial Day, too. And while more than 70 years have passed, something continues to haunt him.
“I can’t remember them,” he said.
He was so young when his brothers left, he hadn’t had the chance to get to know them.
Salyer is 84 now. And he’s still trying to remedy that.
Finding out ‘what I missed’
Starting with his father, a coal miner who’d served in World War I, military service became a tradition with the Salyer family, Salyer said.
Braton, in turn, enlisted at 17. Remarkably, Buford was only 14 when he followed him into the Army. Because he was underage, their father’s written permission was required.
As for Salyer, he served in the Air Force just after Korea. His sons would also serve, one in the Navy and the other as an Army helicopter pilot during Operation Desert Storm.
For Salyer, military service was partly a response to his own brothers’ sacrifice.
But the obligation he felt to them went further. As the last surviving son, he became the unofficial caretaker of their legacy.
He has a number of their personal effects, including their memorial flags and Purple Hearts, uniform patches, along with letters and photos.
It’s what he doesn’t have, though, that bothers him.
Salyer would love to have a more complete picture of his brothers and their war experiences. Over the years, he has tried, with little success, to cobble together information.
“I wanted to try to find out what I missed by being so young,” he said.
Once, he tracked down a close friend of Braton’s, who joined the Army with him and was in the same unit.
Salyer brought along his 8-mm film camera and interviewed the man, who was named Nate.
“I said, ‘Nate, tell me what happened after y’all shipped out.’ ”
Nate filled him in on a number of details, including that Braton died from his wounds at a field hospital.
The information gave Salyer at least a little closure concerning Braton.
But Buford has remained a total mystery.
Salyer has only a couple of clues: two telegrams — one informing the family that Buford was missing in action, and another confirming his death.
According to Nate, after Braton was buried in England — prior to being returned to the family — Buford visited his grave there.
But his movements from there, including the details of his fate, remain unknown.
Over the years, Salyer has stayed alert to any possible sources of information.
Anytime television or news articles reference battles in the area, he said, he almost jumps out of his seat, wondering if they might contain a lead.
“My wife tells me to quit getting my hopes up. But I won’t quit,” Salyer said.
“I just know there’s somebody out there that remembers him.”
‘Together here and forever more’
Sgt. Braton Salyer was killed June 18, 1944, a few days after D-Day during the Normandy campaign.
Tech. Sgt. Buford Salyer died Nov. 23, 1944.
In 1949, when the siblings’ remains were returned to their hometown of Seco, Kentucky, the nearby Mountain Eagle newspaper eulogized them.
The brothers “attended the Free Will Baptist Sunday school prior to their enlistment in the Army. They were good moral boys, well known and loved by all who knew them. We trust that our loss is heaven’s gain. No two boys were more devoted to each other, nor to their family than were these two boys and we believe God knew they wanted to be together here and forever more.”
It was around that time, Salyer said, that his recall kicks in.
A joint memorial service was held for his brothers, he said, but first “we put the coffins in our house. That’s how they did it back then. We had them there, unopened, and set out photos of Braton and Buford. Friends and neighbors came by. I think they call it a wake now.”
The emotional toll on his mother, he said, was hard to watch.
“We about lost her,” he said. “I thought she was going to have a heart attack from the crying spells. She just went to pieces.”
A few years later, when Salyer and a buddy decided to enlist in the Air Force, the loss of his brothers was on his mother’s mind. She tried to talk him out of it.
“I told Mom the boys gave their life — at least I can serve some way,” he said.
Besides, there was no war going on then, he reminded her.
“I told her I could get in my four years then get out,” said Salyer, who went on to serve as an aircraft weapons mechanic.
Unlike his mother, Salyer’s father bore his grief in silence.
“He never let on,” he said. “He never said anything about it.”
But once, Salyer did get a brief glimpse of how his father felt.
“He told me he blamed himself for Buford. Dad said, ‘That’s the worst mistake I ever made,’ ” signing his permission for him to enlist at 14.
“I said, ‘Dad, he would’ve gone anyway. He would’ve had someone (forge) your name. He wanted to follow Braton.’ ”
When Memorial Day is personal
As an unincorporated mining town, Seco might’ve been small. But its sacrifice was great.
The Salyers were just one of the local families to lose sons in WWII, Hank Salyer said.
Tragically, some of their close neighbors also lost a pair of brothers. Dolph Holbrook, killed in North Africa, has a marker in the same cemetery as Braton and Buford. His sibling, Wesley, died in the Pacific war and was buried at sea.
After his Air Force stint, Hank Salyer lived for many years in Louisville, Kentucky. He went back every other year to visit the cemetery, where his parents are also buried.
Since moving to Oklahoma in 2006, he hasn’t been able to go back as often as he’d like. He said he pays someone there to look after the graves.
With his family history, Memorial Day has always been personal for Salyer.
“First thing I think of is the ones that gave their life — all of them,” he said.
He still regrets, he added, that he was so young when his brothers went away.
But if the war robbed him of the chance to know them personally, there’s one thing he can say for sure.
“If I’d been a little older I’d have gone with them.”
Chief Photographer Tom Gilbert went up in a helicopter to show what the flooding looked like on Friday.