WINNSBORO — Veteran’s Day carries a variety of meanings for 93-year-old World War II veteran James M. “Brother” Lyles, but he said those memories and the sacrifices of the young men he served with best are shared through a poem which appeared in his infantry company’s newsletter in 1993. He never learned the author of the poem and doubts that he ever will, but from the details he believes it was a soldier who served in the same operating theater as he.
Lyles was about 22 when he began his military service, volunteering to join the 276th regiment. As a First Lieutenant, Lyles spent the early part of his military service in San Juan, Puerto Rico guarding a dry dock from potential sabotage and from submarine attack. The dry dock was crucial infrastructure as it was the only place for tanker ship repairs between Panama and Norfolk, Va. He remained at that post for one year, but in 1942 German forces invaded North Africa and the submarines went to that area of the instead.
The 1940 Citadel graduate had an officer’s commission that he earned in 1942. He volunteered to go to the European theatre, knowing that much work remained to be done in the war effort. In 1944, Lyles was transferred to an infantry battalion. Months of heavy fighting, including the Battle of the Bulge, had taken its toll on allied forces, and platoon leaders were in short supply. For every 42 men, there needed to be one officer in charge. Lyles’ team of replacement soldiers met at Fort Meade, Maryland. While there, he lost his voice at a camp in New York but he still needed to issue orders. So, Lyles chose a 19-year-old Eagle Scout to be his first sergeant. “You will be my voice, and I will whisper and tell you what to do,” Lyles said.
The group of troops travelled to Scotland and then across the English Channel. They then rode a boxcar through the snow and through France to join the 70th Division. At that point, he said that all divisions were low on strength and needed replenishment.
Lyles led a platoon and had the mission of taking a group of replacement infantry troops into France to fight the Germans.
They crossed the Siegfried Line, fought to be clear of the Saar River and eventually crossed the Rhine River and went into Germany. Staff Sergeant V.T. Walhood typified the courage of these men. As they fought their way through Falkenberg, and then occupied the high ground via a tower, the group faced a German counterattack. Germans began throwing grenades into the allied position, so Walhood picked up the grenades and threw them right back, saving the lives of not only himself but his comrades.
Ultimately the allied forces prevailed in holding that key position because the men courageously called on allied artillery and mortars to fire on their own position to drive the Germans out of the area.
Lyles also recalls being in country as a platoon leader and precautions he took to help increase his odds of survival as well as to thwart the enemy. He moved his officer’s bars to the inside of his collar and he carried a rifle so he would look like any other G.I. Lyles said German troops targeted officers as being the men next to the radiomen in a platoon and if officers kept a lower profile that helped allied forces. However, that said, the average life of a platoon leader during that period of the war was 23 days, meaning within that time period the leader would either be wounded or killed.
Thankfully, he defied those odds, serving in that role 3-4 months during the war and as the war came to a close.
“Being in a combat theater caused my values to change and he noticed a change in the young men serving with him, most of whom were around 19 years old,” Lyles said.
He said they became more serious and that they had lots of time to think and contemplate their mortality. Lyles said he was more serious when he came home than when he left as a typical young person just looking to have fun.
Lyles does not consider himself a hero, but rather shifts attention to the 30 members of his Citadel graduating class of about 144 cadets who were killed in action.
Last spring he took one of the honor flights to Washington, D.C., an experience that he thoroughly enjoyed. As a history buff, he had a great time touring the sites as well as talking with others who went on the trip.
After the war, he returned to Winnsboro where he organized the Winnsboro building supply for over 50 years. He also worked at the Winnsboro Concrete Company from 1956 until he retired. Among the projects they paved were bridges, streets, schools and the Mack truck plant building.
Lyles was active in scouting prior to his military service and resumed that role when the war ended. He was scout master of Troop 49 from 1940 until he went into the service. In the mid 1960s he served two years as president of the Central Council. He is no longer that actively involved in scouts but he is proud of the troop and encourages others to get involved in scouting. “Scouting is a great thing. We need more of it now,” he said.
He spends his time now gardening, growing both vegetables and flowers. Lyles also enjoys Friday nights in Blackstock where they hold a blue grass festival. He goes out there often to dance with the ladies from Rock Hill, Chester, Great Falls, and Lancaster, as well as any locals who may attend. But this Veteran’s Day Lyles will take a break from those fun activities to reflect on his time in the service and about the sacrifices so many made in the name of freedom.
The following poem is an important tool he uses to do that each year, and he hopes that after reading the poem that persons in this area will have a greater understanding of the men he served with and the sacrifices they made.
V.T. Walhood and Lyles both agreed that the poem appearing in their division paper The Trailblazer in the spring of 1993 summed up the experience on the front line fighting against Hitler’s feared SS 6th Mountain Division troops.
The Seasons of a Soldier
The seasons of their lives were only two-
A Springtime far too short,
A winter for too soon.
For they were only boys
When first they saw men die.
Their spring was late.
They had no time to dream those dreams
That boy have always painted
In their minds:
Of worlds awaiting for explorers’ feet
Of girls to smile upon
And brides to kiss.
The greening hopes of youth
Within a pall they call “hard times”
Too late, too short that spring of theirs.
Too few the hours to dream
Then came a war.
The Big War,
The Good War,
The Just War they called it.
But-simpler in diction-just “War.”
Like some gigantic dynamo
That hurls electric arcs
From pole to pole
The cataclysmic force of strife
Propelled their lives to Winter,
Straight from Spring.
No summer theirs to plant careers
And take a wife
To build a family where hearths were laid
While zest of life beat like the drums
In a parade
No Autumn harvests ripened as reward;
No golden days to sit as patriarchs;
No nights to smile on grandchild
At their knee.
For Winter of the war
Brought winter to their lives
We saw them die.
The surly Vosges wrapped them
In shrouds of snow;
The sullen Saar became their River Styx
In rubbed streets of old Alsatian towns
We saw them die.
Their blood made tints in sulking streams
And stippled fields of early flowers
Or stained the peak of cruel Falkenberg.
We saw them die.
When they were young and we were young.
We saw them die when we were youths.
Now gray, we-
Like the elders of a clan-
Are huddled over dying coals
To seek within
Those embers of our solemn memories
To warm our hearts
Those hearts that all too often hear
Once more the weeping elegy of “Taps.”