This story was originally published Monday, January 30, 2012.
After graduating from Buffalo’s Hutchinson-Central High School in 1941, Russell L. Bracco followed his mother’s marching orders and set out to become a pharmacist.
Laura Bracco envisioned her son joining the ranks of other family members who had made good as druggists.
“I got A’s in chemistry, and I had three cousins who were all pharmacists,” Bracco recalls.
He was accepted into the University of Buffalo’s School of Pharmacy, but there was just one problem: Bracco required money for tuition, textbooks and living expenses.
Those needs landed him in the war effort, working at the Curtiss-Wright aircraft plant in Cheektowaga to help make P-40 Warhawk fighter planes for World War II.
“I made about 45 cents an hour and worked full time at night and went to school full time in the day,” the 89-year-old Bracco remembers. “It was a lot, but I was able to do it because I was young.”
Then Uncle Sam stepped in and dashed his mother’s dream of one day saying, “My son, the pharmacist.”
“I got a draft notice, and that was it,” he said. “I became a GI, government issue, which means you do what the Army tells you and when the Army wants you to do it. No questions.”
So what did he do in the Army? Not what he thought might make sense.
“I thought I was going to the Army Air Forces because of my experience in building planes, but they sent me to an armored outfit in Camp Chaffee, Ark.,” he said. “I was then told I would be in communications and went to radio school. Then we received training in combat maneuvers.”
By the fall of 1943, he and other members of the 14th Armored Division were on their way to Europe in preparation for D-Day.
After the Normandy invasion, his outfit landed in southern France and fought its way toward Germany. At one point in January 1944, the 14th Armored Division was involved in a major engagement, with several nearly being taken prisoner.
But despite heavy losses, Bracco said, the division persevered and provided support for the 3rd Army led by Gen. George S. Patton Jr.
Then came December 1944 -- the pivotal Battle of the Bulge.
“We stopped the Germans from circling Patton’s right flank, and he was able to rescue the 101st Airborne Division, which was trapped in Bastogne,” Bracco said.
Patton, he said, personally thanked the 14th Armored Division. “He said if we weren’t there, he could have never liberated the 101st Airborne,” Bracco recalls.
After victory at the Bulge, U.S. forces had the Germans on the run.
Seated inside his armored halftrack vehicle, Bracco sent and received encrypted messages using scrambled Morse code.
“We never spoke. Everything was in four-letter code sent over continuous shortwave radio,” he said. “We were directed on where and how to advance, where to send ambulances and where to pick up materials.
“From January through March 1945, we were on the move. We advanced with Patton and crossed the Rhine River into Worms, Germany, on Easter Sunday. Patton had told us, ‘You can’t stand still. You have to advance. You can’t let the Germans rest. You have to fight them.’”
The strategy worked.
“We could have gotten to Berlin before the Russians, but we ran short of gasoline,” Bracco said.
That and other wartime experiences prompted Bracco to publish his memoir, “Tonight I Got My Orders,” written from his diaries.
With the war at an end, he returned to the States and was honorably discharged. An Army official suggested he go to work for the local telephone company back home because of his experience in communications.
Eager to earn money and to marry, he took the advice rather than return to UB’s School of Pharmacy.
“I went to work at New York Telephone Co. and married,” he said. “My wife, Frances, and I had two children, and I retired after 36 years.”
Did he ever regret not following through on his mother’s wishes that he become a pharmacist?
“No, I loved what I was doing,” he said. “The Army made me a communications expert.”
Russell L. Bracco, 89
War zone: Europe
Years of service: 1942-45
Most prominent honors: European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, Combat Service Medal
Specialty: Radio operator