BUTTE – A Purple Heart once awarded posthumously to a Butte resident killed in World War II went home with that man’s nephew on Sunday after turning up mysteriously at a VFW meeting in Great Falls in January.
John Brandley was only 18 years old when he died in action in the Philippines, one of more than 2,000 World War II casualties from Montana and hundreds of thousands from the United States. It’s unclear who first received the military medal with his name engraved on it, or when, but when a stranger turned it over to VFW members several months ago, JoAnn Piazzola made it her mission to uncover Brandley’s roots and return the medal to the family.
Piazzola is an auxiliary member of the VFW and she’s known as a resident genealogy whiz, having done most of the research for a 2015 display at the Butte-Silver Bow archives commemorating Butte soldiers who died in Vietnam. She described herself as a “middleman” for delivering the Purple Heart to a member of Brandley’s family. Piazzola tracked down one of Brandley’s nephews, Mick Babcock, who returned to Butte over the weekend to collect the medal.
“I knew (Brandley) died in the war – my mother told me all about it – but I never expected anything like this,” Babcock said.
At the League on Sunday, VFW members, auxiliary members in sharp red jackets, and a group of Brandley’s relatives gathered for coffee and cookies to honor Brandley’s memory and formally hand his medal over to Babcock. Visitors passed around a photograph of Brandley in uniform and read a photocopy of the obituary that appeared in The Montana Standard on June 15, 1945, nearly four years before Brandley’s body would be recovered and returned to Butte.
Babcock, who grew up in Butte, said he appreciated the wealth of information Piazzola sent him. Though he knew the broad strokes of his family’s history, he said, his mother didn’t talk much about the details, and he didn’t pry. “I never asked any questions, so this is all kind of new to me,” Babcock said.
The original Purple Heart is going back to Babcock’s current home of Cheney, Washington, but during his visit, he filled out paperwork to order a new medal to leave in the League display case. Babcock said it’s hard to ensure that any family heirloom will be appreciated by future generations, so he wants the medal to stay somewhere it will be safe and respected, and he’ll take a “spare” home with him.
“I want the main one in the museum so that he’ll never be forgotten,” Babcock said.