Online student returns lost WWII medals to family

Joseph Fox, an online GCU student from West Virginia pursuing his bachelor's degree in History for Secondary Education, places the Purple Heart, Gold Star and other medals on the grave of Vaughn Cox, who served in World War II. 

By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau

Cox's medals had been lost to his family since 1999. Fox found them at a yard sale.

History buff Joseph Fox didn’t know what kind of treasures he might find at West Virginia’s Largest Yard Sale, the Super Bowl of yard sales in Upshur and Lewis counties.

“They have it once a year. I took my dad, who is in his 80s, and we kind of went out and about to look for certain antiques – I collect a few things. We stopped and we were talking to a gentleman. I kind of glanced over — I got sidetracked from the conversation — but I looked over and I saw these medals,” said Fox, an online Grand Canyon University student pursuing his Bachelor of Arts Degree in History for Secondary Education.

The Army veteran who served in the military police for 18 years knew that these were no run-of-the-medals.

What he saw, when he approached the table of sundry items: A Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.

Fox thought, “Why in the world are these people selling somebody’s medals?”

When he looked closer, he saw they were engraved with a name: Vaughn Cox.

Fox served in the Army military police for 18 years. It was important to him as a vet, he said, to return Cox's medals to his family.

Fox felt compelled to buy them and started doing what he does best: historical research. It’s something he has delved into in recent years for the state of West Virginia Division of Culture & History, traveling to courthouses around the state and pulling historical records as part of his business, FoxHound Genealogy and History.

He searched, Facebook and Find A Grave for any information about Cox, and after days of research, “I found them!” Fox said of Cox’s family.

When he got a response from Cox’s nephew, Timothy Cox, he decided to go back and see if the seller might have more of the World War II veteran's medals.

“Sure enough, several of them had his name engraved on the back of them, so I bought them all.”

And he’s glad he did.

An American hero

Cox, a paratrooper, earned three Purple Hearts in World War II. 

Private 1st Class Vaughn Cox was in his mid-20s when he served in World War II. Of the 15 brothers in his family — his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Calvin Cox of Wolf Summit, West Virginia, had 21 children — 11 served in the military. That included seven brothers who served during World War II.

Cox, a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division, parachuted into France on D-Day and was shot multiple times by the Germans as he descended. He lay in a field for three days before a German burial crew found him and transported him to a hospital as a prisoner of war.

He didn’t understand anything his captors said to him until he heard his name called out. As fate would have it, the soldier who said his name turned out to be one of his brothers, who was recovering from a broken leg. His brother had parachuted into France on D-Day, as well.

“He ended up becoming a prisoner of war, but he escaped, which was phenomenal,” Fox said.

Cox also fought in the Battle of the Bulge on the Western Front, and during his service in the war, three of the planes in which he flew were shot down.

One of the stories Cox told before his death in 1999 was about the time when he was parachuting onto the base during his training at Fort Benning, Georgia. He happened to land near First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who was touring the base that day. She asked him how much he got paid to jump out of planes. He told her, “$21.” She responded, “That’s not enough!” The next payday, he and his fellow parachutists noticed a significant bump in their paychecks to $50.

After the war, Cox worked with the Civilian Conservation Corps and assisted on the construction of Grafton Dam. He also worked as a coal miner, carpenter and cabinet maker.

Cox, who returned from the war with a glass eye, ended up receiving three Purple Hearts and several other medals for his service in the war – something he told a reporter before his death that he never thought he deserved.

Cox told a local reporter before his death that he didn't think he deserved the medals.

His name and the names of his brothers — Edward, Paul, Glenn, Carlos, Calvin and Kenneth — were part of the Wolf Summit Honor Roll Memorial, and Cox's name is engraved on the Purple Heart Memorial on the Harrison County Courthouse Plaza. West Virginia Senate Bill SCR 32 was introduced in the spring to name a bridge, locally known as the Log Cabin Bridge in Harrison County, as the Cox Brothers Veteran Memorial Bridge.

“Of course, when you’re little, you’re like, ‘Oh, we have uncles and grandpas who were in the military,' but you don’t think much of it,” said Cox’s great-niece, Sara Hurst. “As I got older, I started learning more. This is really cool.” 

She remembers her great-uncle sharing military stories with her dad, Timothy.

“Dad would say a bunch of the stuff sounds like he just made it up. He talked once about these guns that they had that would shoot around corners,” Hurst said. Her dad didn’t believe that story. “He started researching it, and they did have these guns that had these mirrors on the sides of it where they could shoot down over edges and things. He was like, ‘Here I thought he was making this up.’”

Hurst said she sold ads for a newspaper for a time and wanted to put together a Veterans Day page so families could pay tribute to their loved ones who served in the military. That’s when her family started looking into her Great Uncle Vaughn’s service and really started to understand all he had done to earn the medals he was awarded.

“I started questioning, whatever happened to those medals?”

She found out that after her great uncle died and then his wife passed away, the bank foreclosed on their house and somehow the medals ended up getting cleaned out with other items. The family never knew where the medals ended up.

Until that call from Joseph Fox.

Returning home to the family

Cox's family was happy to have the medals returned. 

Twenty-two years after Cox’s medals went missing, Fox arranged a meeting with the family to return the medals in early August at Floral Hills Memorial Gardens in Mount Clare, West Virginia, where Cox is buried.

“It was really exciting to hear that (about the medals being found),” Hurst said. “You get this message out of the blue. ‘Hey, I found this,’ and we’re like, ‘What?’”

“I didn’t realize the whole family would be there. There was a lot of family at the cemetery, which was very, very special,” said Fox, who decided to make a career change during the pandemic. He was thinking about going back to college so he could teach and, as serendipity would have it, he would see an advertisement for GCU. He is two years into his program and hopes to get back to finishing a book he’s writing on the McDonalds of Keppoch, Scotland, who settled along the Potomac River. 

Having served in the military himself, Fox said it was important for him to return the medals and to honor the man who did so much for his country yet did not feel he deserved them.

“He deserves a lot of recognition,” he said. “It means a lot to me to give back to, especially, a World War II hero. This guy was the definition of a patriot.”

GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.


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