Local historian’s latest book tells tale of Kansas grandfather who left medical practice, family behind to serve in WWI

One of the copper artillery shells Vaughan found in his grandfather’s trunk.

As he was cleaning out the home where his mother had lived for more than six decades until she died in 2006, Joe Vaughan found a hefty steel trunk. He opened it and found his grandfather’s effects from his service in World War I.

There was a mess kit, a pair of military issue binocular, a copy of the New Testament, and a field razor.

“I don’t think she’d ever opened any of it,” Vaughan said of his mother.

There was also a diary.

And in those pages, Vaughan’s grandfather, Col. Hugh Wilkinson told his story of volunteering for the armed forces, first serving at Walter Reed Army Hospital and then being sent to France to treat those wounded in battle.

His grandfather died in the mid-1930s, before Vaughan was even born. But through those pages, Vaughan began to gain an understanding of the motivations that led his grandfather to give up a life of relative luxury in Kansas City and serve.

“There’s an attitude that I think is dying today,” he said. “How many 40 year old surgeons with a wife and a 10 year old daughter who had a house like you find today in Mission Hills or Hallbrook, would have the gung-ho attitude that they’re so in love with this country that they would give up their medical practice and leave their family?”

Over several years, Vaughan began to piece together the story in his own work. The book, “Colonel Wilkinson’s Diary,” is Vaughan’s fourth, and was just released. (In previous books, he’s documented the history of the Shawnee Indian Mission and Kansas City, Kan.

Among the most notable contents of the trunk that caught Vaughan’s attention during his research were were five empty artillery shells, ammunition that would have been used in the massive guns set up along the no-man’s-land battlefields of the Great War.

“As a surgeon, he would have been picking that shrapnel out of our troops,” he said.

The book is for sale at Fairway’s Rainy Day Books and available on Amazon.

Author Joe Vaughan at the Shawnee Indian Mission.