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May 9, 2014

THOMAS: Lessons from a piece of shrapnel

— John Eckert walks around with a fingernail-sized piece of shrapnel in his neck, a souvenir from piercing the Maginot Line as a U.S. Army combat infantryman in 1944.

He got a Purple Heart for his troubles. And a Bronze Star. And a Good Conduct Medal.

Did you know that Thursday, May 8, was V-E Day? Me neither. Had slipped my mind.

Not many remember. Fewer are alive to relive their experiences on the frontlines. More than 550 World War II veterans die each day, according to the National WWII Museum.

Eckert, Jeffersonville, showed up at the News and Tribune office unannounced Thursday, his medals and ribbons neatly pinned to his green Boy Scout sash in tow. He’s very much alive.

The Danville, Illinois, native just wanted to let us know that Thursday was V-E Day, and that we should remember the day in 1945 that the Allies claimed victory in Europe over evil.

“It’s a part of history that people have just forgotten,” Eckert, 88, said. “It’s a long time ago. Most people are not that interested in history. Yesterday is about as far back as they go.”

Thankfully, yesterday, we were treated to a living piece of history.

After basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, Eckert was assigned to the 3rd battalion, 398th  Regiment, 100th Infantry Division, and his company sailed for Marseilles, France, to participate in the European invasion.

“I’ll never forget that trip across the Atlantic,” Eckert said. “We went through a terrible storm. I thought we were all going to die.”

It wouldn’t be his first brush with death.

Eckert’s division was trucked up the Rhone Valley toward the Maginot Line on the France-Germany border. Eckert would see action in the northern Alsace area toward the end of 1944. His division used foxholes dug by the 45th.

“I jumped into a foxhole with a dead German,” he said of his first distinct memory of being near the line.

On Dec. 18, 1944, Eckert’s division assaulted the line and was slowed down by a battery of German artillery. Eckert “didn’t get down to the ground quite soon enough” and was struck in the head, shoulder and neck with shrapnel.

He lay unconscious until darkness fell when he awoke and made his way toward a pillbox.

“I had no idea if it was occupied by us or Germans,” he said.

Luck was on his side. Fellow troops carried Eckert to a Jeep where he was whisked way to a military hospital in Dijon, France.

Only later did Eckert realize how lucky he was. A baseball-sized hole decorated his helmet. He was saved by a picture of his Long Island girlfriend, some Army-issued brown toilet paper and V-mail from home — all items stuffed inside his helmet.

“Or else it would have killed me,” Eckert said of the shrapnel.

After recuperating, Eckert, who was a radio operator for the company commander, made it back to the Maginot Line for a second assault on the Germans — this one successful. His company traveled all over the backroads of Germany, over the Rhine River and to the Neckar River, which it crossed and established a beachhead.

“That’s history as I remember it,” Eckert said. “It was a long time ago.”

After the war, Eckert made his way back to Danville, where he was part of an ownership team that bought radio stations and a television station. After the radio stations were sold, he worked for the local hospital, where he retired in 1962 as marketing and communications director.

Wanting to be close to his daughter in Prospect, Kentucky, Eckert and his wife, Leila, settled in Jeffersonville.

“We wanted to be close to someone who could take care of us when our marbles started to rattle,” Eckert put it.

Nothing was rattling Thursday. Like most from The Greatest Generation, Eckert doesn’t consider himself a hero. He’s just like us. Even had to hurry up and get to Walgreens before Leila, his wife of 65 years now, began wondering where he was.

Lucky for us, he stopped by the newspaper.

“It seems to me that awareness of history and events that shaped the present day are really important,” Eckert said. “An awful lot of young people could care less about history.”

Maybe a tiny piece of shrapnel will remind them.

— Jason Thomas is an assistant editor at the News and Tribune. Reach him via email at jason.thomas@newsandtribune.com or by phone at 812-206-2127. Follow him on Twitter @ScoopThomas

 

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