By Ed Meyer
Beacon Journal staff writer
Tom Brokaw’s 1998 book, The Greatest Generation, was perched on a pedestal, opened to the title page, at my father’s 2004 memorial service on the South Side of Chicago where he lived most of his good life.
I had asked him to sign it for me some years before, as a remembrance of the times and the medals he had never received for his three years of World War II service.
And this is what he wrote:
To my son,
Edward V. Meyer
With Love Always,
Edward J. Meyer
P.S. Remember Your Dad, a World War II veteran of General George S. Patton’s U.S. Army (3rd).
Served in European Theater of Operations under XX Corps, 88th Engineers, Heavy Ponton Battalion, 1942-1945.
The phrase, “Give Way,” was his engineering battalion motto.
Just to the left of it in Brokaw’s book, Dad had neatly drawn one of the heavy, floating pontoon bridges that he helped build, all across Europe, during the Normandy, Northern France, Ardennes, Rhineland and Central European campaigns following the D-Day invasion.
Untold numbers of Sherman tanks, heavy artillery, armored vehicles, Allied combat troops and their invaluable supplies moved relentlessly across those bridges as the invasion pushed forward to what historians have called “the ultimate victory” over the German war machine.
Dad never bragged about what he did there, and never once “bellyached,” as he would have called it, about anything that happened to him in the war.
“Many of my buddies,” he once told me, “never made it back.”
The last time I saw him, he was his usual happy and joyous self at the college graduation of my nephew, Dad’s only grandchild, Matt Janeczek, on the campus of Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind., in May 2004.
He had a big smile on his face and waved goodbye to my wife, Rosary, and me on the morning we got into our car and left our hotel.
Three weeks later, Dad died in his sleep, at age 83, in the home where our family had lived since the mid-1950s.
And so we were suddenly left to remember him with the words his grandson Matt wrote in his obituary for the suburban Chicago newspapers:
“He was never elected to any high office, nor did he rise to the top of any corporation. But he proved that he was a great man by his example, his courage, his kindness, his honesty, his pleasant demeanor and, most of all, his hard work and sacrifice for all of us.”
The courage to which Matt referred stood out in the war years — not in some daring combat mission, but in the unsung engineering strategy that enabled Patton’s forces to advance through France into Germany after the invasion had stalled.
High in the obituary, Matt wrote: “Dad helped weld thresher blades on the front of our tanks as they chopped through the hated Hedgerows to finally rout the enemy. He was so proud of that.”
I had known for years why Dad never received any of the medals that he, and many other World War II veterans, deserved.
He left me three pages of handwritten notes about the history of the bridges that the 88th Engineers built, and the crossings they made of the Seine, Moselle, Sauer, Rhine, Main, Werra and Danube rivers, from Aug. 25, 1944, to May 13, 1945.
After the defeat of Germany, Dad said, all engineering battalion members with less than the required number of service points were ordered to reorganize to be shipped out to the Indo-China Theater of Operations for the continuing war against Japan. He was two points short of going home.
By early summer of that year, the decision had not been made yet to strike the Japanese mainland with the atomic bomb, so the 88th Engineers continued their training for war on another continent.
“But preparations to ship out were cancelled,” Dad wrote in his notes, “when Japan surrendered, and we sailed happily to New York Harbor and the good old USA!”
Because of that abrupt departure, he never received his medals.
I had thought, for decades, that getting Dad his medals was a lost cause, until my friend and colleague at the Beacon Journal, Jim Carney, began writing about other area veterans who never received their World War II medals.
Jim urged me to contact the office of U.S. Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, and speak to one of his Senate aides, Kristy Hoyt, who personally handles the oversights with Army officials.
On March 18, I sent a series of emails to Kristy with downloads of Dad’s war notes, his official Army discharge papers, a documented history of the 88th Engineer campaigns and a one-page signed consent form to get the process rolling.
I couldn’t resist telling Kristy, in one of our phone calls, about my favorite story that Dad told as his unit was preparing to cross the English Channel for its landing on Omaha Beach on July 23, 1944.
“Our commanding officers had told us in a briefing: ‘Men, you will not have to worry about the Luftwaffe when we get there. It has been all but destroyed.’
“Hell,” Dad told me, “once we began moving through France, the Luftwaffe strafed us almost every night!”
In one such attack, in Belgium, he said he had to make a run for it and find a tank to crawl under.
He said it was his worst moment of the war.
“I thought I was a goner,” he said.
But Dad made it, and he went on to build a wonderful life with my mom, Stephanie, for me and my sister Karen. She still lives on the South Side of Chicago just a block from our family home.
On April 5, the great news came from Army officials at the National Personnel Records Center.
In individual boxes with official U.S. Army designations, Dad received: the World War II Victory Medal; the American Campaign Medal; the Marksman Badge with carbine and rifle bars; the Good Conduct Medal; the small, gold Honorable Service Lapel button; and the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, of which I am sure he would have been most proud.
For it was that medal, adorned with a silver star for the five campaigns he fought on Omaha Beach and into France, Luxembourg, Belgium and Germany, that truly makes us all proud.
I am working now, Dad, on a shadow box for your medals, to someday hand it down to your grandson.
Happy Father’s Day!
Ed Meyer can be reached at 330-996-3784 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.