DAYTON — With tears flowing from their eyes, Donna Gregory presented the Purple Heart earned by Army Pvt. John F. Eddington in World War II to his daughter Saturday.
Peggy Eddington-Smith, 69, was 4 months old when her 25-year-old father was killed in combat in Italy on June 27, 1944. She never met him, nor was aware of the love letter he wrote to her when she was 3 weeks old.
Gregory found them and other personal items in a box in the Missouri home of her former husband’s grandparents. Eddington’s name was on the back of the medal awarded him for wounds he suffered in February 1944.
After 12 years of searching, Gregory discovered in early June that his daughter, was living in Dayton. And on Saturday, she and World War II Navy veteran Quentin McColl, 93, presented the medal and the other mementos to Eddington-Smith.
Gregory, 46, who lives in St. Louis, Mo., cried frequently as she read aloud to a crowd of 250 the letter the Eddington wrote to his baby daughter: He told her he and her mother Helen wanted to make her the “happiest girl in the world” and that her mother “was the sweetest” woman and she should always obey her or “I will know.”
Eddington-Smith cried or dabbed her eyes with tissue throughout the hourlong ceremony. She was given not only her father’s letters and Purple Heart — granted to service members wounded in combat — but also his Bronze Star, dog tags, and an American flag by members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter in Dayton, 12 miles east of Carson City. Through research, they determined her father had earned a Bronze Star for bravery. The dog tags were created to resemble those given soldiers in World War II.
”I was totally amazed,” said Smith, 69, about the day when Gregory telephoned to report what she had found. “She is the one who deserves a medal for what she has done.”
“I know she was stunned,” said Gregory, an accountant. “She lived her whole life without knowing about her father.”
Gregory said she searched the Internet for years hoping to find relatives of Pvt. Eddington. She also found in the box his draft card, high school diploma and the letter from the War Department informing his wife he had died in combat.
She would start searching and stop and then begin again. She had many clues. But only when she went on Facebook and enlisted the help of friends such as Monica Lightfoot did the sleuthing bring results. Eventually they found one grandson and Eddington-Smith’s son in Carson City, and finally, Eddington-Smith herself.
Gregory does not believe she did anything special.
“I don’t believe anyone who found this would do anything different, especially after reading his letter. How could you not, knowing this man died for you and me and this country? You would do anything possible to reunite these items with his family. You don’t just get rid of this stuff.”
Eddington-Smith said she knew nothing about her father, although she has wondered frequently what life would have been like with a father.
Her mother, who died in 1997, was so devastated about her husband’s death that she never talked with her daughter about him. She never remarried.
“We struggled,” Eddington-Smith said. “I know my life would have been better. I had no men in my family.”.
In 1972, Eddington-Smith and her four children left Missouri and moved to Nevada. One of her sons is named John after his grandfather and a second named Farrell, his grandfather’s middle name and the name he used.
“I cannot get super emotional,” said Eddington-Smith, a retired state employee who still works full time at the Wal-Mart in Carson City. “It has been 69 years without a father. Neither my family nor his family would tell me anything about him. It is exciting to me to have things from him. Donna knows more about him than I do. “
That was her comment two days before the ceremony.
But Eddington-Smith for good reason became super-emotional on Saturday. Almost everyone in the crowd in the Dayton Intermediate School gym broke down when the VFW commander called roll for members who served in World War II.
Each old soldier shouted “Here sir.” Then he called for Pvt. John F. Eddington. There was silence. He called for Eddington again. A member replied that Private Eddington was killed in action.
Then the shots of a 21-gun salute rang out outside the gym, and taps was played in his memory.
Gregory still does not know why the box was in her ex-husband’s grandparents’ house, or whether they have had any connection to the Eddington family. Neither does Eddington-Smith.
On Tuesday Gregory left St. Louis, escorted through each state by members of the Patriot Guard motorcycle organization. Two riders made the entire 2,000-mile trip from Missouri.
When she entered Kansas, Utah and other states along the way, Patriot Guard members in those states would join the caravan. Her escort numbered 73 when she reached Dayton
“I have never seen the patriotism that I have seen in these days,” said Gregory in a cellphone interview as she entered Utah.
She also found her own version of a medal in Dayton. VFW members presented her a plaque honoring her for unrelenting duty to help a soldier who lost his life.
After the discovery, Gregory had called the Nevada Patriot Guard to ask if there were World War II veterans in the Dayton area. Rather than directly giving Eddington-Smith the Purple Heart Gregory wanted to hand it to a soldier of Pvt. Eddington’s generation and have him give it to his daughter.
World War II Navy veteran Quentin McColl, 93, handed Eddington-Smith the Purple Heart. He said he recalls buddies who lost their lives at Quadalcanal. More than 420,000 Americans lost their lives in World War II.
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