Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Remember Eddie Myers

Remember Eddie Myers
By Hans Zeiger
(Adapted versions of this story appeared in the Puyallup Herald on Sept. 3 and Oct. 1, 2008)

At the Veteran’s Memorial in Pioneer Park, the list of Puyallup’s lost men from World War II numbers fifty. Particular memories of the men persist only in the minds of a few old friends—now eighty-five and ninety years old—who played with them on the football team at Viking Field, who picked blackberries with them in the valley summers, or who fished with them along the River as it flowed on like time. These old friends, like everyone in their generation, made their own sacrifices to preserve freedom.

I have gone to them these past few months to ask some questions. I have asked about their service to the country, and then about their outstanding contributions to the community over the years, and then about their memories of Puyallup’s war dead. Great themes and insights have developed in the course of the interviews.

While some of the fifty names on the Veterans’ Memorial remain mysteries, there is one hero who is remembered well, and beloved in memory, by most of the men and women I interview.

He was Eddie Myers—or as his friends at war would come to know him, Eddie Myers of Puyallup, Washington.

That is how Lt. Howard Randall of Texas knew Lt. Myers. Several years ago, Randall traveled with Bill Moyers of PBS to visit Eddie’s grave in a Luxembourg cemetery, the same cemetery in which General George Patton is buried. In front of Eddie’s white cross, Randall wept as he told of the man he and many others came to love. Few other comrades have made the trip to see Eddie Myers’ marker. As Randall told me, “Most of the people who knew Eddie were killed.” It says something about the kind of war Eddie Myers fought in, that few of Eddie’s men survived to tell us how he died. Some friends from home remain to tell us how he lived.

Eddie Myers grew up on the grounds of the Washington State College Experimental Station, where his father worked as the foreman. His mother had two daughters from a previous marriage, one who was much older and the other, Marian, who was five or six years older than Eddie. Next door to the Myerses were the Kinseys. Essey Kinsey and Eddie were the same age, so they grew up together. Since there were no boys in the Kinsey family, Essey recalls, “Eddie was like a brother.” In the evenings after school at Maplewood Elementary, Essey and Eddie, along with Ruthie and Bobby Bigelow and a few other neighborhood kids, played games in the fields.

In the summers, Eddie went to YMCA camp on an island in Lake Tapps, in the days before Lake Tapps was surrounded by homes. In his first year at camp, Eddie was assigned to the same cabin with Frank Hanawalt and six others who were all slightly older. Despite Eddie’s junior status, Hanawalt recalls, “He was the person that added life to our cabin. He was so funny.”

A few years later, Hanawalt would sit in the stands at Viking Field, surrounded by his classmates and most of the town, as Eddie Myers grabbed hold of the punts from fourth down. “I remember the determination with which he would grab that punt and tuck it away and take off.” Eddie was only 145 pounds, but as his teammate and friend Don Henderson recalls, “He wasn’t afraid of anything. Eddie Myers was fearless.”

Most mornings, Eddie walked along Pioneer to Puyallup High School, and most afternoons he walked home. On the mornings when Eddie didn’t walk, he and Essey met at the bus stop and sat together on the ride up Pioneer to the high school. Essey and Eddie shared their deepest secrets and consulted each other about their boyfriends and girlfriends. After school and sports, one might have gone to see the other, to chat about Eddie’s upcoming student government election, or to review the day’s game.

Eddie and Don Henderson worked part-time together at the Experimental Station. As Henderson recalls, “On Friday after everybody went home, Eddie’s job and my job was to make sure all the equipment had gas in it. He’d drive his dad’s car down there, and I had a Model A Ford, and we used to park behind one of the barns, and each one of our cars held 10 gallons of gas. So we’d get these and fill them up between us. Gas was about 17 cents at that time.”

One thing Essey and Eddie didn’t speak about was their future careers. Rarely did they speculate about college or other aspirations beyond their small-town world. The simple pleasures of living in the present—with the work at hand, school activities, good friends—that was enough for an interesting life on the daffodil frontier. Others saw the star potential in Eddie Myers. The Puyallup High School Class of 1940 elected Eddie its president. “Eddie was just a remarkable guy. You couldn’t find a better guy than that,” said his classmate Manford Hogman.

“He was just a natural, I guess,” then adding, with a chuckle, “He probably would have been president.”

Eddie Myers wasn’t a genius. He repeated the First Grade at Maplewood. Randall recalls that he was “not very sophisticated.” But he was brimming with character. He was charming as well as gregarious. When Hogman moved with his family from Illinois to join the Puyallup Class of 1940 in its sophomore year, it was Eddie, along with Ray Glaser (later to die in a wartime plane crash) and Glenn Todd, who made him feel welcome. The Class voted Eddie “Friendliest Guy” (Essey was “Friendliest Girl”). And above all, he was, like the town he loved, generous.

Though the Myers family never owned pets, Eddie came to love the animals around the Experimental Station. From the time he could walk out into the pasture or explore the barns, he had grown up with them. As a teenager working at the station, he most liked to care for the cows and chickens and the other creatures.

And so it is unimaginable that Eddie Myers went to war to kill. Like his quiet friend and neighbor Bobby Bigelow, a medic who was shot and killed in the Philippines while helping a wounded comrade, Eddie went to war to save life.

As captain of the Puyallup High School football team, Eddie Myers led the Vikings against the Spartans. Those who saw him run the ball down Viking Field in those late years of the Thirties could just feel his awesome determination. He seemed the very embodiment of Puyallup—spirited, friendly, generous. But those weren’t Eddie’s finest moments. It’s when he took on Nazi Germany and gave everything for his country that Eddie Myers was at his best.

Eddie was a few years into his education at Washington State College when he left for the Army. He began officer training in 1943, moving on for infantry training at Fort Benning, Georgia. Eddie was a natural leader, and he personified the motto of the infantry—“Follow me.” Assigned to the 417th Infantry Regiment, 76th Division, Lt. Myers met up with his men at Camp McCoy, Wisconsin. He was made a rifle platoon leader, which meant that he led a rifle squad of nine men, alongside two other rifle squads and a weapons squad. Through the spring and summer and into the fall of 1944, the 417th trained for the liberation of Europe.

Lt. Randall joined the 76th as a rifle platoon leader in June. Since he was new to the platoon, he was at a disadvantage in relating to the men, but he quickly observed that Lt. Myers had won them over. Eddie made himself available to the GIs to assist them with personal troubles or to reassure them about the stresses of war. As he had done on the island in Lake Tapps, he made camp life humane. He was a counselor and friend. Some men in the platoon were illiterate, so Eddie took time to transcribe their letters home. “He was better than the rest of us lieutenants,” said Randall. “The rest of us went to town and had beers. Whenever we went into town he stayed back with his platoon.”

On Thanksgiving Day, 1944, the 76th boarded the troop transport USS Brazil out of Boston. The ship docked at Southampton a week and a half later, then the 76th marched through the New Forest to Bournemouth on the southern coast. As Christmas approached, Eddie was like a father, helping the illiterate men to write letters home and entertaining them with his wit. As at Camp McCoy, there were opportunities to go out with the officers. But as Randall recalls, “Even when some regimental girls in England put on a dance, he stayed back.”

Just before Christmas, the troops at Bournemouth learned that the Germans had gone back on the offensive at the Ardennes Forest on the Western Front. The 76th was ordered to meet up with General Patton’s Third Army as it fought to keep its ground. They would rendezvous in Luxembourg, between France and Germany.

Christmas Day in camp was sad. The 2,500 men of the 66th Infantry Division shipped out for France on Christmas Eve aboard a Belgian cruise ship, the SS Leopoldville. Just a few miles from the coast of Cherbourg, a German U-boat torpedoed the Leopoldville, killing 802. Tom Kordle wrote a poem to memorialize a friend who was lost that night: “December Channel, dark and cruel / Coffin on that mournful Yule.”[1]

It was the middle of January when the 76th embarked for France in armada. Snow was falling on Bournemouth as a hundred troop transports pushed out. The boats plied the waves at about 11 knots per hour because of the U-boat danger.

Across the channel, the 76th marched from Limesy to Luxembourg in less than two weeks through the snow, arriving in Junglinster on January 26.[2] Even without the impending crossfire, the winter was deadly. Snow blanketed the disputed lands. Inadequately booted and clothed, the men struggled to survive.

In the Luxembourg winter of 1945, Lt. Myers was almost, as his football teammate Don Henderson had known him at Viking Field in the good years, “fearless.” But as Randall remembers, “We were all afraid that we were going to get killed or wounded in combat. After seeing the figures from Omaha Beach, we knew that it was pretty bad. We also knew that their tanks were better, and their 88-mm gun was better. They were a veteran-trained army, most had been fighting for five or six years, and we were brand new. We hadn’t been in combat at all.”
Infantrymen were a minority of servicemen and a majority of casualties. According to General Omar Bradley, only one in fifteen men in the European theater were in combat, and only one in seven in the Third Army. “There’s so many people in supply and support that don’t ever have to fight,” said Randall. “The infantry rifle company is where attrition is so terrible.” The rifle infantry accounted for 83 percent of casualties.

By war’s end, three of six officers in Eddie’s company had been killed. The other three were wounded. One wounded officer became mentally unstable.

“The life expectancy of a Second Lieutenant in the infantry was pretty terrible,” said Randall.

“We all welcomed a light wound—that was the greatest way to get out of fighting. You just didn’t want a severe wound.”

The first officer in Eddie’s company to be severely wounded in the Battle of the Bulge was the company commander. Then the executive officer was killed. With no time to mourn the dead, Eddie took over as company commander.

In mid-February, several hundred men of the 76th penetrated the Ziegfried Line. They crossed the Zauer River through German-occupied territory. On the other side, Lt. Myers led his men as they climbed about 450 feet up a mine-laden escarpment. At the top was an obstacle course like no other. Stretching 1,000 yards across and three and a half miles into the distance were 144 German pillboxes. Inch by inch, pillbox by pillbox, the infantrymen made their way through. Despite their insufficient clothing and shoes, the 76th had a fighting advantage over the Germans, whose force had been weakened by Russian assaults on the Eastern front.

“That was Eddie’s biggest action,” said Randall. “We went through that. Then after a couple days he got killed.”

It was after two days of rest beyond the Ziegfried line that the 76th began an assault on the town of Welshbillag. Two-hundred fifty men charged into the town.

Two German tanks fired rounds of 80-mm mortars into the advancing Americans. Some men were killed instantly. A shell landed beside Lt. Randall; it was a dud. Lt. Myers was hit in the stomach. He was losing blood quickly. Some of his men helped him into a barn. Most of the platoon continued on, fighting through the night. Lt. Myers sat up in the barn in agonizing pain.

Probably there were animals in the barn where Lt. Myers died, so at least in the end, he was with creatures he loved. Eddie was 21.

“I can understand him getting killed, because if the guy next to him didn’t want to go, he’d be out there,” said Eddie’s friend Don Henderson.

Lt. Eddie Myers ought to be a hero to the young people of Puyallup. He is a hero to its old people. He is by now a hero to me.

Hans Zeiger is a fourth-generation Puyallup resident and a freelance writer. He is seeking additional memories of Eddie Myers and other Puyallup war heroes. Contact him at or 253-905-8160.


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