Earl James Heckel, one of 10 children of the second generation of Heckel German immigrants that moved to Northern Wisconsin, had grown up on the family’s dairy farm, which was still operational until just a few years ago. At the age of 20 and six months prior to the Pearl Harbor invasion, Jim’s desire to serve his country took precedent over everything. He enlisted in the Army.
While the chores of running a large dairy farm were continually never ending and constant, the family also had to contend with some of the strong winters dished out in such northern climes. Despite the wicked winter weather and tough chores required to help his family run a successful dairy, nothing could have prepared him for what he was about to experience during the next decade, and for that matter, his entire life.
After training and basic boot camp, dad furthered his training post boot-camp specializing in heavy munitions, specifically manning a 30 caliber machine gun. He also trained new recruits. At the time of his training, plans were being created to strike with one of history’s largest recorded invasion; The Normandy Invasion coded “Operation Overlord.” Being trained as a 30 caliber machine gunner, he knew he would be the enemy’s first target to take out. He trained knowing this. In fact, prior to his deployment to Normandy, he recalls his Sergeant stating to the entire platoon, “Men, you will either return home wounded or dead. There is nothing in between.”
His division was one of the first to be deployed in the Normandy Invasion, Utah Beach. History records the massive carnage of this pivotal battle. Dad was one of the few ‘lucky ones’ (albeit that word still is hard to use with the balance of what is to be said) and did not lose his life in the volumes of skirmishes, battles and chaotic mayhem of carnage on that dreadful day of June 6, 1944. On the second day invasion, however, his right leg was hit by a German “potato masher” hand grenade that rendered him helpless on the battle field. Adding to the complications, he was then taken prisoner. Within the chaotic melee, the Geneva Convention was being ignored as the enemy raised their riffles to kill some of their prisoners, of which dad was summarily lined up. A German Chaplin halted the firing squad and later dad and another Wisconsin soldier helped to escape back to safe lines.
After over a month in the hospital he was re-assigned back to fight in the Battle of the Bulge. The US was on the attack with dad manning the 30 caliber machine gun, which was a prime enemy target. Dad manned the machine gun until being hit by a heavy artillery shell, rendering him almost dead. This hit drove deep into his left leg and also created more damage to his already wounded right leg. He incurred many broken bones, shrapnel and significant flesh wounds. He was then jeeped back to a field hospital where he would spend at least a few weeks until he eventually ended up in a hospitals in France and then England. Finally he was returned to the States for more surgeries and intensive care, ultimately ending up at the Mayo General Hospital in Galesburg, Illinois. He would undergo more surgeries resulting in having to spend over a month in a full body cast, twice.
Dad recovered over a period of many months of surgeries, rehab and specialized care but there was only so much that could be done with his broken and nerve mangled legs. During his stay at the Mayo Hospital in Galesburg, he met his life-mate, Shirley Ann Dudgeon. Aftermath...
To this day over hundreds of pieces of small of small shrapnel still can be found in his legs, arms and upper torso. My hero was awarded the following decorations:
Bronze Star Medal: Department of the Army Orders; 26-Feb-1952,
Two Purple Hearts: General Orders 8; 15-Jul-1944/26-Feb-1952,
First Oak-Leaf Cluster to the Purple Hearts: General Orders 53, 7-Nov-1944,
Good Conduct Medal Clasp with Two Loops,
American Defense Service Medal,
American Campaign Medal,
European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with Bronze Arrowhead for the invasion of Normandy, 6-Jun-1944 and three Bronze Star Service Stars for the Normandy, Northern France and Rhineland Campaigns,
World War II Victory Medal,
Distinguished Unit Emblem Medal and
The Infantry Badge Medal.
While growing up with my hero, I cannot recall ever hearing him complain as he hid the pain and dreadful memories of his dedication, service and honor for our country. Truly there can be no argument about his patriotism, valor and personal sacrifice that he gave such that we can live in a free country.
I love you, dad.
You are my hero…for eternity.