( May 19, 2014 )
Durham's Russell Eick, Recipient Of 5 Bronze StarsBy Alaine Griffin, email@example.com | Hartford Courant
It was the summer of 1945. Nazi Germany had just surrendered and the fighting in Europe had ended.
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Russell Eick, an American soldier fresh off the battlefields, was still in Europe but his mind was back in his Connecticut hometown, thinking about his family and what pleasures the month of June brought to rural Durham.
"By the way, how is the garden this year, or haven't you one?" Eick asked his mother, Helen, in a June 6, 1945, letter he wrote from France. "It sure would be nice to be there now as I guess the things should be ready to eat. And the strawberries ought to be ripe for a nice strawberry shortcake. It sure has been quite some time since I had any."
Three years before, Eick was drafted into the Army at age 20. He quickly built up an impressive battle resume on the front lines of the 486th Armored Anti-Aircraft Battalion, an attached unit of the 3rd Armored "Spearhead" Division.
He went through five battle campaigns, including the Battle of the Bulge and the invasion of Normandy, and earned five Bronze Stars.
His battalion was the first allied anti-aircraft unit to enter Germany in World War II, and the first to shoot down a German enemy aircraft.
As a main gunner on an armored vehicle known as an M16 halftrack that the crew named nicknamed "Hell's Bell's," Eick would unleash thousands of rounds from .50-caliber machine guns at the enemy, traveling over all terrains at speeds of up to 45 mph. The incessant gunfire, blasting just inches from his ears, later impaired his hearing.
"He was credited with the first enemy plane shot down in Germany," Eick's son, Randall Eick, 62, of Middletown, said in a recent interview.
The website, 3ad.com, which documents the history of the 3rd Armored Division, recalls the event: "On September 18th, 1944, a small flight of enemy planes attacked the 67th Armored Field Artillery positions southeast of Brand, Germany. Cpl. Stanley Zyza's crew, with Tec 5 Russ Eick as the main gunner, opened up as one plane broke through the clouds. Eick's aim with the quad-.50 's proved dead on, as the FW-190 fighter-bomber, with smoke pouring from the motor, took a sharp dive, crashed and burned, killing the pilot."
The younger Eick still marvels at what it must have been like for his father, one of nine children, to have left the family farm so young for war in places he had only read about in books.
"You could imagine his shock from going from a farming, country town like Durham, right into the war," Eick said. "You get pulled out of a farming town and plopped over in France and Belgium and they say, 'Here's your gun. We'll give you some training. Go get 'em."
Russell Eick lived to be 90 years old, longevity that brought with it seven decades of World War II remembrances. He died in October 2012.
Sometimes Eick's four children could get him to open up and tell his war stories. Other times, he would not share the horrors he witnessed abroad, events that caused flashbacks, night sweats and post-traumatic-stress disorder.
"He was 90 and he still had nightmares," Randall Eick said. "You do what you have to do when you're in the war but it's still human beings you're shooting at and killing. He had a tough time with that."
When he did talk, Eick's stories were incredible. His children were especially moved by their father's experiences in the Battle of the Bulge, when Eick and his comrades fought through one of the worst winters in Belgium's history.
"They were advancing so fast that they couldn't keep the winter gear with them," Randall Eick said. "They couldn't get the jackets to them so they were out in the elements without any winter clothing on. So it was amazing they made it, to be honest with you."
Eick's memories of the D-Day invasion by Allied forces that began at Normandy on June 6, 1944, were painful for him to recall. When the war movie, "Saving Private Ryan," came out in 1998, Eick asked his father if the intense and graphic opening scene of troops landing at Omaha Beach was realistic.
"He said it was pretty much dead on," Eick said. "He said, 'You would see a guy next to you and his limbs would just disappear.' It was horrific."
Eick's battalion also liberated four concentration camps and prisoner-of-war camps. In an interview with a local newspaper years ago, Eick recalled liberating one of the camps."There were bodies all over and living people too weak to stand," Eick told the newspaper. "[Gen. George] Patton himself was called to see and got physically ill."
Randall Eick said his father's memories of the concentration camps never left him.
"Seeing those places left a lasting impression on him, that humanity was just totally disregarded like that and beat down," Randall Eick said. "He just couldn't understand how human beings could do that to other human beings."
In a Nov. 9, 1990, article in the The Shopper News & Gazette of Durham, which has ceased publication, Eick said he tried not to remember what he saw at the camps for fear it would trigger nightmares. But he added, "Freeing the people in those camps made the war worthwhile. It made everything we had gone through worth it."
For Eick, those weren't just words. When he returned home to Durham to raise his family while working as a master carpenter, Eick worked to keep alive the memories and service of his fellow soldiers and educated residents there about America's vital role in the war.
He would lay wreathes at veterans' funerals throughout the state, speak at Memorial Day events, raise funds for wounded soldiers and go to group counseling at the veterans' hospital. Eick was known as a war hero, serving as grand marshal of the Memorial Day parade in 2002.
Eick went to Europe in 1995 to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the war. He reunited with Europeans he had met decades before and visited battle sites and museums at the sites where concentrations camps once stood.
The trip also gave him the chance to meet up with members of his battalion, the men he became fast friends with as they shared gunfights and kept watch while a comrade slept between battles. To Eick, those friendships, his son said, were precious gifts.
"He made many friends while he was over there and lost many of them," Eick said. "Those were some of the best friendships he ever had."
Because like Eick, many of them were young men fresh out of small, sometimes rural, hometowns like Durham.
"Early on, he learned to depend on these people for his life," Eick said. "And at 20 years old, that's really something."