SALEM - If you ask Eugene "Ike" Spack about his service in the Army during World War II, he will shake his head and say that he didn't do anything special, just the same thing everyone else in his position did.
But take a minute to ask a few questions and listen carefully to his answers, and you'll begin to see why two weeks ago the 84-year-old Goshen Township resident was bestowed with one of the highest honors of the French government, the French Legion of Honor Award, for his role in helping to liberate northern France from the Nazis.
Ike was 21 years old in April of 1943 when he received his draft notice. According to drafting rules at the time, Ike should have been exempt from duty. He was one of six boys, two of whom were already in the military, and at the time Ike was working at the Bliss plant in Salem to help his widowed mother support his two younger brothers who were still in high school.
However, the draft board reasoned that part of Ike's Army salary could be sent directly home to his mother, to compensate for the loss of his other source of income, so the normal regulations were overturned and the young man found himself headed to South Dakota and basic training.
After a year spent in bases around the United States, Ike was finally sent across the water, but his timing was fateful. He landed on the beaches of France one week after D-Day, as part of a contingent of soldiers replacing men who were killed in the 9th Infantry Division.
Marching east across France, traveling through Normandy and south of Paris, the division pushed back the German troops as they advanced, but they were not met without resistance.
"If you're in the infantry, you don't have much choice; you're going to be killed, captured, or wounded," Ike remarked matter of factly.
Ike's fate was to be captured. The 9th Divsion made rapid progress in their push through France, but he noted ruefully, "We moved too fast!"
The division reached Germany before the rest of the Allied forces could catch up, and was cut off, leading to death or imprisonment for most of its soldiers.
On the day he was captured, Ike said he was the first of his squad to be taken, seperated almost immediately from them and taken to be questioned. The fighting was still pretty heavy at that point, and Ike never learned what happened to the other men who were with him that day. "I don't know if anyone of them made it out alive or not," he remarked, with real regret in his voice.
What Ike also didn't know was that around the same time he was under German guard and headed to prisoner of war camps near Munich, his older brother George had been fatally wounded on a nearby battlefield.
It had to have been one of his mother's worst nightmares, as she received two telegrams in the space of a week telling her one son was dead and the other missing.
Ike would remain labeled missing for the next seven months and two days, much longer than he ever thought he would be imprisoned. "Eisenhower and them thought the war was going to be over any day, and I did too," Ike remembered wrly.
But the Battle of the Bulge had yet to be fought, and while American soldiers worked their way closer to the German front, Ike and other POWs were laboring through the night, repairing railroad tracks that were bombed by Allied aircraft during the day.
As the battle drew nearer, the prisoner were moved around more and more. Ike spent time in many different small villages, under what wasn't always the fiercest of guards.
Blues eyes twinkling with humor, Ike related one incident in particular that struck him as an illustration of the ironies of war. He and the other prisoners in his group were in a small village that was being bombed, when an explosion hit the hut they were staying in. They fled toward a hill, but not before stopping one man stopped to help their guard, an eldery German, hurry up the incline while the other prisoner carried the guard's gun.
With situations like that, the captives had to know they wouldn't be imprisoned much longer, and liberation finally came for Ike and his fellow POWs.
After being freed, he was allowed to return home, but not before spending 21 days aboard a ship, where Ike said he was "cleaned up and fattened up!"
Back home in Salem, Ike married the girl next door, literally, now his wife of 60 years, Hilda. He laughed as he pointed out that even though the two were neighbors as children, he really didn't talk to her much because all the neighborhood girls tried to, "stay away from those Spack boys, they're a bunch of bullies."
Hilda and Ike raised two daughters, Carol and Heidi, while Ike worked for Salem Label for over 25 years.
Since their retirement, the couple have enjoyed spending time with their granchildren, Nicholas Prislipsky, Christian and Sean Cuner, and their great granddaughter, Katelyn Cuner. The two are also stayed active in several veteren's organziations, including the AMVETS, VFW, DAV, and ex-POWS, which is how they learned about the Legion of Honor Award.
According to Hilda, the French government was looking for WWII veterans who had served in northern France to honor with the award, so she sent in an application, but didn't think much would come of it.
"I forgot all about it, then one day I got a phone call and they said they were from the French Consulate in Chicago," Hilda explained, remembering her surprise at the notification that Ike would be receving the award.
A special ceremony was held in Akron to present the honor to Ike, and he was accompanied by his friends from various veteren's groups as well as his wife and grandson Nicholas. The French Vice Counsul from Chicago, Isabelle Marques-Groft, was their to represent the French government and officially award the medal.
The recognition was nice, Ike remarked, but shrugging his shoulders he still insisted that really, he hadn't done much of anything at all.
Elizabeth Ewing can be reached at email@example.com
This article was reprinted with permission and is copyright © 2006 Salem News.
View photos from the ceremony honoring Eugene E. Spack with the French Legion of Honor.
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