|TEAM VETERAN LEADER ...PFC DON HARRINGTON|
Veteran will never forget his 21st Birthday
By Lowell Thomas for the Daily News
As a 19-year-old Private Frist Class in the U.S. Army, he had no idea he would be leaving a part of his body in a foreign country before returning home. Or that it would happen on December 13, 1944, his 21st birthday.
Donald (Don) Harrington was a member of “F” Company, 78th Division, 309th Infantry. The 78th Division was filled with 18- and 19-yer-olds who were trained for infantry combat to replace soldiers who had been killed or wounded on the battlefields of Europe. Before that took place, however, it was decided that more than just replacements were needed. The war was not going well for America and its allies, and it was then that officials decided to ship the whole 78th Division overseas.
On a cold October morning in 1944, Harrington and his division boarded the USS Erickson for a stormy 13-day ship ride to Boummouth, England, for advanced training, before being transported to LeHarve, France.
Living in pup tents, they were deluged with three days of rain, soaking everyone and all their equipment. Soon after, they were transported by truck to St.Vith, Belgium, where they were placed in reserve for General George Patton’s Third Army. Before they were through, they would be under the command of General Omar Bradley’s Ninth Army.
“Two weeks before entering combat,” Harrington said, “Capt Brey had Platoon Sergeant Sullivan pick a patrol of five of us and rode in a truck to our front line where at night we infiltrated the enemy line in the Hurtgen Forest to find what bunkers we could, so we could determine where ‘F’ Company was to attack.”
When Harrington’s outfit went on the attack three days later, two German mortar rounds landed close enough to them that 17 American men were either killed or wounded.
Harrington was one of the wounded. The shell had exploded about 12 inches from his left foot and thrown him spread-eagle into a ditch.
“The ditch was about three feet wide, but went almost straight down for about 50 feet,” he said. “When I landed, I was in a booby trap area where the wires had a push trigger on one end and a pull trigger on the other end. Fortunately, I se off the explosives on the way down, so when the medic got to me, he had to cut the booby trap wires off me. I was completely tangled up in them.” Harrington’s left leg was hanging by the cord at the knee. He also had 23 holes in his right leg and five broken bones in his foot and leg. The only thing tat saved his right leg was that he had his trench knife in his army boot that took the brunt of the explosives.
“Because the temperature was about 20 below zero, I didn’t bleed too much before getting help from our medic, John Collins,” who untangled him, he said. “John then pulled me up to the road and gave me a shot of morphine before I passed out.”
When Harrington awoke, he was on a stretcher in a barn waiting his turn to go to an evacuation hospital in Wurms, Belgium. Prior to being moved to Wurms, he was operated on in a field hospital. Even then, the ambulances had to time it right to avoid the mortar rounds that were landing on schedule in the area every 15 minutes.
When he arrived at the hospital, his jacket had to be cut off – it was too painful for him to take it off the normal way.
“They threw I in the courner with a clunk,” Harrington recalled, smiling. “The doctor asked me what I had in the pockets and when I told him ‘hand grenades,’ he ordered the jacket to be remove from the room. But I knew the pins were bent, and wouldn’t go off.”
Five hours and three units of blood later, Harrington woke up with one leg and one stump, both in full casts to keep them in place. It was his 21st birthday, and still a day for celebration: He was alive.
Although his train left for Paris on Dec. 16, it didn’t arrive until Christmas Eve. Frequently his train was routed to a siding and waited until another train, loaded with war materials headed for the war, could pass by.
German prisoner of war medics were on the train platform in Paris to load the wounded troops into ambulances.
“They had ‘POW’ on the backs of their shirts, and I had my .45 under the blankets,” Harrington said, grinning, “and if they dropped me I was going to shoot them – but there was no problem.”
He saw Paris from the back window of an ambulance, as it sped him along the narrow streets to the hospital and safety. But “safety” was short-lived. On Christmas night, the Germans bombed the railyards only two miles away. Harrington finally was airlifted to England on New Year’s Day.
He was in England only overnight, then transferred to a hospital in Wales, south west of England. “We knew England was being bombed, but felt really safe in Wales,” he said.
Harrington was in traction for 49 days, with weights on the end of the ropes, stretching the skin over his left stump, and to keep his leg bones aligned in his right leg. A pin was placed in his right heel and attached to a rope that hung over the end of the bed.
Irony can play its fickle ways, even in a war hospital. According to Harrington, the head nurse entered his ward one day and asked anyone to identify him.
“What have I done now?” he asked. The nurse turned out to be Beatrice Bosley, his stateside girlfriend’s aunt. The girlfriend was Neva Achenbach, who had asked her aunt in a letter if she was in the same hospital where Harrington was located because they both had the same APO (Army Post Office) number.
It was Nurse Bosley who helped Harrington obtain a spot on the next plane heading for the States after he was out of traction and able to travel.
In March 1945, Harrington ended up at Percy Jones Hospital in Battle Creek. Between that date and January 1947 he would have 17 more operations. In the past 50 years he also had several operations to remove shrapnel, ugly reminders of his 21st birthday.
In between those operations, Harrington and Achenbach were married on Sept 21 1945.
“On our honeymoon, I carried two canes and Neva carried two suitcases,” he mused. “She has been and still is the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Ten years after his experience he finally acquired feeling in his remaining big toe, and five years after that he could wiggle it, which helps his stability when standing. Since the time of his discharge, Harrington has worn a special shoe for his right foot, and in 1965 had to have the arch fused to lessen the continual pain. Nearly 60 years later he still visits the VA hospital three to four times each year for treatments or examinations.
Harrington retired in 1982 as a research chemist for the Dow Chemical Co., a career that spanned 40 years. The Harringtons have five children and nine grandchildren.