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Voyageur's Best Features of 2003

Eino Latvala

A new testament Bible saved his life
 
A granddaughter learns her grandpa's story of survival at war
 
by Michelle Nelson  |  2003
 

It was 1942, and Eino Latvala just graduated as valedictorian of his McGregor High School class. He was born and raised in Tamarack, and attended grade school there. On June 3, 1943, as he nonchalantly tells me, "I launched my brief Army career." He went on to tell me the story. "My first days were quite inauspicious. I caught the bus for Ft. Snelling at Peterson's Cafe in Aitkin. In route, we stopped in Milaca for more draftees. The bus mired down in a frost boil and needed a wrecker. In the Twin Cities, the bus hit a street car and the driver told us we were on our own and walked away. We finally got to Ft. Snelling, but they had to hold us for another day, as most of the boys had been drinking and were in no shape for a physical."

From Ft. Snelling, Eino was sent to Fort McClellan in Anniston, Alabama, for basic training. After basic training, they enrolled him in the ASTP Program at a college in Citadel, South Carolina. "ASTP was the Army Specialist Training Program." The Army intended on making the young men into engineers. He continued: "In March, 1944, they decided we could best serve our country in the Infantry. We were sent to the 100th Infantry Division at Fort Bragg." He explained how he received an expert infantry badge for being able to walk 27 miles in 7 hours. The requirement was actually to walk 25 miles in 8 hours. He started out in the motor battalion but, after spending the day at the machine gun range and being the top shooter, he was soon moved to the heavy machine gun battalion.

Eino's story goes on. "We were sent to Europe and landed in Southern France." I later found out that they had rode over on the George Washington ship with 9,000 Army troops and it took 14 days to get there. On the ship they were placed on 'KP' (kitchen police). He ate lemons to avoid getting sick, a trick he learned from the sailors on board.

On their way over, they ran into German U Boats, and some of the smaller ships that were in the convoy did not make it. To top it all off, they encountered a hurricane with 75 mile an hour winds. When they arrived, Eino was half way down the cargo net when German planes went over and all the lights went out, he hung off the cargo net for quite awhile until all was clear.

After I cleared up all the 'minor' details of Eino's trip over, he finished telling me his amazing story. "We landed in Southern France and fought our way up into Southern Germany. I was a machine gunner and carried the tripod, which weighed 51 pounds. At that time, I weighed 118 pounds." He went on to tell me how they traveled 30 miles a day, carrying 75 pounds of equipment, and would fire 2,000 rounds a day, 400-500 shells per minute. His top pay during the Army was $82 a month, and being a heavy machine gunmen earned him an extra $10 a month. He also told me of how he received a good conduct medal while serving at the front lines.

The date was Nov. 2, 1944, and Eino tells me of the day a Bible saved his life. "On my 20th birthday I was hit in my left chest pocket by shrapnel. At the aid station they found that it had penetrated 4 layers of winter clothing, a Gideon New Testament Bible and lodged in my billfold." It just barely tore his skin. "The medics said had it not been for the obstacles, I wouldn't have lived." He ended up with some scratches, a broken rib and a Purple Heart. His story was told in the Stars & Stripes Newspaper, Nov. of 1944, and he wishes he could see a copy of the story.

After his wounds healed, Eino was sent back to the front lines. During the fighting, his captain asked for volunteers to knock out a pillbox. He was the only one to volunteer. It was just his captain and himself that crawled on their bellies, under heavy firing, to knock out the pillbox. "I received the Bronze Star for knocking out a pillbox with a bazooka," he said, like it was no big deal.

At this point Eino was a Private First Class. He was just put in for a promotion to Sergeant, almost six months after his 20th birthday, when his career in the Army was ended. His battalion was fighting in Germany and they were being shelled heavy all day, when he was hit by an artillery shell. He woke up in an army hospital, where they removed shrapnel from his hands and his back. He was transferred to an Army Hospital in England, then returned to the United States on July 4, 1945. Shortly after, in Oct., 1945, Eino received a medical discharge at Camp Carson, Colorado. He should have received a cluster to the Purple Heart he had already received, but he never did receive one and never tried to pursue it.

I went on to learn more about Eino. There were 12 brothers in his family, and ten out of the twelve served in the army during World War II and the Korean War. After he was discharged and returned home, he worked for NW Paper Co. in Cloquet for two years, Hugo's Mercantile in Wright for five years, and managed the Tamarack Co-op for five years. In June of 1958, he was appointed the Tamarack Postmaster and retired in November, 1984. In 1967, he met and married Rose Latvala. He is a member of the VFW in Cloquet and Disabled American Veterans in Aitkin.

Four years ago, Eino had to undergo a MRI, which uses high powered magnets to scan the body. The technician asked if he had any metal inside of his body. He told the technician that he could possibly have shrapnel. The technician wasn't even sure what shrapnel was, and had to ask Eino. They decided to go ahead with the procedure anyway. Fifty-four years after being shot by an artillery shell, more shrapnel was pulled out of his leg by a MRI.

This story is a special one to me; Eino Latvala isn't just a wounded WWII Veteran, he is my grandpa. I will have to admit, before writing this story, I didn't know much of his Army career. Sure, I had heard the stories, but I couldn't remember all the details, or should I say, most of the details. I didn't know whether he served in the Navy, Army or Air Force. After writing his story, I have a new understanding and appreciation for him, and others, who have served our country so bravely and proudly. I am so proud to be Eino's granddaughter.