Pfc. John Eddington was preparing for deployment to Europe in World War II when he learned his wife gave birth to a daughter. He penned a letter, sweetly telling the little girl how much he loved her and longed to see her.
But he never got to meet her, and the letter and his Purple Heart medal ended up in a box thousands of miles away from Peggy Smith, the daughter who was told nearly nothing about him. It upset her heartbroken mother to discuss him.
Eventually, a Missouri woman found the box of mementos and underwent an exhaustive search to find the daughter.
On Saturday, the letter and medal will be handed over to Smith in what figures to be an emotional ceremony in Dayton, Nev., where Smith lives.
It was 14 years ago that Donna Gregory was helping her then-husband clean out his grandparents’ home in Arnold, Mo., a St. Louis suburb. Gregory stumbled upon a cardboard box filled with World War II memorabilia related to Eddington, though no one knows why.
Eddington was from Leadwood, Mo., about 75 miles southwest of St. Louis. Neither Gregory nor Smith knows what connection the Arnold couple had to Eddington.
Gregory sorted through several letters, including a War Department message about his death in Italy in June 1944, four months after his daughter’s birth.
At the bottom of the box she found the Purple Heart along with the letter Eddington wrote to his daughter from Texas just before he went overseas.
Gregory, of St. Louis, spent the next 14 years in libraries and online trying to track down the daughter. She called every Eddington in Missouri, but no one could help.
Earlier this year, she enlisted the help of friends, reached out on Facebook and found Peggy Smith.
Smith said she knew her father died in the war and knew he earned the Purple Heart. Smith figured her mother had lost the medal or given it away — until Gregory called.
Smith said she was stunned.
“It was an unforgettable moment,” said Gregory, who was especially moved by the letter Eddington penned to his newborn daughter. She declined to quote directly from it, saying Smith should read it first.
“It’s basically a soldier who is pouring out his heart on paper to his daughter,” said Gregory, 46. “It’s a letter written so she would know how much her daddy loved her.”
Beyond his death in war, Smith knew little about her father since her mother could rarely bring herself to discuss the lost love of her life.
“She was so much in love with him. I learned as a young girl not to bring it up because she would just get so upset.”
Smith, 69, grew up in St. Louis and lived there until her mid 20s. By then she was a mother of four young children, in what she described as an unhealthy marriage. She divorced and moved the kids west for a new life in Nevada. She remarried in 1997.
After Gregory decided to deliver the memorabilia to Smith, she figured the transfer deserved a little more pomp and circumstance.
So Gregory wrote to the Patriot Guard Riders, the volunteer organization perhaps best known for patrolling funerals of soldiers to shield relatives from protesters.
In the letter, Gregory said it would add meaning if veterans presented the medal to Smith.
Before dawn Tuesday, Gregory left St. Louis with her sister and a friend, accompanied by motorcyclists from the Patriot Guard. Along the route, different groups took turns accompanying her.
On Saturday, a parade will begin in Carson City and make the 15-mile trek to Dayton, where Smith will be presented the medal and letter in a ceremony at the high school. Smith’s children and most of her 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren will be there.
“I’ll be crying the whole time,” Smith said.
Gregory knows she will be emotional too.
“I’ve cherished all of this for a very long time.”