John Kimpel of Overland Park celebrated his 93rd birthday a week after Veterans Day this year, but the celebration was muted because he was in a rehab hospital following a fall in August that shattered his right hip and upper leg.
He had worked back to being within a few days of returning home when he suffered injuries in another fall that broke four ribs and ultimately filled his right lung with blood. He spent five days in intensive care at the University of Kansas Hospital and is now in a regular room.
It has been an uneven recovery, but family and friends know this is one courageous and resilient veteran.
The Germans did their best to kill him with an artillery shell on March 3, 1945, when he and other members of his 44th Armored Infantry Division were part of the bitterly contested Rhineland campaign that led to the ultimately successful Allied victory in Germany.
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Kimpel, who grew up on a dairy farm in Johnson County — land that was incorporated into the municipality of Fairway — was a member of a halftrack unit as American forces fought their way through German farmland and forests.
His assignment was to use a .45-caliber submachine gun known as a ``grease gun’’ because of its resemblance to the lubricating tool. As team members planted explosive charges to open up German pillboxes, Kimpel’s job was to cover the pillbox windows.
At one point a German bullet pierced his metal helmet, but he was unaware of that until he later tried to use the helmet to wash up and found it would not hold water.
At the time he was wounded he and a buddy from his unit were escorting German prisoners back from the front.
``We heard the whistle of the incoming shell, but we didn’t move fast enough,’’ Kimpel recalled.
Shrapnel riddled his legs, feet, one wrist and upper arm. A medic team in a jeep already had a full load when they found Kimpel lying beside the road. Another member of his unit recalled after the war that Kimpel told the medics: ``Take care of the other fellows first.’’
Kimpel was strapped to top of the hood and taken to a battalion field hospital. He received casts on both legs and was transferred to a hospital in England where he spent three months. Then he was transferred to a hospital in Modesto, Calif., where he received more treatment and rehabilitation until being discharged just before Christmas 1945.
Despite surgeons’ best efforts they were unable to remove all the shrapnel from Kimpel’s legs and feet. The Purple Heart winner toughed it out and sought as normal a life as possible.
Kimpel was working as a paint touchup expert on the assembly line at the General Motors plant in Kansas City, Kansas, in 1947 when complications from wounds in his left foot forced a one-year leave of absence for a series of surgeries at the Veterans Hospital in Leavenworth. In the third surgery there in February 1948 a final piece of shrapnel three-eighths of an inch long was removed from his foot.
He carried a much larger piece —three-fourth of an inch long — in his right knee until the knee was replaced Jan. 7, 2008. He built a display case for the last two shrapnel pieces and keeps them in his living room.
Kimpel never complained about the ongoing pain from his war wounds. He worked several years for the company that provided buses for Shawnee Mission schools, and he met his future wife, Theodosia, through his school bus job. She was secretary to the Shawnee Mission North principal for 28 years.
He was recruited by Kenneth Smith, the engineer who created the Kenneth Smith Golf Club Company, where he worked at a variety of mechanical tasks — the last few as foreman of the crew that was building a championship golf course near the company plant in Shawnee.
After retirement from the Smith Co. Kimpel managed his home orchard and large truck garden and began more than 25 years of volunteering for the Johnson County Christmas Bureau. His sister, Mary, and brother-in-law Leroy Wisner were also bureau volunteers.
She was treasurer of the organization, and for most of the time Kimpel and Wisner hauled folding chairs, tables and boxes of donated goods to and from the bureau warehouse.
They used Kimpel’s truck. Kimpel finally had to get rid of the truck, and that part of his volunteering for the bureau ended. He then began using his carpentry skills to build doll cradles to donate to the bureau.
Over the last three years he built and painted 92 cradles for girls who would be thrilled to have such an instrument to rock their dolls.
He is frail, and the months of rehabilitation and the latest setback from the second fall have taken their toll. But the grit he displayed in coming back from war wounds is still there. Along with some optimism.
“I need to get back home and get some more lumber,’’ he said.
“I think I have another 50 cradles I can make.’’