Often, the finest gifts arrive in small packages – as is the case here. Emil A. Perko became the son of John and Anne Perko on April 7, 1923 at the family’s red brick home on 11th street in St. Louis, Missouri. During the Civil War, this house was a main stopping point on the Underground Railroad that transported and sheltered former slaves as they escaped the plague of slavery. By the time Emil was born, the home’s massive oak ceiling beams were aged by over fifty years of kerosene fumes and smoke from heating and cooking. This was a beautiful place and Emil and his siblings loved growing up here.
The kids’ favorite summer fun was playing in the cool waters of the big cement horse trough. There were also backyard games to entertain and keep high-energy youngsters happy. Occasionally, there would be a trip to the popular Farmers’ Market in the Soulard district. Besides offering a wide variety of garden produce and meats, the market was a great place to meet friends and to hear news from around town and beyond.
Emil recalls his first day of school as being a little scary. His boyhood, so far, had been mostly spent close to family. Emil had met a few kids in church, but overall, he’d been pretty much a home boy. Things changed in junior high and high school. Emil kept his grades respectable while enjoying sports. He especially liked gymnastics, where he excelled in high-bar. He also did well in shot-put events. Emil remembers playing football before modern safety aids. Their helmets were the old leather kind.
After graduating McKinley High School, Emil worked a variety of jobs. He did find a little time for fun, though. On one occasion, our young man was invited to take a Mississippi River cruise on the Admiral. Shortly after the trip started, Emil noticed an attractive young lady who was talking animatedly with another group. He approached the girl and introduced himself. What started as a spark of interest soon became a bonfire of love. Shirley and Emil would eventually marry and share more than twenty-five years together.
It was fairly certain that a draft notice would be coming soon, and it did. On March 3, 1943, Emil was sworn into the United States Army. After basic training, Private Perko was trained in heavy weapons. After further training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina and Camp Atterbury, Indiana, Emil was transferred to New York to await transportation to Europe.
Private First Class Perko was in England for a short time before crossing the channel to France and on to the region of the Ardennes. Emil’s unit was the 106th Infantry Division, 422nd Regiment, Company H. Fighting was furious, but matters were about to get worse. On December 16, 1944 at 5:30 a.m., an estimated 8,000 German artillery pieces opened up on the Ardennes sector. During the next three days, the 422nd and the 423rd Regiments became completely cut off from the rest of the Division. Reinforcements weren’t able to break through and an ammo drop failed to arrive. The term Battle of the BULGE (author’s emphasis) was coined to describe the result of being pressed on all sides by the enemy. Our units were also referred to as “The Sitting Ducks.”
On the 19th of December, when ammunition reserves were exhausted, commanders of both regiments had no choice but to surrender their troops to the Germans. German commanders had issued an ultimatum saying that if there was no surrender, they would slaughter both regiments. Our commanders conceded, and over 7,000 soldiers, including now Sergeant Perko and his H-Company, were transported to POW camps.
Mr. Perko remembers it all very clearly. After being loaded on a box car, members of H-Company and others rode for hours in pitch darkness. Finally, the train stopped. Doors were opened and the occupants ordered out. There was nothing but snow and a forest. The temperature seemed to be below freezing. The already cold and hungry soldiers were ordered into formation. The Germans started at each end of the formation and, as they faced each man, the captors demanded information – details in excess of the required “Name, Rank and Serial Number.” When our soldiers rightly refused, they were told to take off their shoes and socks and to stand barefoot in the snow until they had a change of heart. Our men complied with this order, many of them suffering frostbite.
Next, everyone was herded through the trees until they reached what appeared to be a hastily put together cluster of buildings that would serve as a prisoner of war camp. There were no bunks; only mats on the floor where prisoners slept. Emil says that meals were barely adequate to sustain life. He and his fellow POWs were served mostly thin soups, occasionally with small bits of horse meat. Every day, there were bowls of boiled carrot tops; maybe sundry bits of cabbage or other plant items that weren’t always recognizable.
Our hero recalls that the most difficult part of confinement was not knowing when or how things would change for himself and his fellow POWs. The power that saw Emil through the ordeal was his unshakable conviction that, “God has my back, whatever happens.”
One morning around the second week of May 1945, Sergeant Emil Perko and his comrades awakened to find themselves alone in camp. There wasn’t a German in sight. A look around the place revealed what appeared to be a freshly killed horse, some cabbage, a few other vegetables, and yes, a pot of carrot tops. Very soon, Allied Forces recovered these now jubilant soldiers who were convoyed to “Camp Lucky Strike” in France, where they boarded a ship for New York. From there it would be just a train ride to St. Louis.
Home! Home at last! Emil’s happy family and his fiancée, Shirley, rejoiced at their hero’s safe return. Emil and Shirley were married the very next month on June 16, 1945. Soon, the couple’s son David was born. Next, Sharon joined the family. Emil and Shirley encouraged their children’s’ interests. They thrilled at the kids’ academic and sporting achievements in high school and their successes in college and beyond. The Perkos enjoyed a vibrant family life. Emil prospered in his 32 year career with General Motors, retiring in 1980.
As a young man, Emil began to develop a foundation of faith. Now, as an adult, he guides his family into a faith of their own through a life centered in the church. There were, of course, regular Sunday services. Emil and Shirley taught classes, led Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops and teenage youth groups. There were also picnics, camp-outs, summer camp and numerous out-reach programs. Emil and Shirley showed the kids by example how important it is to share and to be of service to others.
On October 11, 1972, tragedy struck the family. Emil’s wife, Shirley, and his son, David, were on their way to attend the funeral of a friend. Suddenly, a car driving on the wrong side of the street rammed the couple’s car head on – killing both Shirley and David. This terrible loss drew remaining members of the family even closer. Today, Emil, Sharon, and a now-sizeable extended family honor these loved ones by living generously and serving others.
In the years following the death of his wife and son, Emil immersed himself in family, church and career. He also stayed in touch with former comrades-in-arms. From time to time, he attended reunions of the 106th Infantry Division, 422nd Regiment, Company H. In 2011, our veteran was recognized and sponsored for an “Honor Flight” to Washington, D.C.
On May 28, 1978, Emil married Jean Herod, a long-time friend of the family. When Emil retired, he and Jean decided to travel. First, they headed north to Canada and Alaska. Next came an adventure in Switzerland. The couple also enjoyed two cruises to the Bahamas. Later, Emil and daughter Sharon took to the air for a ten-day trip to Italy. Emil says that he was awed by the grandeur of St. Peter’s Basilica. A coach ride through the Italian countryside, stopping to eat and visit with residents, was the high point of their trip.
In 1998, while attending the Kentucky Derby, Emil suffered a serious fall. He was advised to take an ambulance home and to see an orthopedist. Emil had surgery and appeared to be doing well. However, our hero fell twice again causing further complications. His doctor recommended the Missouri Veterans Home – St. Louis. Sergeant Perko has been a resident since October 2014. He rarely misses a bingo game and he loves frequent visits with family and friends.
Emil, we honor you and your gift of service. We’re glad that you’ve chosen to live and share with our community of veterans.
THANK YOU, FRIEND!