BROOKINGS – In October 1944, four months following the June 6 D-Day landings in Normandy, France, United States Army units were on the verge of bringing the ground war into Germany itself. For 19 days beginning in early October, they fought German Panzer units in and around Aachen, Germany.
And a G.I. from Brookings took part in the action, leaving behind a piece of gear that would be found more than 75 years later.
The soldier was Kenneth Heath; the artifact is a battered standard Army-issue canteen cup. As can be seen in the attached photos, the canteen is flattened nearly beyond recognition and has multiple perforations. Roughly etched on it is Heath’s name; the name of Doris, his wife; Brookings, S.D.; a heart with an arrow through it and what might be leaves.
The Brookings Register found out about the canteen via some circuitous emails. The first was written by Es Westhovens, who lives in Holland. He was metal detecting in Aachen when he found the canteen: in part his email, reads: “ … Anyway, can someone help me to find the soldiers family? so I can sent this item back to them, I really hope the soldier lives but must be very old and probably no Facebook
“Sorry for my bad English greetings from Holland.”
A second email corroborated much of the above information and helped locate the names of two of Kenneth Heath’s five children. The Register interviewed both of them.
In the thick of things
“Very little,” said Peggy Pirrung, who now lives in Sioux Falls, when asked about how much she knew about her late father’s World War II service.
“It was a horrible war. He was in the worst part of it: Normandy, Northern France, Rhineland and the Ardennes Forest during the Battle of the Bulge. He was an engineer. His job was driving heavy trucks to build bridges. When they (the Germans) blew up all the bridges except for one, he was one of the men who had to go in and rebuild them all.”
“He was pretty much in the thick of things,” she added. “He was assigned to the 1274th Engineering Company.” While she has seen pictures of the canteen, she had no memory of her father ever talking about it.
However, Pirrung, who was born in 1947, has a pretty good paper trail covering her father’s life and activities, including documents related to going into the Army, pictures of him in uniform and wedding pictures.
She said her parents were both born in Brookings. Her mother’s maiden name was Doris Iverson. Kenneth Heath was one of nine children.
“Following the death of his father, he had to quit school after the eighth grade,” Pirrung said. “He helped support his mother.” He would later join the Army, serving from March 16, 1943, to November 12, 1945.
Kenneth and Doris Heath would have five children. In birth order they were: Roger, now deceased and the only child to be born in Brookings; twins Betty Pingon, now living in Seattle, and Bonnie Savold, now living in Grand Junction, Colorado; Peggy Pirrung; and Dennis, now living in Florida.
“My dad and my two brothers were truckers,” Pirrung added. Like father, like sons.
Waiting for the canteen
“He taught me how to drive,” Dennis said, noting that like his father, he, too, was a truck driver. Dennis was born and grew up in Sioux Falls. He did a 3 1/2-year tour in the Marine Corps and later drove trucks in California and Colorado before retiring to Florida.
In talking about his father’s World War II service, Dennis brings a historical perspective to the events in and around Aachen.
He believes that his father’s unit was not part of the American forces in place at the time of the battle; but it would have been used in a temporary reinforcement role for engineering assignments.
“I know his unit wasn’t with that Army,” he explained. “They were engineers. There were a lot of rivers that had to be crossed. Of course, the Germans blew all the bridges.
“What I think happened, he was serving probably in the south and they went up there to help build bridges across these rivers and eventually he returned back to the south and he was sent to the Battle of the Bulge.”
He noted that a lot of historical information relative to the areas and battles in which his father participated can be found online.
For his part and tied to the role his father played, Dennis has been trying to get the canteen. He has attempted to get in touch with Es Westhovens via email, but he has received no response.
“I’ve done all that I can,” he said. “He found the cup; it belongs to him until he decides to return it. It’s his.”
Contact John Kubal at [email protected]