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HOMETOWN PROFILE: Son honors father’s WWII service

Staff photo / J.T. Whitehouse Rick Terhanko of Struthers displays his father’s (George Terhanko) many medals that were earned during World War II in France

STRUTHERS — As was often the case, many veterans who served in World War II did not speak a lot about what they saw and experienced.

Some died without their story being told. Others began relating their stories in their final years. Such was the case for one Austintown veteran, the late Sgt. George Terhanko, U.S. Army 83rd Infantry.

“Dad talked very little about his service in World War II,” said George’s son, Rick Terhanko of Struthers. “He had one box with his Purple Heart in it, and the medal had three clusters on it.”

A cluster is an additional pin that meant the soldier was wounded several times. In George’s case, it would have been four times, making him a four-time Purple Heart recipient.

“My dad would answer my questions, but would not elaborate,” Rick Terhanko said. “He did tell me he landed in Normandy on June 23, 1944, just weeks after D-Day (June 6).”

Rick Terhanko graduated from Austintown Fitch in 1974 and immediately went to work at Schwebel’s Bakery on Midlothian Boulevard. He worked there for 40 years, married his wife Linda, and ended up with a home in Struthers. His parents, George and Ruth kept their home in Austintown, even after George retired from the A&P Company.

In 1999, Ruth died, leaving George alone. Rick spent a lot of time caring for his father and he had read about many World War II veterans not receiving the medals they had earned. George said he didn’t know what happened to his medals, which sent Rick on a mission to get them.

“I took my dad’s discharge papers to a recruiter named Capt. Mitchell Riehle,” Rick said. “He was able to assist in helping to get my dad all the medals he had earned.”

George earned a lot of them. Besides four Purple Hearts, he earned a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, Good Conduct medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign medal, World War ll Victory medal, Army of Occupation medal and the Combat Infantryman Badge. Rick had the medals placed in a nice display box, and his dad enjoyed it prior to his death on Dec. 5, 2005.

“After I got the medals for dad, he opened up a little more with me,” Rick said. “He also opened up more after I took him to see the movie ‘Saving Private Ryan.'”

As George’s only caregiver, Rick began spending more time with his dad. He also enjoyed the early days of the internet, and began an earnest research into the 83rd Infantry Division, also referred to as the Thunderbolts. Rick found a fellow in the Cleveland area who started a website for the 83rd.

“I printed some pages from that site and took them to my dad,” Rick said.

The website owner was Dave Curry, whose father also was in the 83rd. Rick and Dave became friends and Dave even made the trip to Austintown to interview George in 2001.

Rick had taken on a new pastime, writing down the stories his dad told him about the 83rd in France. He also continued to visit Dave’s chat board where he asked what happened to his dad’s captain, Robert Mitchell.

Five years after George’s death, almost to the day, Rick got a reply to his query. It came from Glyn Nightingale from England.

“He said he wanted to talk,” Rick said. “He was looking for information on Capt. Mitchell as well.”

Glyn and his wife Elaine had purchased a holiday home in Normandy, France. After the purchase, Glyn became a World War II history buff and found out George and Capt. Mitchell had crossed their back yard with the 83rd Infantry in 1944.

“I retired from Schwebels in 2014 and the following year I made a trip to France to tour the area,” Rick said.

He found out that his dad became a little famous locally after a visit to the front lines by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of the allied forces.

“When the general was touring and walking around the tall vegetation, he stumbled upon George digging a slit trench,” Rick said. “He had been bothered by another sergeant and thinking it was him, said ‘what the hell do you want now’ before turning around.”

He said George realized he messed up, but overheard Gen. Dwight Eisenhower tell an aide, “there is a soldier who is properly concealed.”

George continued to dig the trench, according to Rick, then was summoned to the command center by a runner. George thought he was in big trouble for what he unknowingly said to the general, so on his walk to the command center, he ripped off his sergeant stripes. His commanding officer told him he was not in trouble and he should go sew his stripes back on.

Rick continued to research what his dad told him and as well as the many leads he was gaining through the internet and via word of mouth. One fellow he came across was Chet Kochan, a veteran and member of the 83rd Infantry who he met at an 83rd Infantry reunion.

Chet was in St. Malo and recalled seeing the captain and George turning an enemy cannon toward the Germans to drive them off. Chet said he was shot in the throat, but recalled seeing the two men fire the gun at the Germans until the Germans returned fire. They jumped down from firing the gun and, along with Chet and several other men, ran down a trench that had a dead end. All were captured and taken to a nearby farm house.

“Chet was released but didn’t know why,” Rick said. “My dad was a prisoner for a day, then escaped with the other men when the guards turned their back.”

In the 2015 trip to France, Rick stayed at Glyn’s house. He saw the monument that had been erected in Glyn’s back yard. The monument had the American and French flags flying over it and the marble was etched with photos of Capt. Mitchell and George.

During a 2019 visit to France, Rick said he continued to research the area and was able to meet some World War II re-enactors.

“Re-enactors, as hobbyists, like to portray specific individuals who took part in the war,” Rick said. “I met a fellow from England who wanted to portray my dad.”

The fellow’s name is Warren Abbots. With Rick’s blessing, this fellow had a friend do up official looking paperwork, including dog tags for Sgt. George Terhanko.

“I told him I was honored to have him portray my dad,” he said.

As for the future, Rick plans to continue giving talks and putting the history of his father and the 83rd Infantry together. He recently gave a talk for the WWII Roundtable in Canfield and plans to return this fall with updated and new material.

“I will continue to fill in some holes in the story and look for the history of my dad and his unit,” Rick said.

As for George’s four Purple Hearts, Rick found out he was wounded by a piece of shrapnel from a German mortar that almost hit his tail bone on June 29, 1944; was struck in the shoulder by a tracer bullet on July 11, 1944; was shot in the left knee by a German sniper when he tried to recover a bazooka while under fire on July 18, 1944; and was hit in the lower leg by a piece of shrapnel on Dec. 10, 1944.”

In addition, George was awarded the Silver Star for actions on Dec. 10, 1944. George took a few men and took out a German machine gun position that was holding up the advance of the company.

Though Rick never served in the military, he did recognize the important role his dad played in France, serving with the 83rd Infantry. Rick plans to continue telling his dad’s story and recognizing one of Ohio’s and the nation’s great heroes.

To suggest a Saturday profile, contact Features Editor Burton Cole at bcole@tribtoday.com or Metro Editor Marly Reichert at mreichert@tribtoday.com.

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