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War & Peace: Life wasn't always easy on James Harrington, but the late WWII veteran left a legacy of love, family and stories
Beaver County Times - 1/26/2020
Jan. 26--James T. Harrington Sr. said he was a lucky man.
Had he been sitting on his chair in his daughter's living room that Friday morning, the World War II veteran would have insisted that he was lucky. Given 94 years on earth, luck was his to define.
Just look around. Those he held dearest were at the condominium in Economy -- Darlene Harrington and her husband, David Yessel; his son, Tom Harrington and wife Faye; their three daughters, Kim, Rachel and Pamela. They milled around searching for words.
"Pap was ..." his granddaughters said. Scrolling their smartphones for Pap photos in his uniform and with his grandsons was easier than finding words they wanted to say.
The 94-year-old veteran lived with Darlene and David for 19 years, moving when they moved and settled into a routine. His wife, Melva, died in July 2000 of a pulmonary embolism. They'd been married 53 years. Their house on Golden Grove Road in Economy wasn't home anymore.
Outside the living room's wall of windows, Faye noticed two birds in a winter-worn tree, resting. They were mourning doves braving a Beaver County winter.
Fresh fruits, coffee tea mugs and sweets galore crowded the dining room table. A shadowbox on the red wine couch showcased the many medals the veteran had earned while serving 18 months in the Army's infantry in central Europe. Darlene found the diploma Waynesburg Central High School granted her father in July 2000, some 66 years after his classmates graduated.
Down the hallway in a tiny bedroom, war memorabilia and photographs lined his twin bed, including the cookbook he'd used when he transferred from the infantry to kitchen guard duty in the last months of his service.
Two days earlier -- on Wednesday -- his father-in-law waited in his room while David prepared dinner in the kitchen. Darlene and Rachel were upstairs, working. Not many minutes later, David walked into down the hallway. The veteran was sitting in his chair, still.
"He just slipped away," David said. Not a sound made. Not a word said.
BATTLE OF THE BULGE
Jim Harrington Sr. was quite the storyteller. Emphasize quite. And his own editor.
Darlene, a registered nurse, said their dad never talked about his service overseas until she was hired in 2007 as a clinic administrator at a veterans outpatient clinic in Monaca. She's now a director for Valor Health Care, which contracts service at outpatient veterans clinics across the county. Tom, who was chief for 32 of his 42 years at the Economy Borough Police Department, retired in 2014.
During those early stories, Tom said his father mentioned other soldiers -- this guy and that other one. They knew each other by last names.
"After a while you didn't want to know anybody's name," Dad said.
His was Harrington. Levondosky was the man Dad wanted in his foxhole. He was a hothead, rugged and apt to say anything to anyone, expletives included. From Chicago. His first name?
"John," Tom remembered.
They had each others' backs during the Battle of the Bulge, which raged from December 1944 to late January 1945. For those 45 days, Allied troops were pinballs, dodging death by gunfire in the fog-draped Ardennes forest and hunched in trenches frozen as Popsicles.
On a night along the northeastern France and German border, Harrington, Levondosky and another soldier were positioned on a hill staring into fog thick as snow. They knew the Germans were dug in trenches, lying in wait, somewhere. As their luck had it, Levondosky's vision was keen. He noticed movement.
"Harrington, watch out there. Those (expletive) have white on," he said. The Germans were in white camouflage.
The three Americans began firing their semi-automatic M1s incessantly.
"My gun is smoking. The wood is catching fire," Levondosky hollered.
"So is mine," Harrington answered. Amid the barrage, German gunfire killed the third infantryman.
The next morning an Army lieutenant belly-crawled up the hill.
"What are they shooting at?" he asked the surviving two.
"I ain't sticking my thumb up," Harrington told him. "If you want to see, you go see."
He found human carnage. "I see what looked like a helluva lot of soldiers" the lieutenant said.
How many? His father never told him how many men he killed in war. Tom didn't ask.
Sometime later, Levondosky was ordered to transport German prisoners. Harrington didn't know where. Rumor had it that the three prisoners tried to jump him. "He shot them all," Dad said.
Harrington never saw nor heard from Levondosky again.
Years later, Tom said his father tried to track down his war buddy. Someone heard at a convention that he had died.
'WE CAN TALK TO HIM IN THE STARS'
That somber Friday morning melted into a warm afternoon. Outside, a third mourning dove joined the pair in the tree.
That morning the obituary was published in The Times. Because her Pap read three newspapers daily for years, oldest granddaughter Kim Claus of Baden made certain it was complete. His 94-year-old timeline ran three newspaper columns deep with a serious photo of the Army veteran wearing his Beaver County Special Unit beret.
Impression made: James T. Harrington Sr. was a meat-and-potatoes man, sent at age 4 to live with his older half-sister, Ruth, and her husband on a family farm in Greene County after his mother, Rachel, died of appendicitis. He was all-American apple-pie proud, big-boned and brought up to work his 6-foot body hard, then harder, determined to provide for his wife and their three children.
They grew up to be good people. He grew old knowing that.
In time, the Harrington storytelling gene kicked in.
"Kind" was their definitive adjective.
"There was just something about him. He just knew how to capture your heart," said youngest granddaughter Pamela Harrington, a director of leadership and development for a commercial real estate company. She's "the smart one," Pap always said. When they saw each other, Pap was the first to ask, "How are you?"
She never saw him angry. Frustrated sometimes, but never angry, the 28-year-old Cranberry Township resident said.
"He rarely ever got his feathers ruffled about anything, clear up to the day he died," Darlene said.
When they proposed, Kim and Rachel's husbands asked both Tom and Pap for their approvals.
Great-grandson James Thurman Hovanec began each visit giving Pap endless kisses and hugs.
"We can talk to him in the stars," the 6-year-old said when his mother, Rachel, told him Pap had gone to heaven.
Her father-in-law's eyes were a piercing blue, Faye Harrington said.
LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON
Oldest son and namesake James T. Harrington Jr. had his father's eyes and his work ethic.
The elder Harrington worked for 31 years at a steel fabricating plant on Pittsburgh'sNorth Side. When the family moved to Economy in 1966, he left home at 4 in the morning for his 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift. "He was a stickler for being late," Tom said.
Dinner was at 4:30 p.m. Afterwards, his parents spent the evening painting and varnishing for a drywall company. Dad never watched TV, except for "Lassie" with the kids on Sunday evenings.
His oldest son, Jim, worked for 31 years in senior management for a local restaurant chain, then as a food supervisor for the Veterans Administration in Pittsburgh. He followed his father's military footsteps serving in the Army from December 1969 through December 1973, working mostly as a cook at an Army base in North Carolina, Darlene said.
Late in December 2016, James Jr. died of colon cancer. He was 68.
The cancer diagnosis angered his easygoing father, Tom said.
THE WAR WITHIN
Until the day he died, World War II wreaked a quiet havoc in Jim Harrington Sr. It also gave a proud young man a gift -- the insight to know how fragile and fleeting life is.
This military service threaded his life.
On Oct. 1, 1943, Harrington's 18th birthday, his draft card arrived. He quit school and was assigned to the Army's Regiment 94th infantry. On his 19th birthday he was awarded a Bronze Star for bravery during a march toward Nenning, a small decimated village in Germany.
Growing up, he rarely saw his father, but Benjamin Harrington, a World War I veteran, came to a farewell wiener roast at the farm before his son went overseas in August 1944. He offered his son advice: "Carry all the ammunition that you can. Don't ever turn it down." His son had paid attention. When a lieutenant offered ammunition, he threw away his gas mask so he could carry more.
His father was a good shot, Tom said. He'd spent his childhood shooting squirrels and small game on the farm. In his mid-80s and sitting on a chair at the farm, Dad was still a sharpshooter.
And importantly, if not for the war, he wouldn't have helped rescue Glenn Cato, a kid from Pittsburgh'sNorth Side. They figured out that they rode on the same train to boot camp.
When their father was transferred from the infantry to guarding prisoners and cooking in the Army camp's kitchen, Cato followed. The kitchen duties sparked their dad's interest in cooking that gave rise to his lifelong love of baking, the siblings said.
Cato suggested that his buddy write letters to his sister, Melva, in Pittsburgh. He did. She wrote back.
After his discharge in February 1946, the 20-year-old veteran returned to the farm in Greene County, enlisted and landed a job at the United States Air Force base near the Pittsburgh airport, then arranged to meet Melva outside the Joseph Horne department store. She'd be wearing a red coat with a fur collar. He arrived downtown. Three women were wearing red coats with fur collars. Their dad figured out who the love of his life was. They were wed in 1947.
Theirs was an idyllic post-war marriage, a house in the country, three kids raised to complete chores, to do homework and to respect others. James was born in 1948, Tom in 1951 and Darlene in 1958. The boys spent their summers working on the farm. Their mother made Jimmy and Tommy play house and baby dolls with their admittedly spoiled little sister.
"They tormented the hell out of me," Darlene remembered. She got revenge. She'd scream; they'd get swatted on their backsides. Tom didn't disagree.
But sometimes at night, their father returned to war. While sleeping, he'd thrash and holler and grab his wife in a survival mode, both said. They knew their mother slept with a hard-heeled shoe at her bedside.
The nightmares began on the farm and never stopped. Through the years, Darlene and David woke to hear her dad yelling in a voice they didn't recognize.
Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome didn't have a name decades ago.
THE LAST SALUTE
Late Tuesday afternoon, James Thurman Harrington Sr. was laid to rest with full military honors at the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies in Washington County. It was frigid day in this unusually mild January.
Six members of the Beaver County Special Unit carried their fellow member to his gravesite. Members of Cranberry VFW Post 879 and Economy Borough Police officers gathered with the Harrington family. The Rev. Joseph A. Carr, parish chaplain for the Great Parish Grouping that includes Good Samaritan Parish in Ambridge, thanked the veteran for his pride and love of country.
As per his wishes, 10 Special Unit members performed the honor service for their unit rifleman. The late World War II veteran was in the full-dress uniform he'd worn to more than 2,500 funerals in 17 years. The commander called for the rifle detail. The detail fired a 3-volley salute. The American flag on the casket was precisely folded and three rifle rounds were placed inside. The flag was presented to Tom Harrington. His country said thank you.
The Harringtons bid the best of goodbyes -- going away gifts of sorts. Tom, who inherited his father's baking skills, packed his favorite raisin cookies. Darlene chose Vicks Vapor Rub because Dad claimed Vicks cures anything. She made sure he had his Battle of the Bulge ball cap. Her father never left the house without it.
Pap liked the so-so soft blanket granddaughter "Rachie" had given him. She knew it belonged with him. The Cranberry Township resident has a knack for special gifts. Years ago, she decided to participate in the Ambridge Area High School'sMarine Corps ROTC program. Pap said, "Go for it." She is now a captain in the Pennsylvania Air National Medical Unit at the 171st Air Refueling Wing in Moon Township and mom to 6-year-old James and 2-year-old Andrew. Her oldest son wrote a letter to his great-granddad. Pap has it in his uniform pocket.
In the coming weeks, Melva McNealy Harrington who is buried in a cemetery mausoleum in Pittsburgh'sNorth Hills will be interred beside her husband. And plans are for their late son, James T. Harrington Jr., to join them someday.
Three mourning doves came together outside the family home. A trio of Harringtons at rest in the country they so loved.
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