Local man recalls his fight for U.S and defense of parents’ nation

Ed Merckx, of Huntington, shows the medals he received as a result of his performance in World War II at his home on Tuesday, May 25. Merckx fought in the D-Day operation and in Belgium.
Ed Merckx, of Huntington, shows the medals he received as a result of his performance in World War II at his home on Tuesday, May 25. Merckx fought in the D-Day operation and in Belgium. Photo by Matt Murphy.

For some soldiers, armed conflict sometimes becomes necessary to defend their home country.

But a few fight for not only the flag on their sleeve, but also for the homeland of their ancestors.

Ed Merckx, a lifelong Huntington County resident, served in the Army National Guard during World War II, ironically defending the home country of his parents.

Merckx's parents immigrated to the United States from Belgium in the years before the war, bringing two children, Merckx's older brother and sister, with them.

Merckx was the first in his family to be born in the U.S., and grew up in Roanoke before being drafted into the military in the spring of 1941 - eight months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

When he was sent to Belgium, Merckx had the opportunity to meet his uncles and cousins as the war wound down and developed lifelong relationships with his relatives.

Merckx was sent first to the armory in Fort Wayne, where he joined about 80 other men to form the 38th Infantry of the Indiana National Guard.

"We were the largest group of draftees at the time," Merckx says.

From Fort Wayne, the group was sent first to Fort Hayes in Columbus, OH, and then to Camp Shelby in Hattiesburg, MS, as part of the 38th Infantry of the Indiana National Guard.

In Mississippi, he was asked to become a candidate for a position as an officer, which he accepted. After going before a committee of several officers, Merckx was named 2nd Lieutenant on Easter Sunday 1941, and was assigned to Fort Benning, in Georgia, as part of the 30th Infantry. Soon after, Merckx was transferred to Camp Breckinridge in Kentucky for further training.

"We were called veterans, but we didn't know anything yet," Merckx says jokingly, referring to the fact that his unit had more experience than others, but not in combat.

Merckx had five days to get to Kentucky from Camp Shelby, and dropped by Roanoke on the way to get married.
His then-fiancé, Becky, and Merckx's mother quickly put the wedding together as soon as they found out Merckx would be home.

"We didn't know if he would be sent overseas, so we had to get married when he was home," Becky Merckx says. "Ed got here on a Saturday. Monday morning we went to Huntington to get our marriage license, then we went to Fort Wayne to get our rings, and we were married at 5 p.m. Monday night."

The couple was married at the home of a Catholic priest, as Ed was Catholic but Becky was not. After a short honeymoon, Merckx left for Kentucky on Thursday, while his best man, Becky's brother, left for Washington state one day prior.

After his short wedding celebration, Merckx returned to Kentucky, eventually being promoted to 1st Lieutenant and finally ending up in Camp Atterbury in southern Indiana in 1943.

On June 6, 1944, Merckx found himself on a ship crossing the English Channel to land at Omaha Beach in northern France as part of the D-Day invasion.

The landing at Omaha gave Merckx a brutal understanding of war. While in Indiana, he befriended another officer, and the two became close. When the officer's mother came to visit from Toledo, OH, Merckx says the mother told him to make sure the officer returned alive, as he was her only son.

"He was the first one killed that day," Merckx says.
Weeks later, Merckx was standing with the soldier on the boat as it landed. A shell from the German artillery hit the officer, but not Merckx, despite their proximity.
The officer was not alone, as 3,000 American soldiers and 1,200 German soldiers died at Omaha Beach.

Merckx's unit continued to punch through France and Belgium, eventually reaching Vaals, a town in The Netherlands that is home to the Germany-Belgium-Netherlands tri-point. But upon crossing into Germany, Merckx was wounded, and was taken to a hospital in England for treatment.

The military sent a telegram back to Roanoke to let Becky know of Ed's condition. Although the telegram office called Becky to tell her the news, Becky says she wanted to see the telegram for herself, and drove through a flooded portion of Roanoke's Station Road to get there.

Merckx's brother was also injured in a plane crash between England and France. His brother was taken to a French hospital, where Merckx visited him before the end of the war.

After the war ended, Merckx remained in Europe, specifically France, for several months, helping at the Le Havre docks in Normandy.

But in addition to his official duties, Merckx was permitted to visit his aunts and uncles in Belgium during his tour there. He spoke near-fluent Flemish, one of the main languages in Belgium, due to his family using Flemish at home in Roanoke.

Merckx boarded an interurban train to take him to Antwerp, where some of his family lived. An older man also boarded the same train, and Merckx and the man began a conversation. Merckx says the man asked about Merckx's mother, and to the surprise of both men, the older man attended grade school with Merckx's mother.
When Merckx arrived in Antwerp, he met his Uncle Jacob in the village where his mother was from, and a short time later, met his Uncle Edward in Antwerp, and stayed at the same home in which his mother grew up.

"As soon as he saw me, he just came out of the house and hugged me," Merckx says.

Merckx also began a lifelong relationship with his cousin, Martinis, who visited Ed and Becky in the U.S. in 1981 and has kept in contact throughout their lives.
The last thing Merckx did before leaving Belgium was to put flowers on the grave of his first cousin, who died in 1940 as a casualty of war.

When Merckx returned home, he and Becky purchased a small farm at the site of the current General Motors plant in southwest Allen County. Merckx operated a funeral home in Huntington for decades. The business is now known as McElhaney-Hart Funeral Home.

He returned to Belgium in 1975, flying to Paris and taking a train to Belgium over some of the same ground he fought to liberate 30 years prior.

"It was altogether different," he says.

During the time Merckx was in Europe, Becky kept herself busy working and writing letters to Ed every day.

"My mother and I would sit down and she would write to my brother and I would write to Ed," Becky says. "I would tell him what I did that day and give him updates on how things were here. We knew they had to be there, but it was awful hard. They were both fortunate enough to come home."

Merckx said he was blessed by Becky's correspondence with him, knowing that not all soldiers enjoyed that luxury.

"My brother had a wife and three kids, and he never heard from them," Merckx says.

And like most veterans, Merckx's time in World War II influenced his view of Memorial Day.

"My experience changed the meaning of the day so much," he says.

Ed and Becky Merckx are members of St. Mary Catholic Church in Huntington. Ed is also a member of the American Legion Post in Roanoke and the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Huntington. The couple resides at The Heritage of Huntington.