- Associated Press - Thursday, September 19, 2013

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Pfc. John Eddington was fighting in Europe in World War II when he learned his wife had given birth to a daughter. From the battlefield he penned a letter, sweetly telling the little girl how much he loved her and longed to see her.

But he never made it home, and the letter and his Purple Heart medal ended up in a box thousands of miles away from Peggy Smith, the daughter who was told nearly nothing about him.

Years after a Missouri woman found the box of mementos and undertook an exhaustive search to find the daughter who grew up hesitant to ask about her father because it upset her mother, the letter and medal will be handed over to Mrs. Smith on Saturday in what figures to be an emotional ceremony in Dayton, Nev., where Mrs. Smith lives.

It was 14 years ago that Donna Gregory was helping her then-husband clean out his grandparents’ home in Arnold, Mo., a St. Louis suburb. Ms. Gregory stumbled upon a cardboard box filled with World War II memorabilia related to Eddington, though no one knows why.

Eddington was from Leadwood, Mo., about 75 miles southwest of St. Louis. Neither Ms. Gregory nor Mrs. Smith knows what connection the Arnold couple had to Eddington.

Ms. Gregory sorted through several letters, including the War Department’s message to Eddington’s mother about his death in Italy in June 1944, four months after his daughter’s birth. At the bottom of the box she found the Purple Heart, the medal awarded to members of the armed forces wounded or killed in action.

Ms. Gregory, of St. Louis, then spent the next 14 years in libraries and on the Internet trying to track down the elusive daughter. She called every Eddington in Missouri, trying to find the right Peggy. No one could help.

Earlier this year she enlisted the help of friends and began reaching out on Facebook, leading to a breakthrough — she found Peggy Smith.

Nearly 2,000 miles from St. Louis, Mrs. Smith said she knew her father had died in the war and knew he had earned the Purple Heart. But she didn’t know what happened to it. Mrs. Smith figured her mother had lost the medal or given it away — until Ms. Gregory called.

“It was an unforgettable moment,” Ms. Gregory said. Mrs. Smith said she was “stunned.”

Ms. Gregory was touched by the medal, but she was especially moved by the letter in the box penned by Eddington to his newborn daughter. She declined to quote directly from it, saying Mrs. Smith should read it first.

“It’s basically a soldier who is pouring out his heart on paper to his daughter,” Ms. Gregory, 46, said of the letter. “It’s a letter written so she would know how much her daddy loved her.”

Beyond his death in war, Mrs. Smith knew little about her father since her heartbroken mother could rarely bring herself to discuss the lost love of her life.

“My mom didn’t tell me much about my dad,” Mrs. Smith said. “I think she was just distraught. She was so much in love with him. I learned as a young girl not to bring it up because she would just get so upset.”

Mrs. Smith, 69, grew up in St. Louis and lived there until her mid-20s. By then she was a mother of four young children but in what she described as an unhealthy marriage. She divorced and moved the kids out West for a new life in Nevada.

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