Family recalls Arnold native’s sacrifice as member of Band of Brothers
Around Memorial Day, Margaret Adams drives to Greenwood Cemetery in Lower Burrell. She visits her mother’s grave, the grave of her husband, John, and the grave of her brother Eugene Jackson.
Jackson died while serving in one of World War II’s most famous units, Easy Company of the 101st Airborne Division.
“I think about a lot of things — both of my brothers and my husband, he was in the Navy — and all the other men who were in the service,” said Adams of New Kensington. “It’s good that we remember them. It’s sad, but we have to remember what all they went through for us.”
In the spring of 1943, Army Pfc. Eugene Jackson had completed his duty and returned to his hometown of Arnold after fighting the Japanese in the Pacific.
But Jackson decided he wanted to be a paratrooper, so he rejoined and soon found himself a member of 101st Airborne Division. That outfit today is known as the Band of Brothers, celebrated in a critically acclaimed best-selling book and HBO miniseries of the same name.
But Jackson never knew that. He died at age 22 on Feb. 15, 1945, when grenade shrapnel struck him in the head while on night patrol in East Haguenau, France.
“His loss hurt everybody very deeply. He was the last man Company E lost during the war,” Easy Company’s commander, Maj. Dick Winters, wrote to Jackson’s mother, Mabel, in 1998. “As reported, he was hit by one of our own grenade fragments, which tells me, as a good soldier, he was right up front in the charge on the German outpost.”
Winters connected with Jackson’s mother because Jackson’s sister Frances Bitner of Lancaster wrote him a letter after the publication of Stephen Ambrose’s 1992 book, “Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest.”
Three years later, in 2001, “Band of Brothers” premiered on HBO. Jackson’s death is dramatized in the eighth episode, titled “The Last Patrol.”
“It was very hard to watch,” said Adams, who was 10 when her brother died. “I think I found out things that I didn’t know before.”
Jackson received a posthumous Bronze Star for valor and other medals.
Adams remembers the time before the medals.
She remembers Eugene and his brother, Robert, walking up the hill from their home in Valley Camp to the one-room schoolhouse in the Valley Heights section of New Kensington. They’d walk home for lunch and then back up the hill to school afterward.
The boys liked to play ball at a large field near the railroad tracks in Valley Camp, Adams said.
“They used to play a lot in the evening, kick the stick or whatever, and sometimes they would build a fire and roast potatoes,” she said. “It was a fun time for them.”
Robert Jackson, 92, of Upper Burrell couldn’t say why Eugene wanted to be a paratrooper but noted his brother was adventurous. He swam several times across the Allegheny River with its dangerous currents.
“He always was a daredevil,” he said.
Robert Jackson was a soldier in Italy when his older brother died. Eugene was buried in a military cemetery in France until his body could be returned to the U.S. three years later.
“It was a sad day,” he said of his brother’s funeral in May 1948.
The family has a tradition of keeping mementos and photos. Eugene’s fill the dining room table at Robert Jackson’s home.
They have 11 of the badges and medals he received, including the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. Also included are his Army jacket and hats, rifle score book and soldier’s handbook. The family kept the dozens of letters he wrote from overseas. They also have photos taken while he was in the service and several childhood photos and drawings.
While the Jackson family is proud of Eugene’s service, they want others’ service and sacrifice to be recognized as well.
Jackson’s nephew, Barry Jackson, 66, of Upper Burrell said: “Our family wishes to convey to any man or woman who has served their country in any capacity that they all belong to a Band of Brothers.”
Jodi Weigand is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-226-4702 or [email protected].