Father’s Day gift honors Elgin dad’s WWII service
By Romi Herron For The Courier-News June 15, 2012 2:24PM
James Muirhead of Elgin, shown with his wife Gloria, was scheduled to be part of a Father's Day Honor Flight to see the Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. | Romi Herron~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 18, 2012 6:24AM
The eldest of three brothers, James Muirhead of Elgin was drafted into WWII in March 1941, although farm responsibilities exempted his siblings from the same call of duty. Today — Father’s Day — Muirhead, now 95, and his daughter Robin will travel to Washington, D.C., with Honor Flight Chicago to visit the Veterans Memorial.
“On Dec. 8 of 1941, I was 25,” he said in an interview this past week. ”That was Pearl Harbor day. They called us together — I was on guard duty — and they said the orders have changed to shoot to kill. You never forget hearing something like that.”
After leaving his childhood farm in Plato Center, his first stop was Fort Sheridan, then Virginia, and finally Boston. He went overseas March 30, 1943. As a technician who would later be promoted to sergeant, he was based in Iran.
“The way it went, it was a train ride across the country to California, then a boat to New Zealand, then Australia, then India, and then the Persian Gulf.”
He was based there for 2½ years. The hot temperature was the toughest thing he had to deal with, he said. One of his jobs was to fix the cooling system.
“I never had anybody shoot at me, and I never shot at anybody else. But the heat was the worst thing,” he explained.
One of his fondest memories was a chance meeting of his cousin, Harold Engelbret, a Wisconsin resident.
Muirhead’s wife, Gloria, said another fascinating coincidence took place Aug. 17, 1945.
“That’s when peace was declared, and that’s also my birthday,” she said.
The couple were married Sept. 7, 1945. They are the parents of two daughters — Robin Beth Muirhead of Greenfield, Wis., and Holly Beth Beattie of Cherry Valley.
After three decades as a draftsman with Flexonics in Bartlett, Muirhead retired. Prior to that, he worked at Pines Engineering in Aurora. He and Gloria share their home with Honey, a golden-eyed tabby cat.
Encouraged to go
Muirhead said his daughter Robin, a teacher in Milwaukee, encouraged him to go on the D.C. adventure and then took care of all the arrangements.
“She was really pushing me (to go),” said Muirhead. “They said I’d get a call sometime between March and December, and in May I got it. They said, ‘Be at Midway at 4:30 a.m.’ ”
The event is extra special because the family had thought his life was nearly over about seven years ago.
“They gave up on me one time, when I was in the hospital,” he said. “I didn’t wake up for quite a while, and all of a sudden I came to.”
Gloria said her church’s minister parted the curtain at Muirhead’s bedside, and she even discussed funeral options with him upon the doctors’ concerns.
Then, Muirhead opened his eyes.
“They call him Miracle Man,” Gloria said. “No one thought he would wake up again.”
The couple both say they’ve forgotten the details of his condition at the time, but Muirhead says he’s in good health now and exercises daily. He visits Rosewood Care Center in Elgin, where he had his physical rehabilitation, as often as possible.
“I can barely get in the door before the girl behind the desk comes out and gives me my first hug,” he said.
Admitting he was “a little nervous” about the physical challenges of the day trip he’ll take today to visit the Veterans Memorial in Washington, he also said he is grateful for family. At the same time, he sometimes questions why he’s been blessed with such a long life.
“One thing that bothers me about the whole thing is that here I’ve been through years of WWII and my brothers and sister were younger than me, and they’re all gone,” he said. “And I’m the only one left.”
Honor Flight Chicago is a nonprofit organization that raises money to create experiences for U.S. veterans. More information is available at www.honorflightchicago.org.