When a French woman unearthed a gold military ring while digging in her garden two years ago, little did she know it would help ease more than four decades of troubled memories for one Utah war hero.
Elbert Eppersen, a Salt Lake native who now lives in Brigham City, was reunited in an emotional ceremony with his West Point graduation ring this past August - 44 years after having been wounded by shellfire on a French battlefield.The Germans were stiffly defending the western corner of France on Aug. 14, 1944, when the 8th Infantry Division made heavy contact with them.
Eppersen, then a second lieutenant and mortar platoon leader, was standing next to Capt. Don K. Sanders, his friend and a rifle company commander, when a German tank shell hit - temporarily blinding Eppersen and killing Sanders.
Eppersen and three other wounded Americans made their way to a small rock building and hid inside for four days while fighting raged around them, destroying 80 percent of the town of Pleurtuit. Most of the German regiment was killed and more than 400 Americans were killed and 1,200 wounded during the four days.
Eppersen was evacuated to a nearby aid station in Tremereuc. There the ring apparently slipped off his finger. After the war, a house was built on the site of the aid station and the ring remained hidden until Aug. 22, 1986, when the woman of the house, a Mme. Breal, reached back into history.
While pulling carrots, and brushing aside some leaves, she saw what she thought to be a beer cap buried in the ground. She brushed it clean and discovered it was a large gold ring decorated with a garnet.
A closer inspection revealed the inscription, "WEST POINT, 1943." A jeweler cleaned the ring and discovered the name of Elbert Eppersen inscribed inside.
Breal's husband asked his brother, a Parisian, to contact the U.S. Embassy in an effort to locate Eppersen. But as reported by the local French newspaper, those efforts were disregarded by the American Embassy personnel and the Frenchman became discouraged. The embassy offered only the address of West Point.
To the French, who have taken great pains since the war to honor both French and American war dead, the thoughtlessness of the embassy personnel was inconceivable. The Breals put the ring in a box.
Two years ago, during the town's annual observance of the Battle of Pleurtuit, a retired U.S. Army colonel was in attendance and learned of the ring. He had no trouble looking up Eppersen and phoned him about the discovery in the Breal garden.
Eppersen was invited to Pleurtuit for the annual remembrance, and while there was given his ring by Mme. Breal's 7-year-old daughter, Floriane, during a ceremony in which Floriane read a poem about the battle, the lost ring and the gratitude of the villagers for the sacrifices of the Americans.
During his week's stay in Pleurtuit, Eppersen found the townspeople to be as charming and gracious as in 1944.
"The people were terrific. They insisted that I stay in their homes. We had a banquet every night with French and American flags on the tables," he said. "They were amazingly hospitable, saying they wanted Americans to have good memories of France _ as well as of combat."
Although the rigors of combat, the loss of his friends and his injuries have stayed with him over the decades, there were also the good times in that summer of 1944. "Once Sandy and I went to get haircuts in a village, then we went to a small restaurant afterward. The owner saw us and got a bottle of wine he said he was saving for the first Americans he saw. He brought his wife and daughter in and we had a couple of sandwiches and a glass of wine with them."
Out front was a motorcycle and sidecar the Germans had left behind. "As we came out, four little boys were sitting on it. I talked to them in French, then I said, `Let's sing the Le Marseillaise' and they said, `No, it is forbidden by the Germans.' I said the Germans are not here now and we sung it. As we finished, I looked up and down the block and there were French men and women and children outside yelling `Vive l'Americain.' It was the first time they had heard their national anthem since the Germans came, and it was amazing to hear it sung by an American."
Although the return of the ring was a memorable occasion for Eppersen, he was particularly pleased by the presentation of Sanders' dog tag by a Frenchman who removed it from his corpse. "The man had taken only one of the tags, otherwise Sandy would have ended up as an unknown soldier," Eppersen said.
"I asked him why he did it, and he said, `I don't know, I just felt like I should do it.' Then he just put it in a drawer and forgot about it until he read the newspaper account of my ring. He came up to me with the tag and asked if I knew this man. It was almost like he was guided to do it."