Private Jack William Runkel
- Unit: 101st Airborne Division, 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment
- Service Number: 15098993
- Date of Birth: October 21, 1921
- Entered the Military: February 6, 1942
- Date of Death: June 6, 1944
- Hometown: Toledo, Ohio
- Place of Death: near St. Martin-de-Varreville, France
- Award(s): Purple Heart
- Cemetery: Plot C, Row 20, Grave 12. Normandy American Cemetery, Colleville-sur-Mer, France
Mentored by Mr. Andrew Screptock
Springfield High School
Jack William Runkel entered the world as the fifth child of his family on October 11, 1921. His mother and father, Pearl and Jake Runkel, had a total of six children who reached adulthood, making Jack the second youngest. His siblings were Guelda, Norma, Shirley, Lennis, and Dick.
During the Great Depression, the Runkel family moved from Wisconsin to Toledo, Ohio, where Jack’s father worked as a salesman to support his family. Jack did not work a paying job during his early teenage years; instead, he focused on his schooling. In addition to his schoolwork, Jack participated in the band during his four years at Thomas A. DeVilbiss High School from 1938 to 1941.
Tragedy struck the Runkel household on Christmas Eve, 1931; Jake Runkel passed away unexpectedly when Jack was only ten years old. Just a few years later, Jack’s mother, Pearl Runkel, passed away from cancer.
Faced with overwhelming grief, the Runkel children had to decide what was next for their family. After much contention, the family decided that the two youngest brothers, Jack and Dick, would move in with one of the two eldest sisters. Jack moved in with Guelda; Dick moved in with Norma. The unique circumstances that arose as a result of this family tragedy kept the family divided for the remainder of the Runkel siblings’ lives.
Family Legacy of Military Service
Private Runkel was not the first of his siblings to give their time and talents to military service. Before Jack’s enlistment, his older brother, Lennis, served in the Navy aboard the USS South Dakota.
Following Private Runkel’s enlistment, his younger brother, Dick, added to the family legacy of military service by enlisting and serving in the U.S. Navy. He served in the Pacific theater during World War II.
A City at War
By April 1, 1947, 42,200 men from Lucas County were drafted via selective service draft boards. One board in particular, Lucas County Board 22, registered more men than any other board in the state, 11,390 men. Before anything else, Toledo was a city fighting for its country.
Toledo, Ohio: America Loves its Jeep!
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the city of Toledo, Ohio transformed into a total war industry hub. Most of all, the city would make its contribution to freedom by being the largest producer of U.S. Army 4×4 Utility Trucks, a vehicle General Eisenhower referred to as, “indispensable to the war effort.”
Later on, the highly versatile vehicle adopted the name Jeep, slang for general purpose. Indeed, the Jeep served many purposes during World War II.
The Jeep towed machine guns, traversed through snow, was deployed at Omaha Beach on D-Day, pulled planes, could be converted into an ambulance, and was tough. The Willys-Overland Motors Plant in downtown Toledo churned out more than 368,000 of them during the war.
Industry and Victory Loan Bonds
Toledo produced a plethora of materials other than Jeeps during the war. Some of the city’s other industrial outputs included ships, ammunition, airplane propellers, and smoke-screen foggers. On June 1, 1945, the War Production Board announced that since December 1941, Toledo’s war output totaled $3,090,505,000.
Citizens of Toledo contributed to the fight for freedom by donating to war chests and other fundraisers. By December 21, 1946, the Ohio War Finance Committee reported that Victory Loan Bond sales totaled $131,439,000 in Lucas County and 19 other surrounding counties.
On February 6, 1942, Jack Runkel enlisted into the U.S. Army, officially becoming Private Runkel. He was first stationed at Fort Benjamin Harrison, located near the northeastern outskirts of Indianapolis, Indiana. Here, he likely completed basic training until he was sent to Fort Benning, Georgia.
At Fort Benning, Runkel joined with the rest of Baker company of the 502nd Parachute Infantry Battalion just one month before it became the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment. He trained here briefly before he was sent to Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
While stationed at Fort Bragg, the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment united with other regiments, and the 101st Airborne Division was officially declared a part of the U.S. Army for the first time since World War I on August 15, 1942. Runkel probably participated in numerous practice parachute landings at Fort Bragg.
On September 4, 1943, Runkel boarded the SS Strathnaver, embarking toward a world unimaginably far away from home. This was his final day on U.S. soil.
Preparing for D-Day
While in England, Runkel and the rest of his regiment stayed in two neighboring villages near the city of Berkshire. Combat exercises were rigorous. This was Runkel’s location for about seven months.
The 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment had two main objectives, both of which were inland from Utah Beach. One was to secure two causeways for the 4th Infantry Division to have a path away from the beach; the second was to destroy an artillery battery near Ste. Martin-de-Varreville that posed a huge threat to the Allied seaborne landings.
For the purposes of the operation, the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment was divided into three battalions. All three battalions were supposed to drop at Drop Zone A, just inland from the beach and near the village of St. Martin-de-Varreville; however, none of the paratrooper drops were simultaneously precise and accurate.
After reorganizing from scattered drop, the regiment accomplished their missions. Unfortunately, Runkel did not survive long enough to see this happen. He was killed in action on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
Private Jack William Runkel was born on October 11, 1921 in Toledo, Ohio. 22 years, seven months, and 26 days later, he gave his life while parachuting into France prior to the Normandy landings on June 6, 1944. His journey to this ultimate act of sacrifice was far from immaculate, and at times, was tragic. The cross that stands over Private Runkel’s grave serves as a reminder of how young men, like Private Runkel, did not cower in the face of adversity, but instead, actively assumed duty during total world war, risking and giving their lives as a result.
Private Runkel never had the opportunity to see the fruit of his labor. The 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment’s mission of securing two causeways and destroying a German artillery battery were accomplished days after his death. What is so inspiring about Private Runkel’s story is not what he did or did not accomplish on the battlefield; it is that he had the courage to risk his life for a just cause despite everything he had already endured.
Stories like his with no illustrious outward appearance are much more than they seem. Heroes like Private Runkel who embraced their duty even after unspeakable tragedy deserve to be honored and remembered for their extraordinary contributions to the fight for world freedom. These heroes were not simply serial numbers; they were human beings with their own families, interests, talents, and, most of all, stories. Private Runkel’s story is one that I will never forget, and with deepest sincerity, I say, Private Jack William Runkel, thank you for your service and for your sacrifice.
It is easy to think of World War II and the Normandy campaign as a numbers exercise. The operations were indeed massive, and pondering about the lives lost seems powerful enough. However, after researching a man and seeing the depth of what these heroes sacrificed for mankind, we now have a better understanding of the cost of our freedom.
Apart from our day at Normandy American Cemetery, one of the most powerful moments of the Institute was arriving at the first beach we visited–Utah. Pictures simply do not convey what these men were up against: hundreds of yards of beach with absolutely no cover, most of them carrying upwards of seventy pounds on their back. To see the machine gun nests staring directly at the shoreline was to see the courage it took for every single man that morning to face impending death.
It was truly an honor of a lifetime to research the life of Jack William Runkel. Not only did we learn about his background and military service, we helped fill a void that has existed in the Runkel family since his premature death. With the rift in the family between the eldest sisters, the war happening, and siblings moving to different places in the U.S. after the war, much of Jack’s story did not get passed down to the current generation of Runkels. To the best of our knowledge, no one in the Runkel family had been to Jack’s grave prior to our visit on June 26, 2018. In a sense, we were carrying with us several decades’ worth of grief and respect from the family. We were grateful to be the first to give Private Jack William Runkel a proper eulogy and honor his sacrifice, but we were also grateful to help bring some closure to the Runkel family.
Lastly, this site would not be complete if proper recognition were not given to Mr. Albert H. Small for so generously funding our historical journey of a lifetime. We would also like to sincerely thank the staff at National History Day and the professors at George Washington University for allowing this Institute to happen.
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Runkel, Mike. Telephone Interview by Joshua Fox and Andrew Screptock. April 2018.
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Runkel Family Photographs. 1930-1950. Courtesy of Patty Runkel Burns.
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