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World War II veteran turns 100; family learns he is an American hero

MCCORDSVILLE, Ind. (WISH) — If Tom Ecoff could be described as one thing, it’s a family man.

“Dad made us feel like we had a Cinderella life,” Tom’s daughter Denise said.

Now 100 years old, Tom has amassed quite the family. He has four kids, several grandkids and great-grandkids.

(There was) “excitement when we got to spend time together because he just made us smile,” Tom’s granddaughter Jessica said.

It wasn’t until recently they learned that he’s also a true American hero.

“Growing up, I knew he was in World War II, but that was about it,” Jessica said.

At 19 years old, Tom decided he was going to enlist and join the fight in World War II. Originally, Tom wanted to fly planes, but he was declared colorblind. That’s when a friend came up with a plan.

“He said, ‘I got an idea, you want to go along with me?’ I said, ‘What’s the idea?’ Well, we’ll go up in the airplane, we’ll fly, OK? The big problem is you have to jump out, so we joined the 82nd Airborne,” Ecoff said.

He trained at Fort Benning in Georgia. It took about a year, and then they got the call. His first major mission was June 6, 1944. That’s D-Day, the day the Allies invaded Western Europe in World War II.

“One-thirty in the morning, I jumped, D-Day. We jumped at 785 feet. The flank was heavy coming over the channel approaching the French shores. As we flew in and I jumped, tracer bullets from the ground came up at us, and that’s the only way my mind accepted the fact that this wasn’t training, this was actually combat. These guys wanted to kill you, so we returned the favor,” Ecoff said.

His time in service is akin to something from a movie. A near-death experience earned him the Bronze Star.

“I had two men standing upright firing from one end into the next hedgerow, and getting return fire. Both of them were shot,” Ecoff said.

Ecoff ran out into gunfire and pulled the first soldier out of harm’s way. Then he went back out and got the second soldier. When Tom peaked out to assess the situation he hit the ground.

“‘Are you OK?’ He told me three times: ‘Are you alright, are you alright?’ I said, ‘What’s the deal? In your helmet there is a liner made of light material. The bullet I received came through the front, and it was high enough to follow the contour of the helmet and came out the back,” Ecoff said.

Ecoff’s awards don’t stop there, he is also a Purple Heart recipient after surviving a grenade explosion.

“When you hit a trip wire on the ground it released that and it came up off the ground about 3½, 4 feet. They called it bouncing Betty. Then it exploded. I had just passed that when it exploded. I was out of commission about 30 days,” Ecoff said.

Ecoff had nine pieces of shrapnel stuck in his back that the doctors couldn’t remove during the war. They advised him not to jump anymore because if they moved, it could paralyze him, but Ecoff was fighting for something bigger than himself.

“I couldn’t leave my buddies I had been with for years through all that training. If it was going to happen, it was just going to happen,” Ecoff said.

Tom continued to jump, taking part in the Battle of the Bulge, but for Ecoff, the stories and awards don’t erase the hardships of war.

“War is a terrible thing. Nobody wins. I felt I had committed a crime when I took another life, but when the bullets are wheezing by and you see your buddies falling, your mind changes, and you want to get that guy back,” Ecoff said.

After the war, Tom returned home to Indiana where he started his own trucking company. He did that for 27 years before closing the company. He’s built an amazing life beyond his heroism. If you ask Tom what he’s most proud of in his life, it’s probably not the Purple Heart.

“I live every day for my family. That’s the reason I’m here. If I didn’t have them, life would not be interesting enough to continue on. I give them all the credit for my hundred years. Bless their hearts,” Ecoff said.