Advice on self-improvement stayed with combat veteran for a lifetime

By LOU MICHEL | The Buffalo News, N.Y. | Published: February 24, 2014

BUFFALO, N.Y. — As a young man, John Ellerton worked at a bank performing clerical duties, but he felt he could do better for himself and marched off to a state employment office.

There, he looked across the desk at the employment counselor, an older, white-haired woman. She asked, “What is your main goal in life?”

Without hesitation, Ellerton answered, “Well, I want security.”

Ellerton, now 90, says he never forgot her answer:

“The only security you get in life is your own self-development.”

She then gave him a job lead for office manager at a National Cash Register branch. He was hired, but about two years later, Uncle Sam informed him that his services were required elsewhere.

There was just one problem: Ellerton had been raised in a strict religious home where the Ten Commandments were taken seriously, particularly “Thou shall not kill.”

He considered seeking conscientious-objector status, but Ellerton first consulted the Bible, opening up to the Old Testament and reading about the battles fought by the Israelites to survive. That, he says, broadened his perspective, and he became a soldier.

After scoring high on an aptitude test, he was sent to the University of Florida to take courses to become an Army engineer, but the overwhelming need for replacement infantrymen ended his studies and he was assigned to Gen. George S. Patton Jr.’s 3rd Army.

“I traveled over to Europe with 42,000 soldiers on the Queen Elizabeth,” Ellerton recalls. “They had taken all the furniture out of the ship and put thin plasterboard covering over all the walls.

“The ship constantly changed course so that it would avoid being targeted by German submarines, and, in fact, we never saw one.”

Once the Allied forces secured Normandy, Ellerton says, he and others were assigned to guarding a submarine base along the coast of France that had been built by the Germans. After that, they joined other troops in the pivotal Battle of the Bulge. Brutal winter weather, he says, often stymied tanks and other artillery.

“There was no way we could move the cannons we were assigned to because of all the ice. Even the tanks couldn’t get traction. Eventually, it was straightened around,” says Ellerton, who would rather downplay the blood and gore of war, which did not spare him.

During the battle, a German artillery round landed not far from his cannon and unleashed a spray of shrapnel.

“I got some shrapnel embedded in my leg, and it disabled me,” he says. “I don’t remember how I got to the field hospital, but I’ll tell you: Those medics had a lot of guts, and they got me there, and that’s how I got a Purple Heart.”

Ten days later, Ellerton returned to his unit and continued the march to Germany.

“We had to cross the Saar River, and the Germans had blown up all the bridges. It was quite a wide river. That’s where the engineers came in, and they assembled pontoon bridges away from river,” Ellerton recalls. “Before we pushed the pontoons into the river, we had lined up walls of artillery, all of our guns, hub to hub. There was a complete line, and a barrage started at 3 in the morning to soften the enemy.”

At daylight, the engineers finished the job, and pontoon and footbridges were in place.

“As the tanks started up the hill from the river, they were interspersed with infantrymen walking between them, but the Germans were nowhere in sight,” Ellerton says of the last great push he participated in during the war.

And as peace swept over Europe in May 1945, he says, he could not help but notice the cordial relations between American and German soldiers.

It amazed him, he says, at how hostilities had suddenly vanished.

Back in the United States, he resumed his job with National Cash Register as an office manager but quickly started working his way up the sales force ladder, often traveling across the country.

“I was available for use by the regional branches when they had deals that required specific assistance,” Ellerton says of his 54-year career with the company. “I never went to college, but I had experiences, and I benefited by those experiences. I put them away in my mind for future reference.”

And, of course, there was the advice he took to heart so early in life from the state job counselor before he was summoned to war:

“The only security you get in life is your own self-development.”

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