The incredible life of Capt. Darrell Eichhoff
After harrowing WWII bomber missions and awards, Capt. Eichhoff’s focus is caring for his wife.
Nov. 11, 2014
Capt. Darrell Eichhoff has never turned down a challenge.
As a 1943 MU Army ROTC graduate and veteran of World War II, he always puts his best foot forward and said he does not take “no” for an answer. On Nov. 1, Eichhoff was inducted into the MU ROTC Hall of Fame, along with nine other veterans.
Eichhoff was born on a farm in Oklahoma and moved to Missouri when he was 4-years-old. After only a few weeks in first grade, his teachers moved him up to the second grade due to his advanced reading level. He also took the seventh and eighth grades simultaneously.
As a young child, Eichhoff dreamed of being a pilot.
“From the time I was about nine years of age, I wanted to be a pilot,” Eichhoff said. “We had a small airport about a half a mile from our farm, and every time a plane would land down there, I’d run down there.”
As he grew older, he strived to find the perfect future career. When he graduated high school, he decided to attend MU.
“I knew I wanted to go to college from the time I was about 8, 9 or 10,” Eichhoff said. “There wasn’t a doubt in my mind. It was just a matter of raising the money for it.”
At MU, Eichhoff continued to search for the perfect career. His adviser suggested that life insurance sales would be a good fit for him because he would be able to work for himself.
While in college, Eichhoff served on the Board of Trustees at Christian Female College, now known as Columbia College. He also met his wife, Corinne, after seeing her at a Christian Female College dance.
Eichhoff graduated from MU at 19-years-old. He originally planned to attend law school after graduation, but the Pearl Harbor attacks altered his path.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Eichhoff decided to enlist in the Air Force and serve in WWII. Due to an influx of volunteers and very few aviation schools in the Midwest, active duty was often delayed for service members.
However, due to an excellent performance, Eichhoff was able to leave for Michigan State University’s aviation school after only five weeks, instead of waiting up to five months.
Living out his childhood dream of being a pilot on the dark backdrop of war, Eichhoff quickly rose to the top of his flight class. The instructor who administered his final flight exam told Eichhoff it was the best test flight he had seen so far. Eichhoff asked the instructor to recommend him for B-26 bomber training, which his instructor gladly did.
During his service, Eichhoff became a Captain in the Air Force and flew nearly 40 missions and received seven Air Medals, the Distinguished Flying Cross and a Presidential Citation for his service.
While serving overseas, Eichhoff wrote letters back and forth with his family and Corinne, who was by then his fiancee.
Eichhoff had several close calls during his service in the Air Force. During one flight, his plane obtained 104 bullet holes, but he managed to return safely.
His most memorable mission, he said, involved losing an engine. The crew had to drop the bombs out of their plane because they only had one engine. They flew almost two hours back to their base and asked for an emergency landing. However, another plane pulled onto the runway without being cleared first.
“The operator screamed at me to go around. Otherwise, I would hit the plane,” Eichhoff said. “And I went around. The amazing part about that was they didn’t think you could go around on one engine. Some way or another, we made it.”
After Germany surrendered, getting all the U.S. service members home was no easy task. A point system based on each individual’s service was devised to decide when service members were sent home. Luckily for Eichhoff, he had earned enough points to return to the U.S. relatively quickly and turned down the offer of a promotion to major should he stay abroad longer.
Eichhoff came back with around $17,000, a lot at the time. He won the money in poker games his unit played. He used the money to get married, go on a six-week honeymoon and buy a car. In addition, the money meant he and Corinne did not have to buy anything on credit.
After his honeymoon, Eichhoff decided to pursue a career as a life insurance salesman. He was met with hesitance because of his young age but convinced Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (Metlife) to hire him in a transitional position.
“(I asked the interviewer) how many people had he interviewed that had graduated from high school at 15, gotten their business degree from college at 19, served three years in the Air Force, got 40 missions and was a flight commander in charge of 600 officers enlisted there and was still 22,” Eichhoff said. “Had he ever interviewed anyone like that? And he admitted he hadn’t.”
After half a year with Metlife, he became a salesman. Eventually, he worked his way up to executive vice president, where he was in charge of around 45,000 employees.
Now retired and living in California, Eichhoff’s life revolves around Corinne. They celebrated their 69th wedding anniversary Oct. 27.
Corinne has suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for the past 10 years and was recently moved into assisted living. Dealing with Corinne’s illness has been hard for Eichhoff and his three daughters, Kim Belgarde, Sue and Gay.
“It was very hard for him, I think,” Belgarde said. “He wouldn’t say so, but I think we all worried about him.”
Doctors suggested Eichhoff consider assisted living around four years ago. He only succeeded around two months ago because he has a bad knee and can no longer care for her. However, Eichhoff is living next door to the assisted living facility and visits Corinne every day.
“He’s always wanted to care for her until her last day or until his,” Belgarde said.
Eichhoff keeps busy with his love for reading. He said he reads The Wall Street Journal, the San Diego Union Tribune and 22 magazines a month, and regularly uses his library card. He said he strongly believes that everyone should read.
“I read without glasses,” Eichhoff said. “I still have 20/20 vision at 91.”
Because he is so dedicated to caring for his wife, Eichhoff decided not to attend his Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
"I haven't left her for ten years, so I can't leave her for this,” Eichhoff said. “If she didn't have Alzheimer's, I would probably (attend)."
Although Eichhoff is proud of his accomplishments during WWII, they are only one piece of life.
“To be honest, he did not talk about it much when I was a child,” Belgarde said. “It was only when (we) were older and expressed some interest that he began to tell us stories.”
Eichhoff firmly believes the two most important decisions people make in their lives are their career path and their significant other. Looking back on his life, Eichhoff said he would not change the choices he made.