Nieghorn left legacy as veteran, benefactor of Christian education

Ernie Nieghorn was raised on a farm south of Jefferson City and was a member of the former Zion Lutheran Church. A veteran of World War II, he was known for the animated way in which he played the organ during church services and encouraged Christian education among children and youth. (Courtesy/St. John’s Lutheran Church)

The late Ernest "Ernie" Nieghorn lived a story that is a blend of tragedy, interesting historical moments and service to others.

A descendant of an early immigrant family, he was not averse to hard work, adored music, enjoyed reading the comforting words of the Bible and, despite experiencing the loss of his loved ones, helped to provide for the future education of Lutheran youth in the Stringtown area.

Born in Cole County in 1915, Nieghorn was raised on a small farm near the intersections of Route CC and U.S. Highway 54 south of Jefferson City. A small creek running through the property, the Nieghorn Branch, had been named for his great-grandfather Johann, a German immigrant who became an early member of Zion Lutheran Church.

"The Zion public school closed Friday, with one graduate, Ernest Nieghorn," reported the Jefferson City News Tribune on May 3, 1929.

Although completion of the eighth grade represented the termination of Nieghorn's formal education, he read voraciously and learned to play the piano and organ. As the years passed, he worked on his father's farm and gained a reputation as a capable pitcher while playing for several local baseball teams.

"I had heard that there was a professional baseball team that was scouting him at one point during his playing days," said Don Buchta, a local historian. "For some reason, he never decided to pursue it."

The year 1940 ushered in the first moment of misfortune for young Nieghorn when his mother, Eleonora, died from liver cancer when only 49 years old. She was laid to rest in the cemetery of Zion Lutheran Church.

Then came World War II, the beginning of a defining moment in Nieghorn's life. His younger brother, Gilbert, was inducted into the U.S. Army Air Corps early in the war and was reported missing after the fall of Corregidor in May 1942. The following month, Ernie was inducted into the U.S. Army and went on to train as an infantryman.

For the next year, Nieghorn embarked upon his own cycle of military training, uncertain whether his brother was still alive. In April 1943, Gilbert's status was changed from missing in action to that of casualty.

"Pvt. Ernest C. Nieghorn ... has returned to Camp Rucker, Ala., after spending a 10-day furlough here," explained the Sunday News and Tribune on Dec. 27, 1942.

Nieghorn was assigned to the 322nd Infantry Regiment, which was organized at Camp Rucker less than two weeks after his induction. According to the book "World War II Order of Battle," the regiment was under the 81st Division and conducted maneuvers in Tennessee prior to moving to California for additional training and overseas deployment.

The regiment departed San Francisco in June 1944 and arrived in Guadalcanal several weeks later. In September 1944, they participated in the assault on Anguar Island before moving on to Peleliu and New Caledonia, the latter location where Nieghorn's service came to a close.

"He told me that while he was in the service, he volunteered to play a portable organ for the chaplains during religious services," said the Rev. Warren Brandt, who came to know Nieghorn in later years. "Also, I recall him telling me that he was pulled off the front lines for awhile after he contracted some type of illness due to the unsanitary conditions."

According to his separation papers, Pfc. Nieghorn was sent back to the states and released from the Army at the Hospital Center at Camp Carson, Colorado, on May 28, 1945. At the time, his regiment was still stationed in the Philippines.

Returning to the Jefferson City area, Nieghorn purchased his father's property in 1946. His younger sister, Lydia, had been placed in an assisted living facility after the death of their mother years earlier since she required dedicated care because of a mental illness.

"He was a great musician and had a fun, silly personality," said Candace Stockton, a long-time member of Zion Lutheran Church. "He knew the Bible better than most ministers and taught very interesting Bible classes."

She continued, "He was the organist at Zion and was known for taking off his shoes to play the organ in his socks because he didn't want to get the foot pedals dirty. He was exceptionally talented and quite lively when he played music."

For many years, he worked for Arthur W. Ellis, a tire supply and repair company in Jefferson City that later became Ewers Tires. In the late 1970s, when the congregation of Zion Lutheran Church disbanded, Nieghorn transferred his membership to St. John's Lutheran Church in Stringown.

"I came to St. John's as pastor in 1985 and Ernie (Nieghorn) was already retired," Brandt said. "He had a special place in his heart for the children and would always have a sack of candy to hand out to them after church services."

Grinning, Brandt added, "I remember he filled in for the organist during one of our Reformation services and told me to be ready, because he was going to play the song 'A Mighty Fortress' and really 'open it up until the roof came off the place.'"

On Dec. 29, 1987, the 72-year-old Nieghorn died and was laid to rest in Zion Lutheran Cemetery, where generations of his family had attended services. His estate was left to the congregation of St. John's Lutheran Church in Stringtown and has provided resources and materials for the youths of the congregation.

"He never married or had any children of his own, but he has left quite a legacy and wanted to make sure the children in the congregation received a good Christian education," Brandt said.

In the fellowship hall at St. John's Lutheran Church, there hangs on the wall a handmade remembrance box containing the U.S. flag that draped Nieghorn's coffin, his military photograph and his brother's Purple Heart medal.

"Ernie was always smiling, friendly, told great stories and was well-read," Brandt said. "If you met him, you would never forget him."

Jeremy P. Ämick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.


Ernie Nieghorn was inducted into the U.S. Army in June 1942 at a time when his younger brother, Gilbert, was missing in action in the South Pacific. (Courtesy/St. John’s Lutheran Church)