A Memorial Day Tribute…

by Diana Mavetz Petrich
A day to say thank you, but it doesn’t seem like enough.
Several years ago, while cleaning out my parent’s basement with my sister Janice, I came across a letter addressed to my mother from my Dad’s older sister Mary Mavetz Rudnick Lobe. She asked if my mother wanted the January 15, 1945 copy of Life Magazine with Johnny’s (my father’s) picture in it. I had never heard anything about this before. I took the letter upstairs and asked my mother what Mary was talking about.
Mom disappeared into her bedroom and came out about 10 minutes later with a large manila envelope. She pulled out a dogeared copy of the now-defunct magazine. There was a yellowed piece of paper that marked Page 21. I turned to that page to see a full-size photo of three soldiers – you can only see hands, shovels, legs and boots of two soldiers digging out a comrade that was buried. It is clear the buried soldier was deceased - his hand clenched with a handful of dirt. She pointed to the soldier in the forefront – just a soldier’s boots and legs with a shovel in hand and said, “That is your father.”
Life Magazine was a large publication. It measures 14” tall and is 10.5” wide. This photo covers the entire page with the exception of two tiny photo caption lines. I swear the old English proverb, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” was written specifically for images such as this.
I asked her to explain more and she continued on that The Battle of the Bulge, also known as the Ardennes Counteroffensive, was the last major German offensive campaign on the Western Front.
It was December 17, 1944 - my Father’s 23rd birthday. He was a member of the 68th Medical Regiment and his unit was under heavy artillery fire from the Germans. They were making their way up a huge embankment – the weather was miserable - cold, snowy and wet. My father slipped and fell to his knees as he was moving up the hill. An artillery shell whisked over his head and skimmed the top of his helmet. The shell exploded behind him and his Captain was killed in action.
The caption on the photo says they were in a ditch when a bomb burst next to them. My mom said it was not true as my father told her what really happened. He was consumed with guilt because he thought he should have been killed rather than his captain. My father held his captain in the utmost regard and said he never got over the loss of such a wonderful soldier, man and father to young children. My mother said that my dad never looked at this photo as the memories of that day were too painful.
My dad very seldom talked of the war – I guessed it dug up too many painful memories. There was no label of PTSD in those days - just “shell shock.” He shared only a handful of stories about his time as a soldier – usually when I was helping him bottle beer.
When I was probably 11 or 12 years old I was looking in his workbench for more bottle caps and I discovered a strange brass object and asked what it was. He explained it was a trench art ashtray. Trench art was a phrase coined during the WWI era and are objects made from the debris and by-products of modern warfare – spent casings and artillery mostly. Most trench art was made by servicemen to pass the time when not on the front line.
He explained it was constructed from a 105mm brass shell casing made by a comrade. This was one of the few items that made its way back to Ely and wasn’t confiscated or stolen in the mail.
He told me when his unit returned to the states at the final lineup, his commanding officer reminded them the war was over. It was time to pick themselves up by their bootstraps, go home and resume their lives as they knew it. They were then dismissed, but he said he stood there for he didn’t know how long staring down at his boots. He said he couldn’t move his feet – he felt like his boots were cemented into the pavement.
He remembered wondering how he was to do what his commander told them to do. He was a little more than a month shy of his 25th birthday. How could he forget all the horror he saw and did?
One of his jobs was to gather body parts so a full body could be buried. After one battle, he walked by a bunch of bushes draped with entrails from a soldier. He walked by the bushes and using his hand like a rake, grabbed a bunch of the human remains and stuffed them in a bag. He said you never forget the smell of death.
I never would ask about his experiences because of what I heard in his voice and saw in his eyes. It spoke volumes of his pain and agony during his time in the military. As young as I was, I knew it was very hard for him to relive these memories.
My grandma Frances Mavetz sent three of her four sons off to WWII. These three were the last of her 12 babies. My aunt Rose Mavetz Pluth told me when grandma would get any letter from her boys, she would store them in her apron and sit at the kitchen table and get help to read them and cry. The only way of communicating with her sons was through these occasional letters. If they were on a special mission, the letter would show up in pieces – parts cut out to not disclose where they were at the time the letter was written. She watched as friends received telegrams delivering heartbreaking news that their child was killed or missing in action. She prayed she would never be the recipient of one. She was a proud mother of three soldier sons, but the worrying she did wrought havoc on her both physically and mentally.
The first one to leave for the war was Frank aka “Totsy.” He was inducted into the Army on February 2, 1942 in Ely. He served as a Sergeant and infantry squad leader with the 21st Infantry Regiment of the 24th Infantry Division and 5th Army in Hollandia, New Guinea; Panoan Island, Leyte, Mindoro, and Mindinao, Philippines in the Pacific.
He was wounded in action twice, on May 5 and on June 12, 1945 in Mindinao, Philippines. “Never had a furlough in 44 months, only a four-day pass to Honolulu,” he said in an interview several years later.
He wrote, actually hand wrote, his memoirs in a book, “Called to the Colors,” in 1988.
He was such a seasoned, soldier with great gun skills and even though he was badly wounded, they would not release him to go home. He contracted malaria and lived the rest of his life with a large piece of shrapnel in his chest. He was sent back to fight again and was awarded: Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, and Philippine Liberation Medal.
Frances’ second to the youngest son, my father John, entered the Army on Aug. 20, 1942 in Ely. He served as a Technician Fourth Grade and a Medical Technician in Company A, 166th Engineer Combat Battalion. He served in Normandy, Northern France, Rhineland, Ardennes and Central Europe. He was awarded: European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with five bronze battle stars. He was honorably discharged November 6, 1945.
Her youngest son, Louis aka “Swede” entered the Army in July 1943 in Ely. He served as Corporal, 6th Army – 399th Depot Company assigned to guard German POWS in Camp Carson, Colorado. In 1945, he went to the Luzon Islands in the Philippines with the 399th Engineer Battalion providing depot supplies to the troops. He was honorably discharged in February 1946.
Going through my father’s photos I came upon a few that said on the back, “Johnny leaving on bus”. I figured it out that it was August 20, 1942 – the day my father was leaving for the war. There were many Ely “boys” in the pictures on the steps of the Ely City Hall building. Perhaps some of them thought of it as an opportunity to leave the small town and see something grand, but mostly to do their patriotic duty. They had no idea what they were headed off to do or worse whether they would ever return.
Ely, Minnesota is known to have had the highest number of enlisted soldiers per capita than any other city in the United States. If true, just one more reason to make us proud of our hometown.
On this Memorial Day 2020, I am strongly reminded this isn’t the start of the summer marked by a long weekend. Rather it is a day to honor the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military.
The phrase, “All gave some; some gave all,” was attributed to the Korean War veteran and purple heart recipient Howard Osterkamp from Dent, Ohio. I think we can all agree this statement can be applied to every American soldier in every war who laid down their life for the freedom we enjoy every day.
We will never know the stories from all the veterans.
For those veterans who have passed to the next realm, their stories sleep with them forever.
You can usually spot a veteran proudly wearing a hat, t-shirt, jacket, license plate, bumper sticker, etc. I will always thank them for their service but go the extra step to engage in a conversation to express my gratitude. If they are wearing apparel or advertising their involvement in the military, it is a safe gamble they are willing to talk about their service. The private veterans will not want to discuss their military involvement, but if I do know they are a brave veteran, a simple thank you is met with a nod or murmured thanks.
I’ve heard people disagree with the statement that my father’s generation should not be called, “The Greatest Generation,” as they argue that every generation is great.
Of course, each generation has its strong qualities and we should give credit where credit is due, however, my parent’s generation was something very unique. They were raised during the Depression with very little, yet found every reason to make things work rather than find every reason why they won’t.
They were strong, proud, resilient men and women who worked together and fought whether in the military or as civilians to achieve success as a strong nation or as the Pledge of Allegiance states: “One nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” Whether on foreign soil or domestic, all efforts went behind fighting for the good of the world. If D-Day hadn’t gone the way it was planned, we would probably be eating sauerkraut at every meal. Funny, but not funny.
I was in France in 2011 and left my travel mates in Paris, boarded a train for a solo voyage to the Normandy region of France – most notably Omaha, Juno and Utah beaches. My father arrived on Omaha Beach about ten days after the invasion to use his talents as a medic to care for the wounded. His unit was ordered to push south toward Paris and help the French people and wounded Allied casualties. They were ordered to not dispense any medical help to any “Gerry,” a nickname for German soldiers, if they were wounded or alive. Rather their orders were quite the opposite.
My father never answered the question if he had to end the life of anyone. The look in his eyes after I posed the question to him went unanswered and in a way, I was glad he didn’t. I did hear him say to one of my uncles that he had to pass up an injured German soldier and he still heard his cries in many nightmares. The statement, “Kill or be killed” meant a harsh reality and tough choices for many of these young men.
My father always talked about taking my mother to France. He fell in love with the country and its people. That dream was never realized for them, so I filled a small prescription bottle with sand from Omaha Beach. I also picked up a few stones and carried them back to his grave at the Ely Cemetery. He never got to go back to France, so I brought the beach to him.
We can never forget what these people did for us and our freedom. I am honored to be the daughter and niece of these three brave countrymen. They risked their lives and struggled with awful memories that changed who they were for the rest of their lives. May God Bless America and our glorious veterans!