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Through It All by God’s Grace…

by Diana Mavetz Petrich

The unofficial beginning of summer every year is marked by Memorial Day weekend. Unfortunately, most have been led to believe that this most important holiday is just that…the beginning of swimming and barbecue season.

Memorial Day is an American holiday that is observed on the last Monday of May. It was set aside to honor the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day and originated in the years following the Civil War. In 1971, this day became an official federal holiday. The holiday this year is Monday, May 29, 2023.

Several years ago, I met a Pearl Harbor survivor. I wish I had committed his name to memory, but I did not. He said it was painful and a clear sign that people don’t understand the true meaning of Memorial Day, which is a day that was set aside for the real heroes. He said he’ll gladly accept a nod and a thank you on Veteran’s Day, which is celebrated on November 11. That is the day for thanks and accolades to be showered on living veterans.

As a youngster, I remember hearing the phrase, “All gave some, some gave all.” I was curious as to where this originated, so I did a little research as it is the most popular phrase spoken on Memorial Day. The phrase is mainly related to the United States military members wounded or killed in action.

This saying was attributed to the Korean War veteran and purple heart recipient Howard William Osterkamp from Dent, OH. He served in the Army from 1951-1953, during which he experienced heavy combat in Korea with his unit. Six little words strung together speak volumes.

On August 20, 1942, two enlisted young men from rural Embarrass, MN and Ely, MN were called to active duty at Fort Snelling, MN. These two men had not known each other before they volunteered their lives to serve their country.

The two young men I am writing about are Robert Warren Mattson and my father, John Frank Mavetz. Both men were 21 years old and first-generation Americans born of immigrants – Bob, a Finnish/Swede and John, a son born of two Slovenians. They heard the stories of the toils and tribulations their parents dealt with living under dictatorships and Communist regimes in their countries of origin.

Living about 20 miles from each other while growing up, they might as well have lived half a world away from each other because 20 miles was a long distance in those days.

They met at Fort Snelling in Minnesota after they bravely enlisted to fight a war brewing in countries far away from their beloved northern Minnesota homes.

These men would probably never have seen or visited the countries where the war battles were fought had it not been for a world war. Their medic training began at Camp Forrest near Tullahoma, Tennessee. Their training was rigorous and demanding physically and mentally. Neither my father nor Bob had had any medical training before the war.

They practiced maneuvers and pre-combat simulations to prepare for the unknown. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain said, “How horrible, how fantastic, how incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing” – 1938. Bob Mattson and John Mavetz lived that truth.

They had no idea what they were signed up to experience and that was probably for the best. Americans, in this time period, were seemingly more proud people and ready to stand up to the world to support their great country -- unequalled to any other place on the globe.

The title of this column is from a book written by Bob Mattson and published in 2012.  Unfortunately, Bob passed away in 2011 and did not see the fruits of his labor come to fruition. Thanks to his family for completing this important project for Bob and all of us who had a loved one by Bob’s side.

Shortly after the book was published, my mother received a copy of it in the mail – compliments of the Mattson family. Oh, how surprised were we to see my father front center on the cover standing next to Bob Mattson and their captain, Roger Stone, who was killed in front of his platoon at the Battle of the Bulge.

Bob and John were trained as medics and supported the troops that fought valiantly on the battlefields.  The medics saw incredible carnage that haunted them until they passed. Their job was important as they offered medical support needed immediately after engaged conflict with the enemy. They were trained to pick up the pieces and offer lifesaving medical attention.

Even though it took Bob many years to write down his memories, as the daughter of one who served beside him, it is wonderful to get a glimpse of what they experienced. My father was very quiet about his experiences in his service. Only a few years ago did I start to understand why that was the case. For him, it was much easier to continue moving forward when he didn’t put the pain of the past in front of him.

The 68th Medical Regiment soldiers received five bronze stars to commemorate their presence and service during five battles in the European Theatre. These included the Battles of Normandy, Northern France, Rhineland, Ardennes, and Central Europe.

I had asked my father about Normandy once and he didn’t answer me. I found out something in Bob’s book that may have given me the answer as to why. On June 6, 1944, they were awakened by loud sounds. The attack by the United States and Allies on France was not announced beforehand due to the importance of the surprise attack being planned on the Nazi forces that had a stronghold there.

They were informed that the United States Air Force was headed for France for the now infamous D-Day attacks. They ate their breakfast and packed their duffle bags and their backpacks. They were loaded into six-by-six Army trucks and learned they were heading for the embarkation point at South Hampton, England.

They loaded into their landing craft and their Captain told them they had been chosen to embark because they were the “best-trained medics in the army.” Their mission was to go with the first wave to Omaha Beach in Normandy. He followed his speech by distributing copies of a letter from General Eisenhower.

As they began their travel into the English Channel, the water became extremely rough with a strong wind blowing a powerful spray on them. The wild waves tossed their craft with great force and water hurled over the bow.

Bob wrote that God must have heard their prayers, for in the midst of this fierce storm, another similar craft like theirs was rammed and knocked out their propeller and steering mechanism thus delaying their travel. A maintenance crew from an emergency ship repaired their craft, but by the time it was finished, it was too late to continue on with the first wave counterparts.

History doesn’t lie and the death toll of the first wave of U.S. and Allied soldiers was high in count. (The death toll from the June 6th D-Day attack ended in 2,501 Americans losing their lives.) Bob, John, and their group of medics, because of their craft being damaged, did not show up on Omaha Beach until June 8, 1944, and by that time the army had already penetrated inland several miles.

After learning what happened to these men in their watercraft, it led me to wonder if my father felt he maybe let down his comrades and many died, and his life was spared. Perhaps he felt guilt and sadness and talking about it would have only brought back pain and feelings he chose to tuck away where they belonged – in the past. I’ll never know the answer to my questions – at least while I’m still here.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower was right when he told the troops to write down everything they did and the events they experienced. He warned them to record every bit in every way possible, “because somewhere down the track of history some…will get up and say that this never happened.”

As we have seen American History being erased in front of our eyes in the past few years, it’s almost like General Eisenhower “Ike,” could read into the future. As Bob stated in his book, “Ike” was a good commanding officer. In England, he said 80 percent of the men would not come back from D-Day, and that pretty much came to pass.”

I met with Bob Mattson’s son, Dr. Rob Mattson, Chiropractic Sports Physician in Ely. He owns and operates the Ely Chiropractic Clinic on Chapman Street since 1995. I put two and two together that he might possibly be the son of Bob so I was introduced to him and set up a meeting so we could discuss our fathers. I discovered he played Legion baseball in Ely years ago with my brother, John, who is also named after his father.

We had a delightful meeting and I shared photos my dad had taken and had put in an overstuffed photo album. Rob explained to me the meaning behind our father’s 60th Medical Regiment – Company D emblem with the words, “Conserve Power.”

I had never noticed it had words in the emblem as I actually never really looked at it to see any of the detail. As Bob explained in his book, the emblem visibly proclaims those two words, which are meant to keep everyone alive! Their mission was successful and thoroughly exercised every day they served.

Bob and Jeanette raised seven children in a devout Christian home. God was truly the center of their lives as it was in my family. The title of his book is truly well named as I believe these men were preserved to return to their families and to have families of their own.

Bob writes that “God had a hand in all of it – from my induction to my discharge. He was there as we sailed to England on the Aquitania. He was there with me in every battle in Europe. He was there in the Atlantic Ocean—full of German submarines (U-boats) – but we were never attacked. He was there when we crossed the rough waters of the English Channel. God intentionally caused it to be rough for a reason. When the two landing crafts crashed together, our boat lost its propeller and steering rudder. We could not go anywhere. That was God’s doing! It not only saved us from coming in on the first wave of troops, but also by the time we landed, the troops were up ahead about a mile, and we did not suffer as many casualties at Omaha Beach. The more lives you have, the more power you have.”

So many died for the cause of our country. We can’t thank them – no one ever could as they never came home to be thanked.

If you are in Ely over the Memorial Day weekend, consider coming to the Ely Cemetery on Monday, May 29 at 10:30 a.m. to watch the somber ceremony, which includes speeches, the presentation of a wreath on the tomb of the unknown soldier, the 21-gun salute by the Ely Honor Guard and the playing of Taps.

It is a wonderful ceremony to show our appreciation to the men and women who gave everything for our country. Bring your young children and explain to them the importance and solemnity of Memorial Day. If we don’t pass this information down to our young ones, we are failing them and our country.

It is our job to take moments out of our lives to offer thanks to the extraordinary men and women who have fought and died to protect our nation throughout history. To these brave individuals, we honor you.

It is more than notable that we are the Home of the Free because of the brave.

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