By Mike Matejka
As Memorial Day nears, we all remember our family and friends who served their country, especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
My father was a U.S. Army World War II draftee. Like many in his generation, he was reluctant to talk about his military experiences. I am a child of the 1950s and 60s, our culture was immersed in World War II movies, television, books and discussion. It loomed large and it seemed also everyone’s father was a veteran, but for the returning service members, the emphasis was on life today, not the past.
With my father’s reluctance, after his 2009 death and burial at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, I thought his stories were gone. Last year I discovered a cache of his letters in the Missouri State Archives. He grew up in St Louis, up the hill from the Soulard Market, a few doors down from St. John Nepomuk parish, the first Czech Catholic Church in America. Father Albert Prokes (1902-1979) organized the parish during the war to send care packages to enlisted parishioners. Amongst his papers are numerous letters from service members, including 15 letters from my father, reflecting his service from 1943-1946.
What I appreciated reading those letters was to try and understand the experiences of a 19-year-old, who had never ventured far from his home, suddenly drafted, immersed in training, sent across the country and eventually on a troop ship to the Philippines. There is an adventurous spirit, as he sees multiple corners of the USA for the first time. At the same time, a heartache and homesickness echoes between the lines.
In some ways, my father was lucky; he spent almost a year and a half in training. First, he was in the Southwest and California, as an anti-aircraft gunner. Then it was off to Mississippi and Georgia, to learn how to plant and remove land mines. Finally, he ended up in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, a machine gunner assigned to field artillery. By July 1945, he was on a troop ship to the Philippines. Luckily for him, the war only had a few weeks left. By September, he was in northern Japan, part of the occupation forces.
Reading these letters, one can particularly see the heartbreak as his unit takes a troop train from North Carolina to San Francisco. The train passes through his St. Louis hometown, but because troop movements were secret, he could only look out the window, unable to pick up a phone, say hello or contact a family member, en route to an unknown destination, perhaps with a foreboding sense that a bloody invasion of Japan awaited his future.
I’m grateful Father Prokes saved those letters and donated them to a proper archive. They reminded me again, through my Father’s eyes, what we ask of our young people through military service. There is opportunity there, but also the reality of death, separation and bloody battle. Their minds are reshaped to fit a very different purpose, part of a larger organization over which they have little control. Hopefully, as politicians make speeches and citizens honor, we think again, and again, and then a third and a fourth time, of the sacrifice we ask when we send our citizen-soldiers into harm’s way. May those decisions never be made lightly, for political or economic gain, and we show the upmost care when we ask those sacrifices. More than lip service, but proper educational opportunities and medical care is incumbent for our nation to provide.
Mike Matejka is the Governmental Affairs director for the Great Plains Laborers District Council, covering 11,000 union Laborers in northern Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. He lives in Normal. He served on the Bloomington City Council for 18 years, is a past president of the McLean County Historical Society and Vice-President of the Illinois Labor History Society. He currently serves on the Normal Planning Commission.
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