Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Frank, Part X: News Back Home

Western Union telegram, 29 January 1945, informing Frank's mother
that he was missing in action.

On 11 January 1945, John and Rose (Stupica) Strukel received a letter from their youngest son, Private Frank L. Strukel, that was written at Christmastime. That letter no longer exists. Perhaps Frank had just gotten off the freight car in Brumath, France, and was readying for his march to his first camp. Or maybe Christmas Day had passed, and he was watching the Germans across the Rhine River and had time to send a few words home to his worrying mother. Interestingly, when entering the service, Frank had listed his mother as his next of kin - not his father. Frank was the baby boy in the family, and he was likely the apple of his mother's eye. The father-daughter/mother-son bond has been discussed before in this blog under different circumstances, but in this case, Frank was clearly more partial to his mother's welfare and interests. As can be seen in examples of the many, many letters written to mothers by soldiers on the front lines, the horrors of war are grossly underplayed, and the main thrust of every letter was generally, "I'm okay. I'm alive. Don't worry."

But clutching the nearly three-week-old Christmas letter from their son did nothing to ease their worries and apprehension. The daily news was filled with headlines regarding the fierce battles on the Western Front. Names of the dead, the missing, and the captured were finally trickling in from the beginnings of the Battle of the Bulge on 16 December 1944. No community was immune from the awful news coming back from the war in Europe. Everybody was comforting a family member or a friend or a neighbor whose son was killed, wounded, or missing. But the worst thing was the silence. Sometimes not knowing was worse. Three-week-old letters did nothing to allay that that feeling.

Today it is difficult to remember a time before the computer age when everything was done via pencil and paper and human diligence and manpower. The Battle of the Bulge was the bloodiest battle in all of World War II. The United State Department of the Army's final figures for that forty days of horror include 19,246 men killed; 62,489 wounded; and 26,612 captured and missing. Every one of these numbers represented a man with a family worrying about him back home. And every one of these men had to be carefully accounted for with solid documentation before the government would act with disseminating information to the families. The process was painstakingly slow.

On 29 January 1945, Rose Strukel received the telegram she had been dreading. Three weeks before, and even before the reassuring Christmas letter had arrived, Frank was reported missing in action.


Until further word came from any other source, to those back home "missing" meant "presumed dead." There would be a glimmer of hope that Frank would straggle back to his company and that it was all a big mistake, or that he was taken prisoner and was still alive. But for the Strukel family "missing in action" meant they were now relegated to the task of grief-stricken, silent waiting.

The Elkhart Truth, date unknown, reports Frank Strukel missing.
Written and published in response to 29 January 1945 telegram

For families of men like Frank Strukel who were captured and sent to Prisoner-Of-War camps, news of their capture often came to the families in the form of letters written by the soldier facilitated by the Red Cross long before any word was heard from governmental sources. Letters or postcards received back home emblazoned with Kriegsgefangenenlager were met with mixed emotions. Families were overjoyed with news that their son or brother or husband was still alive but filled with dread at what they were experiencing as prisoners.

It is not known how much time elapsed from notification of Frank's MIA status and the reception of a letter written by him from a German POW camp on 25 January 1945. By this time he had suffered the four-hundred-mile trip to Stalag IV-B on foot and by crowded rail car. He had suffered the indignities of registration into the German camp system. He had likely experienced his share of frequent, uncontrollable, bloody stools from dysentery, and suffered from blistered, abscessed, frost-bitten feet. Although deloused upon his entry into prison camp, it would not be long before he was re-infested, with soldiers stripping to the waist daily and picking the crawling, blood-sucking pests from each other like primates in the wild. Only a lean 112 pounds when he enlisted for service, and likely a bit more muscled up from his Army years before deployment, Frank was likely emaciated, weak, cold and hungry - much like the thousands of men encamped with him.

But setting pencil to paper on 25 January 1945, he told his mother what she wanted to hear: "I am allright. Don't worry."

Postcard home from German POW camp.

Frank had by this time most likely left Stalag-IVB for another camp, but having only been a reluctant guest of Nazi Germany now for barely under three weeks, he already knew the mechanics of prisoner life. Although the initial reading of the brief note home looks like it is from a man with a horrible sweet tooth, or who is craving sugar-laden calories, Frank knew that sweets and cigarettes were the best form of currency to a prisoner. A German guard might trade an egg or some milk for chocolate. A fellow prisoner might share the uncooked rat he managed to catch for a few cigarettes. A local German woman might offer a loaf of bread in exchange for some cookies or fudge. Whether any packages sent directly to Frank by the Red Cross from his family ever reached him is not known.

But before he was able to send this brief note back home, Frank had already had to set out by foot from Stalag IV-B to another camp to suffer brutalities of a different kind.

1 comment: