Upon his return into American hands, Frank Strukel was likely accompanied by a medic and driven eighty-five miles west, away from active fighting, to Erfurt, Germany. There he was processed two days later as a "recovered Allied Prisoner of War." His general physical condition was listed as "poor." Starved, emaciated, and weakened, he still had the presence of mind and the wit to write lightly in blue on his registration form: "B.S." To him, "poor" was grossly overstating his condition, since "near death" was not a category opted for use by the United States military. He was then prepared for air lifting to Calais, France, for hospital attention.
While Frank was being attended to, and his prisoner experience was coming to an end, his parents still had no official word of his whereabouts. Although they had received a postcard from him while in Stalag IV-B in January, no further information had been supplied to them as winter turned to spring. On 20 April 1945, while Frank was flying to Calais to begin his eventual return home, Frank's mother knew nothing of this. Instead she received official word that he was a prisoner of war of the German government. With so many men missing, wounded, and killed, the American government was woefully behind. And so the Strukel family was left with a confusing telegram informing them of something they had already worriedly known for the last three months.
On 4 May 1945, Frank boarded a ship for home. We do not know the name of the ship or where it departed. Interestingly, in 1951 the Department of the Army destroyed all passenger lists, manifests, logs of vessels, and troop movement files of the United States Army Transports for World War II. No explanation for such an action has ever been given. It is quite likely that he was returned home on the S.S. John Ericsson, known to have carried soldiers home that left Le Havre, France, around this time destined for New York.
It is possible that before boarding this ship home that he had phone contact with his family. Nonetheless, the Director of the American Prisoner of War Information Bureau drafted a letter to Mrs. Rose Strukel on 9 May 1945 indicating that "Germany having been defeated, it is assumed [Frank] has been returned to United States military control." Eight days later the Western Union telegram arrived that every mother of a son overseas had yearned for: "The Chief of Staff of the Army directs me to inform you your son Pvt. Strukel Frank L. is being returned to the United States in the near future and will be given an opportunity to communicate with you on arrival."
Frank was going home.
His ship docked on 20 May 1945, likely in New York. Did he receive a hero's welcome? Were there people at the docks waiting to greet the troops coming home from war? Or did he silently make his way off the ship with hordes of other men who were carrying with them the horrors of combat and imprisonment? The joy of stepping foot on his native soil was certainly tempered with the all-too-recent events of the past. The primary thought in his mind now was to give the Army whatever it needed from him so that he could go home.
On 30 May 1945, Frank slipped into Elkhart, Indiana, with no fanfare from anyone other than his family. When his name finally appeared on the War Department's list of liberated prisoners, a news reporter for the Elkhart Truth contacted the Strukel household on 31 May 1945 to see what news they might have of his arrival home. The reporter was asked, "Do you want to speak to him?"
After the horrors of war, Frank was allowed a 70-day furlough at home, after which he was to report to the Army Redistribution Station No. 2 in Miami Beach, Florida. Between 1942 and 1945 the United States government took over more than 300 hotels and apartment buildings in Miami Beach to serve as housing and training headquarters for American troops, but a bank of ten swanky hotels at the beachfront on Collins Avenue were used exclusively for infantrymen returning from battle. They were debriefed and given rest and relaxation before being released or reassigned. Frank was assigned to a room at the Bancroft Hotel.
|The Bancroft Hotel, Miami Beach, Florida, 1945|
Although the returned soldiers were put through three weeks of mental and physical evaluations, they were essentially treated as if they were on vacation. Beyond reporting for his orientation lectures, interviews, and examinations, Frank was free to do whatever he wanted.
An airman, Jack Butler, had been sent to Miami Beach after his return from service two months previously and reported back to his parents:
"I've been doing nothing but having a swell time. It's really wonderful down here. The hotel I'm staying at is right on the beach and all I do is put on my trunks up in my room, take the elevator to the basement, walk out the back door and I'm on the beach. So far, I've got no sign of a tan but I'm redder than hell. Maybe I'll get one yet. It would cost a civilian at least $25.00 per day to stay at this hotel. It's really classy. The meals are good too. Yesterday, we had sirloin steak for supper and after we finished, the waitress asked us if we'd like another. Need I say more?"
But would a couple sirloin steaks in Frank's skinny body erase the memories of the last five months? Could a frolic on the beach in the warm sun be all that he needed to forget the frigid cold night hiding from the enemy while his buddy lie dead at his side?
The War Department thought so. After his recuperation in Florida, and a few more pounds put on him to fill out his uniform, he was sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky, where he was honorably discharged on 20 November 1945.
Private Frank L. Strukel, now a civilian, was free to go back to Elkhart, Indiana. He had just turned twenty-three years old. He would move back into his parental home, and he would resume his job at the Northern Indiana Brass Company (NIBCO). By all outward appearances, he was right back where he was when he left home for basic training three years before. Inwardly, he had gone through far too much to be the same man. He quietly spent the holidays of 1945 at home with his family.
And as the beginning months of 1946 dawned, he would meet Helen (Timmons) Miller. And his life would change dramatically again.