Sunday, March 30, 2014

Frank: Part IX: Stalag IV-B

Entrance to Stalag-IVB, near Mühlberg, Brandenburg, Germany
Author: LutzBruno, Wikimedia Commons

After surviving the 400 mile journey on foot and by crowded unsanitary freight car, Frank Strukel arrived at the gates of Stammlager or "Main Camp" IV-B. The GIs were all too familiar with these camps, known exclusively by their shortened names: Stalag IV-B.

Stalag IV-B was located just east of the Elbe River about thirty miles north of Dresden. Covering 74 acres, it was one of the largest German POW camps, opened in September 1939 to house Polish soldiers captured at the beginning of the war in Europe. Following the guidelines of the Geneva Convention, the camp was built to house 10,000 prisoners. By the time Frank arrived, 22,000 men were imprisoned there.

Processing prisoners had long become routine for the German guards working at the camps. CSM Thomas C. Ballowe of Company K, 423rd Infantry had arrived the week before Frank:
"That was the most desolate area that you've ever seen. There was a big field that [we] had to walk across to get to the entrance to the compound at Mühlberg, IV-B. It was a cold, cold night, but a clear night, just as cold and clear as can be. We were still freezing to death. As we processed in, if you had anything you wanted to declare, any valuables, any money, which I did, [you declared it.] As we processed in we went to this delousing station and that was an ordeal, too. First time I'd ever taken a shower and the shower was scalding hot. As we came out of the shower there was a guy standing there with a needle and he shot us in the chest, right in the breast. Being a kid and at a time like that in such a state of confusion, I was never really sure what that was for. It seemed to me they were shooting everyone with the same syringe, the same needle. When they hit me in my chest, and the damn blood just flew, I was still wet from the taking a shower. They then ran us out of this room and it's freezing in this room and it seemed to me like they had an exhaust fan or something on to blow you. We didn't have a towel or nothing to dry. We put our clothes on and from there they marched us on to our barracks."
PFC Stanley Lambert of Company I, 275th Infantry, was fighting with Frank in the same area of France when he was captured. He too was sent to Stalag IV-B.
"Very early in our stay we were processed through a shower and delousing unit common to German prisons. These bare brick and stone structures had a waiting room where we completely disrobed, leaving our boots stashed in the room, but tying our garments all in one bundle to be sent through a steam delouser. Two things were luxurious about the whole procedure. One was the hot shower where we could observe our flattening bellies but still muscular limbs, and let the warm streams of water splatter over our blue, frost-bitten feet. The other was picking up our bundles of steaming clothes after shivering stark naked for a half hour in the waiting room. It was fortunate that one did not know until later how similar the procedure was to the gas chamber execution of the Jews."
All prisoners were then fingerprinted, photographed, and issued metal Kriegsgefangene dog tags with their new six-figure Stalag IV-B identification number. Their names and identification numbers were entered into a large ledger, from which report of their imprisonment would be made eventually to American authorities. Before your name entered that ledger you were presumed dead or missing in action. The prisoners were then marched to their new homes.

Most prisoners were amazed at the size of the camp, with row after row of long, narrow, drab barracks-like structures along many perpendicular "streets". Each of the barracks was fitted with wooden bunks crammed end to end and piled four high to the ceiling. The British soldiers, some imprisoned for as long as two to three years before Frank's arrival, had learned to make the Stalag their home and looked at the huge influx of Americans during the winter of 1944/1945 as unwanted refuse. As the starving, frozen, bedraggled soldiers made their way into the camps, many of the British would trade food scraps for any valuables they may have brought in with them, taking advantage of the hunger gnawing at the American GIs. Most of the upper bunks had long been taken by the British POWs, leaving the Americans to lower bunks that essentially no longer existed, the wooden slats having been burnt as firewood long before.

The regulation issuance of two blankets was reduced to one as the camp filled that winter, until there were none to issue. The only clothes the men wore were those they brought in with them. Showering was allowed once weekly: thirty second of hot water followed by thirty seconds of cold. Clothes could be rinsed at the same time if it were allowed by the guard on duty. By far, the biggest cruelty that beset the soldiers was the perpetual state of hunger. Meals were often just black bread and watered down soup the prisoners called "dishwater soup," and on a rare occasionally, a potato. American Red Cross parcels came infrequently and mostly had to be shared amongst several men. The food was heavenly, but soldiers also learned to improvise a great number of tools and cookware from the tins in which they arrived. The cigarettes, when not smoked to curb the appetite, were used as camp currency.

Contents of an American Red Cross parcel

PFC Stanley Lambert again:
"The most vivid memories of our barracks were the nights in them. There was just room for all the exhausted men to lie down in the unheated building. We lay in groups of three to preserve warmth, and arranged outer garments and old German shelter halves over and under us. We were only beginning to learn from the British the fine art of improvising in a prison hut. Very soon we learned to pull our tortured feet close to us because some dysentery victim was always staggering through the darkness toward the door, trampling over frostbitten and trench-foot-afflicted feet. I believe I have known no pain greater than that suffered for ten minutes following the mauling of one's frozen feet by a stampeding, dystenteried POW."
Many of the British soldiers imprisoned for years did help the Americans acclimate to their new surroundings. Said one British officer to a newly-arrived American, "Keep your body moving or you will die."

PFC Stanley Lambert was shipped out of Stalag IV-B just two weeks after his arrival for yet another German prisoner-of-war camp. Many other soldiers experienced the same fate. Although one of the largest prisoner camps in the German's possession, Stalag IV-B was grossly overcrowded, and it served more as a way-station for many thousands of POWs. Frank Strukel was one of these men whose stay here was short. He too would be one of the men plucked at random from the camp and sent to a much more dismal fate.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Frank, Part VIII: Prisoner

American prisoners captured in Ardennes, 22 December 1944
Deutsches Bundesarchiv

Hidden through the bitterly cold night of 7 January 1945 with his deceased comrade, Gordon McDonald, Frank Strukel's mind was probably racing with ideas of escape. Gordon's death made it plainly obvious that the German's were watching the open battle fields closely for movement. Any attempts to run for the American lines would surely result in his death. So he sat. Trapped. And waited.

When morning came and the German soldiers began combing the fields for their fallen comrades, Frank's only option was to surrender. He was taken captive on the morning of 8 January 1945. There is no way of knowing how his captors treated him in the early days of his imprisonment. Reports from both sides - German and American - reveal tales of great compassion as well as horrific torture.  During the months of December 1944 and January 1945, German soldiers under the command of SS officer Joachim Peiper murdered nearly 400 of their American prisoners-of-war. The unfortunate reality is that knowledge of this behavior resulted in retaliation, as illustrated by written order from the headquarters of the 328th US Army Infantry Regiment on 21 December 1944: "No SS troops or paratroopers will be taken prisoner but will be shot on sight." But as the war on the southernmost point of the Western Front wore on in the coldest winter Europe had seen in decades, soldiers on both sides of the conflict were mostly tired, hungry, and scared. War had become "business as usual."

Frank relayed very few details of his war experiences, and as mentioned in a previous post, although his activities as a part of Company L can be deduced by the stories of his fellow soldiers, his experiences as a prisoner-of-war are unique. In addition to the death of his buddy Gordon, the only other story relayed later to his wife, and then to his daughter, would be that he was given a bucket every morning and sent onto the battlefield to remove rings, watches and valuables from deceased soldiers and bring them back to camp. This had to have occurred in the early days of his imprisonment, as he would be sent far from any front lines before long. It must have been cruel torture to confiscate the few precious items of value from his fellow soldiers that could hold indelible memories to families back home, only to have them become items of commerce amongst the German troops. Every morning, Frank's muscles quivering like a nervously trapped rabbit with an urge to run and escape likely churned in his guts, but common sense held him back. He could not outrun the bullets of the guns his captors kept trained upon him as he made his morning rounds.

The Battle of the Bulge was not a singular battle of World War II. It is a term used to describe a major German offensive campaign that began on 16 December 1944 and covered over 150 miles of battlefront in Germany, Belgium and France. Over 600,000 American soldiers were employed along these battle lines, and by its end on 25 January 1945, over 19,000 of them would be dead. Frank would be one of the over 25,000 men captured. The Germans were wholly unprepared to handle this incredibly large influx of prisoners. But as they were processed, questioned and released to higher command at the front lines, Frank and many, many other soldiers like him were sent to prison camps far to the northeast. The first part of this journey was done on foot.

Frank was first sent to one of the many holding areas throughout the Ardennes forest, but soon thereafter he would begin his march eastward into Germany. Soldiers describing their march into captivity recall being stunned by the number of POWs being herded along the roadway. One soldier called it "a river of men." Another stated that during his march up a long hill he "could see GIs clear to the top of the hill and as long a line down the hill in back of me."

Most men marched to their next destination day and night anywhere from four to eight days. Food was a luxury not granted to the prisoners. One soldier recalls getting a crust of bread and a tablespoon of molasses daily during his march. Another remembers being allowed by his captors to stop and pick sugar beets from fields near the road, while another ate rotten apples fallen to the ground in orchards the previous fall. Lucky soldiers received occasional servings of watered down kohlrabi soup or potato peel soup. Most relied on snow for water. As they left snowy terrain, they sucked the dew from the grass in the mornings. If sleep was granted, the prisoners were herded into abandoned barns or walled courtyards where they could be contained and watched. The ground was wet, cold, and muddy, and although hungry and exhausted, most men could not sleep. Many men collapsed from hunger and fatigue. Some guards allowed rest time for them to recover. Others shot and killed men who could not keep up. The heat from exertion caused soldiers to discard their overcoats and winter wear, but those who had the strength to carry them knew they would be necessary later.

The POWs destination was many of the functioning railway stations set to transport prisoners eastward to any of a number of prisoner camps. The men were herded onto the old "forty and eight" freight cars they knew so well from their initial transportation to the front lines before war become a bitter, cruel reality. This time though, the rule of "forty men" was clearly disregarded. Soldiers were packed usually sixty to eighty per car. Men stood shoulder-to-shoulder in rows. Movement was impossible. As one soldier describes, "if you picked your feet up from the ground, the pressure from the other guys' bodies would hold you up." Dysentery affected the majority of soldiers with bathroom amenities usually designated to a hole in the freight car's floor, or a helmet passed from man to man that could be emptied through the small upper window in each car... if it was not sealed shut. Occasionally an entire car was given one or two Red Cross food parcels to share. One soldier recalls being overjoyed at receiving half a cigarette and seven raisins.

At this stage of the journey the prisoners were at greater risk from their British allies than their German captors. Active bombing and machine-gunning of German rail yards was underway to limit transportation of goods to the front lines. Bullets came right through the cars killing many prisoners, their corpses held upright by the soldiers sandwiched around them. If a bombing took place, some German guards opened prisoner cars to allow men to scamper for cover, only to round them up later. Others were destroyed in their entirety taking dozens of soldier's lives with them.

The time spent compressed in the freight car depended on the integrity of the rail line used and the number of stops necessary to reroute trains or to repair war-torn tracks. During lulls in the trip, some soldiers were allowed to leave the cars and forage for food, while others stood in motionless, darkened silence waiting for the trip to resume to their destination.

For Frank, his destination would be Stalag IV-B near Mühlberg in Brandenburg, 400 miles from where he was captured.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Frank, Part VII: Survival

A dead soldier lies in the Ardennes Forest

What happened to Frank Strukel after he crested that summit with his buddy, PFC Gordon J. McDonald, and his troop commander, 1LT Thomas E. Burkett? Frank spoke little of his war experiences, so we are left with a smattering of fragmentary evidence and conjecture. When LTC Wallace R. Cheves wrote his book on the 274th Infantry, he did not know the fate of Strukel and McDonald. Indeed, Diane Kessler who has collected the stories and documented the Trailblazers history during World War II stated that many of Frank's comrades were shocked to learn decades later that he was alive.

We can recreate Frank's experience in the Army, on the front lines, and in battle, because he was one piece of a very connected and regimented whole. Once he crested that hill with two other men on an unsuccessful mission, his experiences become uniquely his. And after the immediate death of his platoon leader from German gunfire, Frank's story becomes one of survival.

1LT Burkett's body was found several days later in the snow. Of the three men who left on that mission, he was the only one immediately accounted for, and he was still on the field of battle. Had he weakened and bled fatally from the gunshot wound to the shoulder he sustained at the onset of his departure over that ridge? Or had he been the target of more enemy fire? Cheves account would lead you to believe that the three men were immediately besieged by an assault, and that Frank was able to return fire only briefly and immediately before being silenced. It is likely that the forward offense attempted by Burkett, McDonald, and Strukel, became an immediate protective defense once they realized they had walked into a death trap. Burkett's death left the two young men reliant on each other and their own wits to save their lives.

Alone amidst the German machine gunners and with no foreseeable way back to the safety of their regiment, Frank and Gordon hunkered down into foxhole, either one that had recently protected a German soldier earlier in the day or one hastily dug by themselves. Together they could remain hidden until nightfall when they could try to find their American brethren under the cover of night. With four eyes wide with fear and the sounds of their rapidly thumping hearts booming in their ears together they could watch all angles for approaching German soldiers.

As the late afternoon wore into evening, PFC Gordon McDonald peered out of the foxhole to assess their situation. The drab gray-green of his infantry helmet moving on a backdrop of white snow caught the eye of a nearby German soldier. Gunfire erupted, and McDonald slumped back into the foxhole, lifeless, with fatal wounds to his head.

Terrified that any movement of his own would lead to a full-scale assault on his position, Frank crouched motionless in his dugout in the snow. His lower body was cold and numb from the cramped, distorted position he maintained to keep out of sight. His upper body was wet and warm from the blood of his companion slumped on top of him. He dare not move. He dare not breathe.

Motionless and with the stiffening body of his friend as his only protection from the cold and from the enemy is how Frank Strukel would spend the night of January 7, 1945. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Frank and Gordon

So what happened to Frank Strukel and Gordon McDonald after they cleared the ridge and dropped out of sight from their fellow soldiers? I am afraid I am going to make you wait to find out. I am awaiting some information that may shed more light on that war-torn, snowy afternoon of January 7, 1945. If it does not come to me in a timely fashion, I may move on and revisit this post, as I hate to stagnate as much you hate to be left in suspense. But please know that I hope to tell you more within the next 24-48 hours. Patience is a virtue, yes?

Monday, March 24, 2014

A Momentary Interlude


I am taking a momentary break in the story line to talk a little bit about my choices for the structure of this blog. And as a perfect segue, I was asked via the comment section of the last post what my sources were for the narrative of Frank Strukel's war service.

Firstly, I owe an enormous amount of thanks and gratitude to Diane Kessler of Atkinson, New Hampshire, whose father Ernest J. Kessler served in Company E, 274th Infantry Regiment. Diane is the 70th Infantry Division Association Secretary and Trailblazer Editor. Her knowledge of the Trailblazer's history is astounding, and she and the association maintain a website with a tremendous amount of information at www.trailblazersww2.org. Diane responded to my email immediately and inundated me with information and provided the photos of the marching soldiers and snowbound tanks in the forest outside of Rothbach, France.

It was also through Diane that I obtained a copy of Snow, Ridges and Pillboxes: A True History of the 274th Infantry Regiment of the 70th Division in World War II written by Lt. Colonel Wallace R. Cheves after his return to Fort McClellan, Alabama, after the war in 1946. Changes and additions to the book, as well as updated rosters of each company and the fates of soldiers that went missing were added for republication in 2006. Jim Hanson, who served with Frank Strukel, and was the lucky victim of fate to have gone one way when Frank went another on that cold afternoon of 7 January 1945, wrote the introduction to the new volume. I have relied on this volume extensively to recreate Frank Strukel's experiences in the European Theater.

To the soldiers who told their stories to Lt. Col. Wallace R. Cheves immediately after their service, and to those who continue to tell their stories, I owe an enormous debt of gratitude. I would not have been able to tell Frank's story without the narratives of those who shared his identical experiences. To those who gave their lives so long ago so that I can sit here and tell their stories, we all owe the same.

As for the blog as a whole, I will tell you that I never intended this to be the story-telling venue that it has become. And believe me, I am not disappointed with that turn of events. I am loving every minute of it. If the readers bear with me, this tale takes a number of surprising turns from World War II to 2014. I was more concerned with the present when I started this blog, but I have quickly thrown myself into the past. As a professional genealogist, that is not a difficult thing for me to do.

But as a professional who takes great pride in my research endeavors and how I present them, I am confronted by the angel on one shoulder, and the devil on the other. I have many soapbox lectures upon which I flog my genealogical audiences when I speak, and two of my "biggies" are at play here in this ongoing narrative.

I strongly urge researchers not to be "BMD Genealogists." Born. Married. Died. Genealogy should not be about filling in charts. Of course, yes, that data is necessary, and it is the tiny fragments of factual data that we seek out in dusty attics, musty courthouse basements, sterile archive reading rooms and darkened library microfilm areas. I have given up a successful medical career and retired early from one profession, so that I may chase down these elusive ancestors and locate the fragments of their past lives. But I tell other genealogists that I want to point to a name on their pedigree chart, and I want them to tell me a story. Knowing when and where they were born, married, and died may give me an idea of context in time and space, but it tells me nothing about the person in question. Non-genealogists (yes, I do know a few) will tell me, "Oooooh, I don't like going to cemeteries. They're creepy." I find cemetery visits to be almost overwhelming. To walk amongst the tottering headstones with the weather-worn inscriptions is to walk amongst the last physical and tangible remnants of a life: a life filled with hopes, dreams, tragedy, sorrow, happiness, despair, love and loss. While walking through a cemetery I can almost hear the murmur of the hundreds and thousands of buried souls begging for their stories to be told. Is this not what genealogy should be about?

When I started Frank Strukel's narrative I wanted to give the reader an idea of the man who would play a role in the unfolding story regarding my mother. But I realized that I had only a handful of dates and places and a smattering of photographs and mementoes regarding his service in World War II. What I knew a month ago about Frank's service would have filled a comfortable little paragraph enumerating such tiny snippets of information. It would be the kind of blurb you would read in an obituary or a brief forgettable biography. I knew that Frank's experiences in war affected him through the later years of his life, yet I had no idea what his story was, just the barest facts. And so for that part of his life, I was guilty of ignoring my own advice to others. Perhaps I have lingered a lot longer on Frank's war experiences in this blog because his story is as new to me and to his family as it is to the reader. But it is also a story that defined who he was. And because I now know this story, I have far more respect for the man he was and for the men who went through hell to risk their lives in defense of our country during World War II.

But as indicated by the opening graphic, my other big soapbox lecture to fellow genealogists is to document, document, document. Always cite your sources. Always. It is not uncommon for me to submit a client report with over 500 footnotes. It is just so dang necessary to keep the narrative based in fact, and to show the reader where you gleaned your information, and why you stated something as a truth. A researcher needs be grounded in good research methodology so that those who read his work or come after him can check his work for accuracy, or add to it with new information, or be able to compare it to any new data found. You just cannot claim to be good at this discipline if you present something off the cuff with no tangible basis for your conclusions.

But as you can already see, twenty-three blog posts behind me and nary a footnote. Each day I wake up thinking Elizabeth Shown Mills is lurking around every corner waiting to beat me bloody and senseless with a copy of her Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. And truly, I feel guilty. And naughty. Very, very naughty.

As stated before, I had completely different plans for this blog, and they did include scholarly discussions, footnotes, source citations and research methods using a variety of case studies. What I originally wanted to present required the back story of my mother's birth and adoption. What you have read so far is that back story.... I just did not realize I'd go into such detail as to draw the reader into the lives and psyches of all the players involved. So as such, I can try to claim ignorance. I did not anticipate the need for detailed source citation for a "quick overview." Of course, that is a cop out, as I could have switched gears when the overview became not-so-quick.

Secondly, a good part of the narrative at the beginning needed little source citation. There is no footnote required for describing a visit to my grandparents or the anxiety of driving to meet your biological family for the first time. And when I referenced documents that led me to my discoveries, I did attempt to identify sources within the narrative that would serve as readable "footnote substitutions." I tried to let the reader know what conclusions I drew based on what documents I had uncovered.

But lastly, as things got more technical and detailed, and I started to draw from sources other than my own experiences and personal knowledge, especially in Frank's war experience, I struggled with the need to identify my sources in a more appropriate manner. I chose not to begin a rigid, scholarly approach to my presentation, as I find this blog's appeal has run a gamut of readers - from the seasoned genealogist to the person who just enjoys a good yarn. I did not want to detract from the flow of the narrative by adding innumerable footnotes. Until I feel the need to move to a more scholarly presentation, I will keep this in a "references available by request" mode. Rest assured, because I have wrestled with this decision I will never present anything that I think is based on shaky ground or shoddy research, but I will always welcome any challenges or questions or corrections from the reader. And for those purists (a group I often claim membership to) who shake their heads in shameful reproach at my decision, I apologize.

But where were we? No trace of Frank Strukel was ever discovered? Where did he go?


Sunday, March 23, 2014

Frank, Part VI: Battle

The ruins of the church and rectory of Rothbach, France, 15 March 1945

By 6 January 1945, all battalions were in defensive positions along the mountain pass north of Rothbach, France. Frank Strukel and the rest of Company L were in position on high ground northwest of the pass facing Company I on the southeast. In the pre-dawn hours of 7 January 1945, the 45th Division sent secret orders for one reinforced rifle company from Company L to be sent to the east bank of Rothbach creek to block the escape of German troops who would be driven eastward by an attack launched by the 276th Infantry. Machine guns from Company M would support the advance. Frank was one of the rifleman chosen to be among the advancing company.

Before sunrise, the rifleman spread out and advanced forward across the snow and over the first hill. When they reached the bottom, they would regroup, spread out and do the same with the second. It was nearing 9:00 a.m. when they reached the top of the fourth hill having met no resistance. With clear visibility it would be easy to see the darkly clad German soldiers against the snowy white backdrop upon the rise of each hill, but the rush down each slope was done from tree to tree not knowing if small groups of the enemy were hiding in the tree line. Pfc. Gray and Pfc. Rocco DiGiogio, in the lead of the rifle company, made the first descent down the fourth hill. Pfc. Gray stepped around a large rock and directly into a German machine gun nest. Their eyes trained elsewhere, the German soldiers did not see him. Gray ducked quickly behind the rock and blindly tossed a grenade toward the unsuspecting German nest. It was a near hit, and the Germans were sent into a quick retreat, trailing blood behind them.

The battle had begun.

Immediately after the boom of the grenade subsided, German soldiers poured from the woods in full force from concealed fortifications. Deadly fire rained down upon the American soldiers. Frank and the other rifleman of Company L continued to push forward. Private Glenn C. Luker rushed forward to a rocky ledge and was met by German gunfire to the head. Sergeant Eugene B. Jackson rushed to Luker to offer assistance and slipped from the icy ledge, twisting his knee and rendering him prone, unprotected and useless. Private Kenneth M. Kirby stepped from behind a tree to return the enemy's gunfire. His rifle jammed, and he was shot in the thigh and left leg. All three men would survive.

The Germans were now in range to begin mortar fire. The soldiers were showered with shell fragments amidst the explosion of tree tops and branches. Pfc. Stanley Wrubel of Company L noted, "There's something about a tree burst that drains the nerve right out of a guy. You can always escape bullets if you're in a hole or behind a rock. But a tree burst sends shrapnel right down in the hole to get you. It's just like rain, only it's steel instead of water."

By 11:00 a.m. Frank was with Company L fighting in the valley beyond the fourth hill while the machine guns of Company M were in position on the slope behind them. The American machine gunners were hit hard by enemy fire as well. A return stream of enemy fire hit Sergeant Damon B. Taylor in the knee. When he fell to the ground Pfc. Harry S. Bannan took over Taylor's gun and was shot and killed by enemy fire. Lieutenant John D. Duffy grabbed the gun himself, got his hands on the trigger and was also killed immediately by gunfire to the head and neck. While tending the wounded men, Sergeant Theophilus Schnell was hit in the throat, and he too died right away. Taylor would be the only survivor.

Company L was edging forward, fighting for every inch of ground, but they were kept at bay by constant German machine gun fire. Lieutenant William Q. Smith took four of his men from his platoon and crept around the enemy's right flank in an attempt at taking out a machine gun nest from the rear. Discovered, the surprised and frightened German soldiers swung the machine gun around onto the man and opened fire. Sergeant John A. Chiapetta was killed outright. When Sergeant William J. Coyle fell to the ground and cried, "I'm hit---," the enemy sent another round of fire into his prone body.

As the afternoon wore on, Frank and the men of Company L were stalled by the persistent machine gun fire from the opposition. Second Lieutenant Thomas E. Burkett was leading the platoon that included Frank L. Strukel and James M. Hanson. Burkett decided to split the platoon into two squads. He sent Hanson and his men to go through the woods to another side of the hill to high ground to see if they could sight the machine gunners and take them out. As Hanson described it, "as we got to the top of the hill and looked down the other side we saw about thirty Germans dug in, including a machine gun position. Their backs were to us. We moved into a line of skirmishers as we had been taught and continued forward. When we were about twenty or thirty yards from the nearest German, one of them saw us and fired at us. We all started firing. We had caught them by surprise and were doing a lot of shooting. Soon, they all put down their rifles, stood up and put their arms up and threw their helmets away. They were our first prisoners of war."

Lieutenant Burkett had stayed behind and asked for volunteers to follow him along a different route to high ground to knock out more machine gun nests. Pfc. Gordon J. McDonald and Frank Strukel stepped forward to accompany him. They secured hand grenades and set forth. As soon as they hit a marked rise in ground, Burkett sustained a gunshot wound to the shoulder. He staggered, regained his balance, and called for Gordon and Frank to follow him forward. Burkett, McDonald and Strukel disappeared over the top of the hill.

As told by Lt. Colonel Wallace R. Cheves, "In a short time the blast of a machine gun was heard, followed by a quick burst from Strukel's BAR [Browning Automatic Rifle] - the machine gun fired again... this time there were no answering shots."

"Several days later Burkett's body was found crumpled in the snow. No trace of the other two men [Strukel and McDonald] was ever discovered."

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Frank, Part V: Preparing for Battle

American tanks struggle through the snow-covered roads

The German front lines were making frighteningly powerful progress in the Alsace region of France, and American troops were picked from every defensive position along the Rhine River and thrown in the way of their advances. The 70th Infantry Division, in which Frank belonged, was now a unit of the entire American Seventh Army fighting in France. On 3 January 1945, Frank's company was ordered from the Rhine River as a part of Col. Landstrom's 3rd (Blue) Battalion to La Petite-Pierre to await further orders. Before they could advance, the 1st (Red) and 2nd (White) Battalions of the 274th were split off and quickly scuttled to the German advances at Philippsbourg and Wingen. As Frank's reserve was getting underway to La Petite-Pierre for their orders, instructions were sent for them to change course to Soufflenheim by motor march where they would join the 45th Division and march through the Schneitzwald Forest near Rohrbach. Defenses were weak here and even though they were heading into a nearly impenetrable forest, the Germans were more than willing to take advantage of this weakly protected area to break through the Allied lines.


Through howling winds and subzero temperatures, Frank and his comrades marched into the forest. It may have struck him oddly how such a dense, beautiful expanse of mountainside, normally quiet but for the sound of the winds through the trees could now become a cacophony of artillery fire, shells screaming through the air, noisy tanks trudging through mountain roads, booming mortars exploding ahead, and P-47s roaring over the treetops. 

By the afternoon of 4 January 1945 the men had reached their bivouac area. Nobody was sure how close the German 12th Mountain SS Regiment was in the thickness of the woods, but their gunfire could be heard loudly and distinctly. They were close. As night fell the men tried as best they could to ward off the cold by rolling up in their blankets on the snow. The mess trucks that finally made it to the encampment site served scrambled eggs and mush at midnight - frozen. Two more inches of snow fell through the night, burying those soldiers who could sleep in a camouflaged veil of white.

On the morning of 5 January 1945, instructions were received for the battalion to move into the hills north of Rothbach and prepare defensive positions. Frank and the rest of Company L were charged with leading the way into the new area. As the town fell behind them, the route became steep and slippery, and the tree line so dense that a man could lose sight of the platoon if he fell a few feet behind. Forward progress was slow through snow drifts, and much of it was done sliding, stumbling, crawling, and fighting to reach the summit of each subsequent hill. The dense forest made all the soldiers fearful of ambush behind every tree.

At the rise of the next large hill, German gunfire greeted the first man over the rise. Return fire sent the German soldiers scampering into the hidden cover of the dense woodland. The men move forward now by creeping slowly from tree to tree. The battalion discovered a cave in a gorge between two hills - a great place for German soldiers to seek cover. A rifle grenade launched into the cave produced three German soldiers waving white handkerchiefs and screaming "Kamerad!" The company had taken its first prisoners. The elation of the company over this momentary triumph was short lived. Orders were received to leave the gorge immediately and climb back up the last hill they just crossed and hold their higher position all night. The soldiers had left their blankets at the company command post and had only worn enough clothes to move unhindered. They were not prepared for a frozen night on the mountainside.

Doughboys trudge through the snow prepared for another
cold, miserable night.

Pfc. Smith who was in Company L with Frank Strukel reported, "The rest of us started back up that hill. Wind cut us like a knife all the way up. My face burned, and my hands felt like they were about to drop off. God, it was cold!" The frigid conditions became so unbearable that some of the soldiers went back down into the valley to find dead German soldiers and confiscate their outer garments. Other soldiers removed the gas protective covers from their gas masks and slipped them over their bodies to keep the wind out. Any foxholes dug in the snow for protection were done with the single shovel in the company's possession, passed from one soldier to the next. When supplies and the mess trucks finally arrived, it was discovered that the Germans had stolen Frank's and all of Company L's blankets and mess gear. Hot chow was served, but it took several hours for the men to eat, as the single cup they had found was passed from one man to another as the only eating utensil. The men settled in for the long, bitterly cold night.

Those who could sleep did so only briefly. At midnight the two platoons were ordered to a new position - they had encamped in the wrong area! They were too far advanced. The men were quietly led to a new position at the foot of a forward slope. Morning was approaching. Sleep was a luxury that would not be had that night. The soldiers huddled together around the trees and waited for daybreak.

The day of 6 January 1945 was spent moving battalions into defensive positions. Orders were received to defend the high ground abreast of the mountain pass at Rothbach. Frank and the rest of Company L were to cover the high ground on the northwest of the pass, while Company I took the southeast. Company K was sent to Offweiler as battalion reserve. Company M set up protective lines on the hilly, difficult terrain that they had covered from Rothbach. The troops were in place and ready for the advancing German army. Man-to-man combat was encountered throughout the day in the forest. German soldiers peppered the landscape in small isolated groups. But the bulk of the German army was moving toward them. The worst was yet to come.

Company placement on 6 January 1945

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Frank, Part IV: War

70th Infantry Division "Trailblazers"
shoulder sleeve insignia

After a five-hundred-mile journey in a freight car to Brumath from Marseilles, Frank and his company were cramped and tired, but the freedom to move about and the adrenalin rush from this new adventure made the orders to march to their new destination not so intolerable. Brumath had been blacked out, and those residents who remained hung French flags from their windows to show they were not German sympathizers. It was a quiet, cold, depressing place. The men left Brumath in their winter gear and full field packs and began their journey eastward in the cold, damp winter air. After passing through the first town draped similarly to Brumath in both flags and silence, and an hour later into the second, the men were dragging and faltering. The exhilaration of a new adventure was muted by the occasional appearance of steel helmets resting upon new white crosses along the roadside. After nearly ten miles and complete exhaustion, the men reached Bischwiller, France. They were rewarded with additional rations for their Christmas Dinner, 1944: one canned "Egg Unit" per man and one "Partial Dinner Unit."

It was in Bischwiller that Frank and the other men got their first ammo. As an infantryman, this is what Frank had trained for, and having a fully-loaded Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) gave him the thrill of realizing the days of endless tactical drills and dry runs were behind him, but apprehension and dread realizing these bullets were now distributed to kill men. The remaining two days in Bischwiller were filled with readying the men for combat, and on 27 December 1944 they received their first combat assignment: they were to move under the veil of darkness that night to relieve defensive elements of other divisions along the snow-covered banks of the Rhine River.

Tensions were rising in the Alsace area of France. The Germans occupied the east bank of the Rhine River, and they were well-ensconced along the Siegfried Line: a line of forts, bunkers and pillboxes built by Germany in the 1930s opposite the French Maginot Line. These defensive lines were built in response to the losses incurred in the First World War, but now were used to great advantage by the Germans along the river. It was also rumored that the Germans were amassing a significant amount of manpower in the area to crush the opposing armies on the Western Front in northeast France. The German offensive, called Operation Nordwind, had only one primary objective, as stated by Adolf Hitler himself on 28 December 1944:
"This attack has a very clear objective, namely the destruction of enemy forces. There is not a matter of prestige involved here. It is a matter of destroying and exterminating the enemy forces wherever we find them... It is more important, as I said before, to destroy his manpower."
Frank's regiment moved by motor to the west bank of the Rhine River on the night of 27 December 1944 with little fanfare. On the morning of the 28th, the German army could be seen directly across the river strolling amongst the concrete pillboxes. Although the men were warned of Germans crossing the river at night, often disguised as French nationals or American soldiers, there was little combat in these first few days. The temperatures were plummeting and snow was falling. Tensions were high and nerves were frazzled. Gunshot was exchanged intermittently across the river, but it was mostly a waiting game.

Although they were yet to be engaged in bloody combat, this was still the front lines, and this was war. Two Americans were seriously injured when they stepped on a land mine on 29 December 1944, and two men from Company I disappeared on the night of 1 January 1945, having been captured by German soldiers. On 30 December 1944, and again two days later, the men of Frank's infantry unit were ordered to relieve more and more troops being pulled from the banks of the Rhine and sent into active combat. By the beginning of 1945, they were responsible for maintaining the integrity of a 21-mile stretch of river bank. Men of all sections were on 24-hour duty. Fatigue, cold, anxiety and fear were exacerbated during the New Year by a violent outbreak of dysentery that incapacitated nearly every man in the regiment. Each day brought more worrisome news. The German forces were pushing heavily into the area and fear of armored attacks increased daily as the men fought to strengthen and fortify their positions.

And then it came. On 3 January 1945, the 274th regiment was to withdraw from the sector immediately and move toward La Petite Pierre to await further instructions. Frank and his fellow soldiers knew nothing about the Germans movements, and they worried that they were being encircled and cut off from any support. Tensions were high as the trucks arrived later that night, and they began their march to La Petite Pierre in a heavy steady snow.

Frank had his initiation to combat on the banks of the Rhine River, but it was time to leave defensive maneuvers behind, and think offensively. They were readying to meet the Germans head-on. In the forests. In the mountains. And in the snow.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Frank, Part III: Marching to War

Frank Strukel (left) in or near Marseilles, France,
December 1944

On October 28, 1944, Frank Louis Strukel celebrated his 22nd birthday. Perhaps he got a few slaps on the back from his comrades and a handful of well wishes, and perhaps it was a pleasant diversion for Frank and his buddies, as the rush for deployment was in full force. The last replacements for the 274th Infantry Regiment had arrived at Fort Leonard Wood earlier in the month, and they were preparing for movement. Frank's excitement was subdued by the realities of what he would soon be facing. He had just learned from home that his cousin Helen Strukel's husband, Albert J. Stevens, had just been killed overseas on November 9th. As the company readied to leave for the east coast, Frank and all his comrades knew they might not return, but nobody spoke of such things.

In mid-November, 1944, Frank was sent with the 274th Regiment to Camp Myles Standish in Taunton, Massachusetts, to stage shipment to Europe. The bulk of the 274th left the port of Boston on December 1, 1944, aboard the S.S. Mariposa. But Frank and the rest of Company L left Boston the following week with the 275th and 276th Regiment of the 70th Infantry Division. On December 7, 1944, the U.S.S. West Point (AP23) left for Marseilles, France.

U.S.S. West Point (AP23) during service in World War II

The U.S.S. West Point (AP23) began her sea-faring life as the S.S. America upon her launch by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt on 31 August 1939. She was a sleek luxury liner that could accommodate just under 2,000 passengers and crew. The grandiosity and ostentatious design of the old cruise ships was replaced with a sleek, contemporary modern design, utilizing stainless steel, ceramics and new plastics. As the war raged in Europe, the S.S. America's planned North Atlantic route was abandoned for sailing in safer waters, but her life as a passenger liner ended quickly when the United States entered World War II. While in port at Saint Thomas in the Virgin Islands in May 1941, the ship was ordered to Newport News, Virginia, to be handed over to the Navy. The ship was repainted a camouflage gray while moored at Norfolk, Virginia, and refitted for the capacity of 7,678 troops. She was put into use as a troop transport ship that summer.

Howard Mumm of Company I, 275th Regiment was on board with Frank during this trans-Atlantic voyage. He stated that "living quarters consisted of small rooms lined with bunks spaced five high with barely enough distance between to climb into. Seasickness was common, beginning almost as soon as the ship cleared harbor. The throbbing of the engines and the roll of the vessel quickly brought a feeling of nausea to almost everyone. The sea was reasonably calm considering we were in the Atlantic in midwinter. Movement about ship was restricted to groups permitted on deck and to mess by units on a rotation basis. Many of the men were too ill to get up and preferred to lie in the bunks; for many it was impossible to eat."

The men were not informed of their fate or their destination, as Mumm stated, "After two or three days rumor spread that our destination was Europe - the Mediterranean area. The weather cleared beautifully, and going on deck was a real treat especially after being confined to the lower areas for long periods. We passed through the Strait of Gibraltar still speculating as to our destination. At the end of five or six days since leaving Boston we dropped anchor in Marseilles. Each man had been given the opportunity to shower (in salt water) just once during the voyage."

The U.S.S.West Point (AP23) docked at Marseilles, France, on 16 December 1944. George Marshall of Company I, 275th Infantry Regiment, was also on board with Frank, and he detailed their arrival. "We arrive at the port of Marseilles, France, at 8:00 in the morning. There are old fortress turrets looking down at us from high bluffs. Sure are glad they were silenced before we got here. There was evidence of much destruction of harbor facilities as well as in the town itself. A number of ships seemed to have been scuttled to avoid capture. This was our first sight of a war torn country, and it left a lasting impression on all of us." On the following day, the troops disembarked the U.S.S. West Point, but harbor conditions precluded them from making direct contact with the dock. The men had to jump into small lighters that bobbed alongside the ship to go ashore. This is not completed until after 2:30 a.m. the next morning. Marshall noticed that "these houses in France all had their window shutters closed and locked. Just another spooky reminder that we were in a foreign land, and that we were being drawn closer into the shooting war that we had all trained for."

The men were trucked to a staging area near the village of Aix to join the rest of the 274th that had arrived six days before. As Mumm stated, "there on a barren hillside we were assigned temporary quarters in tents, pitched in a grassless, treeless wasteland. A chilly rain mixed with large snow flakes fell intermittently." Per Marshall, "Our immediate problems of pitching tents and bedding down on top of the plateau in the mud and rain was far more real than the shooting war. A really miserable mess." But for a few days, the men get to explore the area around them and some get passes for a day in Marseilles. It is likely during this four-day lull that the above photograph that opens this blog post was taken. The soldiers are warned that in Marseilles are 14,000 registered "ladies of ill repute." George Marshall spent a day in Marseille on December 19th. "Just to walk the streets of this town, is to fill one with revulsion. The filth and corruption seem to be everywhere. Every doorway has its sleazy character trying to sell me obscene postcards. "Feelthy picture, Joe?" I only hope that this is just a symptom of the war-torn world that these people have been forced to endure for so long that they have forgotten society's rules of decency. Maybe it is now their only means of survival, waiting only for the return of a normal economy. Maybe it's just France. More reminders of the foreign environment and the war."

Together the men were now dubbed "Task Force Herren" under the command of deputy division commander Thomas W. Herren. There was little time for rest. The 70th Infantry Division was deployed to reinforced the front lines, and they were expected immediately. On 20 December 1944, they boarded a train of "forty-and-eight" box cars and traveled northward through Mulhouse roughly going parallel to the Rhine River toward Strasbourg and to the front lines. The cars gained their nickname as each was rated by the Army as capable of carrying either forty soldiers or eight horses. Ralph Crawford of the 275th described, "no one who has seen one can forget the sign, HOMMES-40-CHEVAUX-8. In other words, the old French Forty and Eights looked as though they had seen service since Napoleon. No complaints about ventilation there. Every car fitted out with a perfect cooling system. Cooling did I say? Forgive me, I meant, freezing! At the time we thought that we were as close to hell as we could get, eating 10-in-1s [parceled field ration intended to provide one meal for ten men], griping, lurching to and fro with the old cheese-boxes... and relieving ourselves in the most undignified positions ever though of in man's perverted dreams." The men covered over 500 miles in cramped conditions and arrived at Brumath, France, on Christmas Eve.

British soldiers on board a "forty-and-eight" boxcar, 1939.
Note the stenciled sign to the top right of the open door,
"HOMMES 40: CHEVEAUX (en long) 8"

Howard Mumm again: "That night it was difficult to remember that it was Christmas Eve. There were no Christmas trees, bright lights and tinsel; no carols were sung; no gifts were exchanged. Now and then a "Merry Christmas" was heard but there was little enthusiasm. The past few weeks of anxiety and fatigue and ever worsening cold weather had taken their toll. Only in our own hearts and to ourselves could we express all the longings for the things of the past: home and loved ones, remembrances of other Christmas Eves..." Artillery fire could be heard nearby consistently, but despite the bitter cold and sounds of war it was the last decent sleep any men of "Task Force Herren" would experience. The following day the men of the 70th Infantry Division would march to the vicinity of Bischwiller, France, south of the Haguenau Forest, and take over defensive positions on the west bank of the Rhine River.

For 22-year-old Frank Strukel, the reality of war was finally settling in, and unfortunately he had no way of knowing his first week's ordeal in France would be the highlight of his service in Europe. "War is Hell," first uttered by General William Tecumseh Sherman in 1879 while recounting his war career, has been aptly used to describe every war thereafter. Because after Christmas, 1944, Frank Louis Strukel would enter hell. 

Saturday, March 15, 2014

And Now A Word From Our Sponsor...

I want to let the readers know that I experienced a hard drive failure and am working to resurrect it or replace and reload it from a backup. I am anxious to resume writing, as I have discovered information within the last week that was shocking and surprising and new even to me! But, alas, I cannot write an entire post from a cell phone. I request your patience, and if you see a funding campaign link on here for a new laptop, you will know why! Please check back often!

Thank you.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Frank, Part II: Preparing for War

Frank Louis Strukel, 1945

Frank Strukel was only sixteen years old when war erupted in Europe upon Germany's invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939. Having left school just a year before to enter into the work force at the age of fifteen, it is likely that Frank was enamored by the chivalrous nature of becoming a soldier and the romance of traveling to Europe. There may have even been a personal stake for the family in Elkhart to monitor the war in Europe, as Frank's grandfather and namesake, Frančišek Štrukelj, was still living in the Fascist Italy occupied area of Yugoslavia.

The attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 inflamed the senses and passions of many Americans, and when the United States declared war against Japan the following day, and then upon Germany and Italy on 11 December 1941, many of these proud young American men rushed to be a part of the military.  By the end of 1942, the total number of Army personnel had swelled to 5.4 million individuals from its 1.7 million the year before. The Army was training and shipping men overseas at a phenomenal rate.

Frank Strukel was one of those men.

On 31 December 1942, Frank left his job at Northern Indiana Brass Company and drafted into the United States Army with a handful of other men from Elkhart, Indiana. His older brother, Charles, had joined the service in October, and it was now his turn to give his services to his country. Frank Strukel was just twenty years old, 5 feet 6 inches tall, and 112 pounds when he was inducted into the service in Toledo, Ohio. The following week, Frank and nineteen other men left Elkhart, Indiana, by a New York Central train to the reception center at Camp Perry, near Port Clinton in Ottawa County, Ohio. In a photo taken for the Elkhart Truth on the day of his departure, young Frank stands confidently, almost a bit cocky, with his pipe jutting from his mouth. He still had no idea what it meant to be at war.

The Elkhart Truth, Friday, 8 January 1943, page 4;
Frank Strukel is standing second from the right.

Frank was then sent to Fort Leonard Wood in the Missouri Ozarks for basic training. The facility was brand new, having begun construction in December 1940 in response to the training needed for an enormous number of new recruits. Its first batch of eager young men arrived in 1941. By the time Frank arrived in 1943, hundreds of new soldiers had already passed through its gates. Basic training consisted of a seventeen-week program, but as the war progressed, this was often shortened to speed recruits to the war front. In addition to physical training, the new recruits were schooled in their first month on such subjects as military courtesy, articles of war, personal hygiene and first aid, and other basic courses. But as training progressed these course became far more serious: camouflage and individual security, defense against chemical attack, night operations, marches and bivouacs, marksmanship and small-arms firing. It was clear to these boys even under the pretense of camaraderie and adventure there loomed a dangerous future.

Baracks Interior, Fort Leonard Wood, Pulaski County, Missouri
Mess Hall, Fort Leonard Wood, Pulaski County, Missouri

By the end of 1943, Frank had been stationed at Fort Crockett in Galveston, Texas. Working as an MP on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico must have been quite an adventure for Frank, having never remembered anything but the flatness of Indiana. Little is known of his time here, and it was probably the life of any soldier on any base - one of strict routine and adherence to rules and policies. The terms of Frank's enlistment were "for the duration of the War or other emergencies, plus six months, subject to the discretion of the President or otherwise according to law." It was apparent that this war was set to drag on for some time further, and it was only a matter of time before he and his comrades were sent into combat. One only had to look at the daily news to read the casualties mounting for this war. It is estimated that the United States lost an average of 297 men per day during World War II. The worst of the fatalities were yet to come, and Frank was all too aware that somehow he would be a part of it.

Frank Strukel at Fort Crockett, Galveston, Texas, 1943

By the fall of 1944, Frank held the rank of private, and was placed in Company L, 274th Regiment of the 70th Infantry Division. This division, dubbed "The Trailblazers," was first activated at Camp Adair in Oregon on 15 June 1943. It is not known exactly when Frank became part of the Trailblazers, but he was probably sent back to Fort Leonard Wood in July 1944, where the bulk of the 70th had arrived from Camp Adair. They had all assembled under the command of Major General Allison J. Barnett who had just returned from serving in the Pacific Theater of Operations. They were preparing for deployment. They were preparing for war.

Frank was headed to the European Theater of Operations. He was headed for combat. He was headed for events that would change his life forever.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Frank, Part I: Growing Up

Frank L. Strukel, 1940s, Elkhart, Indiana

Frank Louis Strukel was the youngest of my atypical number of six grandparents, having been born 28 October 1922 in Wolf Park, Colorado. One would be hard-pressed to find the location of Wolf Park on a current map. What little remained of it in the latter part of the twentieth century was annexed by Cañon City in Fremont County, but even prior to that, it was only a designated flat on topographical maps. But in the early twentieth century, it was home to the Wolf Park Coal Mine owned by the Wolf Park Leasing Company of Cañon City, Colorado, and Frank Strukel was born here, the son of an immigrant Slovenian coal miner.

Janez Štrukelj and Terezija Stupica were both 1902 Slovene immigrants, and both were eighteen years old upon their arrival to this country. Both were from poor, relatively mobile Catholic families that lived about twenty-five miles south of today's capital city of Ljubljana. Many Slovenes were schooled in both their native language as well as in German, and many records of the area are found written in a mix of German, Slovene and Latin. Since the Slavic languages were so alien to English-speaking ears, Janez Štrukelj became the Germanic Johan Strukel, and finally the English John Strukel. Terezija similarly became Theresa, but she soon preferred to be called by a shortened nickname, Rose.

Both teenagers followed a chain migration to the Iron Mountain region of northern Minnesota, where Slovenes had been settling since the 1880s, arriving in response to the boom of iron ore mining in the area. When the first Slovenian Catholic church in the area was built in 1885, and the first resident Slovenian priest arrived in 1888, immigration from the homeland to this area flourished. Although John Strukel was the first of his immediate family to arrive, many more distant kinsmen were already residents of this area. Theresa Stupica had come to join her brother, Karol/Carl/Charles Stupica who had arrived in 1900, who in turn came to join their sister who had arrived in 1897.

Although the Strukel family and Stupica family lived less than ten miles from each other in the old country, it is doubtful that John and Rose had knowledge of each other before arriving in the United States. But in a thriving Slovenian community in northern Minnesota, they became aware of each other's existence through mutual social and religious circles. They were living in the same household in Chisholm, Minnesota, during the enumeration of the state census done in June, 1905, and on the 21st of September of that same year, they were married in a simple Catholic ceremony performed in nearby Eveleth, Minnesota.

For the next two decades, mining ruled the lives of John and Rose (Stupica) Strukel and their growing family. John worked in the iron ore mines of Minnesota immediately before and after his marriage, and their first son John was born in Chisholm in 1907; but he could find more work as a coal miner, and he was forever moving from mine to mine in search of better work and better wages. From 1908 to 1919, John worked in coal mines in Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado; and his family followed. Rarely did they stay at one mine for too long, seldom more than a year, and along the way were born Rose (1908), Mary (1911), Matthew (1912), and Anthony (1914). Finally in 1919, John decided to call Colorado his home, and began work at the Coal Creek mines in Fremont County, Colorado. His son Charles was born here in 1919, and although he again moved ten miles northwest to the Wolf Park Coal Mine when Frank was born in 1922, his interstate movement had ended. A final move to Huerfano County, Colorado, about one hundred miles south, was followed by the birth of the last two children to John and Rose Strukel: Alice in 1923 and Anne in 1926.

The Strukel Family, 1926
Rear: Mary, Rose, John, Matthew and Anthony
Middle: Rose holding Anne, John, Charles and Frank
Front: Alice

John Strukel, now in his forties and supporting a wife and nine children, needed a life change. Coal mining was hard work, and it was time to find something more stable, more permanent and less physically taxing. Over the previous years, five of John's siblings had immigrated to the United States. Although his younger brother, Anton Strukel, had arrived in 1909 and had also headed for Eveleth, Minnesota, he soon found his way to the growing Slovenian population of Elkhart, Indiana, barely three years later where he found work with the railroad. His other brothers, Joseph and Charles, had also made their homes in Elkhart for short periods of time. His sister, Pauline, who was only five years old when John left their parental home in Slovenia, was the last to come to this country, arriving in 1920. Although she initially went to Cleveland, Ohio, and married there in 1921, she too had come to Elkhart with her husband shortly afterward. The New York Central Railroad was one of the major employers in Elkhart, Indiana, and available work, family ties and a strong Catholic Slovenian presence beckoned to John and his family. They left Colorado and coal mining behind them in 1927 to make the last major move of their lives. Frank wasn't even five years old yet. He never had to experience the perpetual household upheavals that the elder children experienced, and he would likely have few memories of being a toddler in Colorado. Elkhart, Indiana, would be all he would ever know.

Immediately upon arriving in Indiana, the family was beset with tragedy. They had taken up temporary residence at 1030 West Indiana Avenue when their daughter, Alice Angeline, contracted and died of rheumatic fever barely a month shy of her fourth birthday on 17 July 1927. They sought solace in their reestablished family network and in their new church, St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church, in whose parish cemetery they laid their daughter to eternal rest.

St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church,
1108 South Main Street, Elkhart, Indiana

The following year, the family moved to the home vacated by John's brother, Anton, at 617 West Cleveland Avenue, and although the Strukels would move three more times in the 1930s, they stayed in the same neighborhood and barely a mile from their parish church. The parents had failed to maintain the children's religious upbringing during their many moves, and they immediately had Mary, Matthew and Anthony confirmed on the same day in October 1928. Frank - whom the nuns called Francis since his given name was too secular - celebrated his first communion on 15 February 1932, while also attending school at St. Vincent's, and later that year was confirmed into the church with his uncle, Anton Strukel, serving as his sponsor. John Strukel was steadily employed, most often by the New York Central Railroad, or with local factories, and the family made it through the Depression without major hardship. The family had moved into their final home, 716 West Garfield Avenue, by 1938. The older children were getting married and grandchildren were joining the fold. The Strukels had settled into the comfortable routine of work, family, home and church. Frank had left school after the ninth grade and was working with his father in the railroad stock yards when he was eighteen.

St. Vincent de Paul Catholic School, Elkhart, Indiana,
 as it appeared at the time Frank attended.

But war was brewing in Europe, and when the United States entered into it, so did Frank. And that would change his life forever.


Saturday, March 8, 2014

Reunion

L-R: Carol (DePrato) Lacopo, Helen (Timmons) Miller Strukel,
Dianne (Strukel) Moore, and Sandra (Miller) Canen,
Elkhart, Indiana; November 1982

Waiting through a full day, a sleepless night, and another full day to meet her new family nearly drove my mother insane. I am sure there must have been a million things racing around in her head that I was hardly privy to. When that evening finally came, my mother and brothers piled into the car to make that short drive to Elkhart. Being late in November, the daylight hours had long since passed, and it was dark and quiet with a chill in the air. Beyond general murmuring, I don't think anyone knew what to say. This wasn't exactly a routine trip to K-Mart. The tension was thick, and my mother was visibly shaking. As we started on our brief journey, the anxiety was lessened by the car radio blurting out Jackson Browne on the Top 40 radio station:

"I heard her talkin' with her friend when she though nobody else was around.
She said she's got to be somebody's baby; she must be somebody's baby.
'Cause when the cars and the signs and the street lights light up the town,
She's got to be somebody's baby;
She must be somebody's baby;
She's got to be somebody's baby..."

That generated a lot of nervous laughter, but the mood was still obviously one of eager anticipation, excitement, fear and anxiety. But since this is really not my story to tell, I will let my mother take over from here.

"I was terrified and shaking like a leaf. I didn't know what I would do if my mother and sisters looked at me and didn't like what they saw. I didn't know what on earth I was going to say to them. I just had no idea what I might be walking into. My legs would barely hold me up as I walked to the front door to meet them. And suddenly there they were. The first two people I saw were what I assumed to be my mother and sister. My mother hugged me, and I looked at my sister and said, "Are you Sandy?" She said, "No, I'm your younger sister Dianne." That sentence nearly made me pass out. I had wanted a sister all my life and here was my full-blooded sister standing in front of me." 

"After the initial shock of meeting both of them, they took me into the living room, and it was full of people. To say I was overwhelmed is an understatement. There was my sister Dianne's husband and her two children, my half-sister Sandy and her husband and daughter, and my uncle - my dad's brother. I knew that someone was talking and introducing people to me, but wasn't comprehending anything. All I could hear was my heart beating in my head. I was led to the couch, and we all started talking at once. They had albums full of family pictures. My new niece, Lisa, had drawn me a picture. My sister and I were comparing noses, trying to decide whose was bigger, and we were all laughing. It was so easy. It was like a family reunion. I felt like I belonged... like I had been gone for a while, and now I came back home."

"We were all talking and having a good time when I heard my mother say, "Carol, your brothers are on the phone and want to talk to you." Then I nearly came unglued. Not only did she tell the family members present, but she had also called her two sons in Oregon and told them already. What do I say to them? What were they going to say to me? I was getting scared all over again. They were so kind to me and told me they couldn't wait to meet me, and I was so happy."

"I couldn't take my eyes off my mother. The first thing that went through my mind was, "I hope I look like her when I am her age." Little did I know then that was a premonition. I don't see it as much as the rest of the family, but they all swear I look like her."

"I think that's what really struck me when I first saw my family. I had spent my childhood and especially my teenage years looking in the mirror and wondering who I looked like. I didn't look like anyone in my adoptive family. They all had dark complexions, black hair and brown eyes. I was born with bright blue eyes and platinum blond hair. As I got older, my hair turned brown, but I still couldn't pass as one of them. I'd just stare in the mirror and say, "Who do you belong to?" I wanted to find them so badly, but I knew that I probably never would - until I gave birth to a genealogist!"

"Everyone was glad I was there. I don't think I've ever been that happy except for the days that I gave birth to my children. I had found my family, and they had opened their arms and taken me in. This was nothing I was prepared for. I went home that night ecstatically happy and overwhelmed. I felt all warm and fuzzy inside. I was also a little afraid that they might not want to see me again, but that never happened. We've been a family ever since that day, and for that I am grateful."

But what about Frank Strukel? What about her father? Where was he? As my mother said, "I don't remember if my mother told me on the telephone the day before about my father, or if I just found out when I was there...."




Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Call




I don't recall pestering my mother to make contact after our day of discovery. Of course I wanted her to do so, but I don't remember feeling angst or impatience for her to do so. But I do remember her sitting on the information and doing nothing for a while. Thirty-two years distant, I cannot even tell you how long that "while" was, other than it was longer than I would have waited.

I am also unqualified to write this part of the story. I wasn't there. I didn't witness the phone call. I was not a part of the initial contact, which of course seems like only the natural course of events. A thirty-five-year-old child making her first contact with her sixty-five-year-old mother is something done without your fifteen-year-old son staring you down.

Nobody in my immediate family can call themselves "morning persons." Nobody. If you say you went to bed at midnight, it will probably be followed by, "why so early?" Even today, without the restraints of office hours and regimens, I find I do my best work late at night. It took me a long while after quitting my day job to realize that working until 4 a.m. and sleeping until 11 a.m. is okay.

And so that is how I was informed of my mother's first contact. I was sound asleep in the late morning hours on a November Saturday in 1982 when my mother awakened me with breathless shrieks of "I did it! I did it! I called her! I called her!" After recovering from the initial bleary confusion, I have to admit I was a bit dismayed to have not been witness to this monumental event , especially after having come all this way so intimately involved. But at least from the jubilant expression on my mother's face, I presumed it went well.

On hindsight my mother relayed to me how terrified she was to make that call. Through stories she had read in the press and from the nay-saying friends and relatives that knew of her quest, she heard the typical chorus of warnings:

"You know a lot of these don't go well. She may not want to hear from you."
 "She gave you away once. Are you sure you want to handle that rejection again?"
 "Calling her is very selfish. She's had a life for thirty-five years that you're just going to upset." 

Terrified of all the ways this could go wrong, my mother still picked up the phone on that early Saturday morning. The house was still quiet, and she could do this in a moment of privacy. The dialog is that told to me by my mother, and although the story has been repeated to me numerous times in the past, I would have loved to have had the opportunity again to ask my grandmother Helen again what she heard on her end.

How does one go about introducing yourself as someone's long lost child? Directly, of course.

Carol: "Hello, is this Helen Strukel?"

Helen: "Yes."

Carol: "I think you're my mother."

Helen: "What is your name?"

Carol: "It was Carol Sue DePrato."

Helen: "Oh my God! You're my daughter!"

And that was it. There was no confirmation of dates and places of birth, or quizzes as to what my mother knew or didn't know. The identities were confirmed with a simple exchange. But this was immediately followed by a dizzying cacophony of names and details and tidbits of information that my mother had immediately forgotten upon hanging up the phone. When asked about details in which I was interested, my mother's reply was "I don't know" or "I don't remember." I do recall thinking how little she had to offer in the way of concrete information after this monumental phone call. But on the other end, Helen had put down her receiver not having made any notation of my mother's married name, her address or her phone number. Although a plan to meet was already set into motion, had my mother chickened out, Helen would have had no way to find her again. I guess just making contact was enough for the both of them. The rest would come later. Actually, the rest would come the very next day.

What Helen did tell my mother that morning was just by chance her other daughter and granddaughter happened to be there helping her rake leaves. My mother's obvious response: "Sandy?"

"No, Dianne. Your other sister. Your younger sister."

And so the sibling tally went up another notch. My mother now had two brothers and two sisters.

Quickly, a plan was made. Helen would get off the phone and immediately reveal to Dianne she had a sister. My mother's existence had remained a secret to all members of Helen's family until this time, but Helen was not the least deterred from letting everyone know as soon as possible. And once that little housekeeping business was taken care of my mother would meet her mother and two sisters the very next night.

The questions and answers would wait one more day. Contact was made. It was a good start. A very, very good start.