November 11th is Veterans Day, the day we honor all those who have served in the military. Today I’m dedicating my blog to one veteran I know: Henry Svoboda, my uncle, who served in the army during World War II. Someone has said, “To appreciate the ocean you must first appreciate a drop of water.” The ocean was World War II. Uncle Hank was a precious drop of water in that massive conflict. After he retired in 1986, my uncle wrote an account of his wartime experience. I will quote from that memoir.
First some facts. World War II was the deadliest military conflict in human history. Over 60 million people were killed during that war or 2.5% of the world’s population. The US Armed Forces numbered 16.1 million. The number of Americans killed was 291,557. The number of wounded was over 671,000.
Hank Svoboda was born on August 21, 1924, the youngest of six children. He was a senior at East Tech High School in Cleveland when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He writes, Little did I realize what a profound effect this event would have on my future life. He graduated in June 1942 and within a year he was inducted into the army. During basic training at Camp Wheeler, Georgia, Hank’s father died at age 55. Hank felt very deeply for his mother. Three of her sons were in the army and now her husband was gone. Hank was only 19 when he finished basic training. He sailed for Europe on January 22, 1944, landing first in Africa before sailing on to Naples where the war was fiercely waging.
The Germans had retreated from Naples, but, before doing so, they had sunk about 20 ships in the harbor. We actually walked to shore on the side of the overturned hulls. The Germans had also destroyed the Naples water system. The civilians were offering us $5 for a canteen of water. Hank was sent to the 88th Division Cannon Company. He saw his first combat on April 20 when, at 5:00 pm as the men sat around eating chow out of their mess kits, they heard a massive explosion nearby. The Germans had zeroed in on their position and began to fire 88 mm shells at them. The first shell wounded three men. One was his friend, Harry Myers, sitting only a few feet from him. A piece of shrapnel took off his hand. They gave him morphine for the pain. He never came back to his outfit. I was shaking like a leaf and couldn’t believe how terrible war was.
Hank’s account describes many other terrifying battles: Here I was, 19 years of age, trying to kill someone I had never met before, and I’m sure they were trying to kill me. War is legalized murder. He recounts the maiming by landmines, the sleepless nights,
the dead bodies of U.S. soldiers being hauled away in trucks, the bodies of German soldiers lying in the streets, the lack of food, and the stench of death all around. He writes, You sleep on the ground, behind rocks, in ditches, bombed out houses, caves, whatever protection you can find. You sleep in the same clothes a month at a time. We used our steel helmets as wash basins, pots, or whatever. Disease was also prevalent: trench foot, malaria, dysentery, and infectious hepatitis (which he contracted.) In one part of his memoir, Hank lists the names of several of his friends killed in action: Richard Gardner, Eugene Vickers, Conrad Baehr, and Fernand Rodriguez who was killed on the last day of the war. Even though Hank wrote his account forty years after the war, he could still remember their names.
Germany finally surrendered in June 1945. For several months Hank stayed in Europe performing various duties as an MP: maintaining and repairing vehicles, guarding German prisoners, and keeping the G.I.’s orderly . Finally, in December 1945 he boarded the aircraft carrier the USS Randolph in Naples for the trip home, arriving in New York City at 3:00 p.m. on Christmas Day.
Hank started his apprenticeship in carpentry in 1947. He married my Aunt Jean on September 11, 1948. Together they raised five
beautiful children. He and Jean were married for 60 years when she died in January 2009. In 2012 Hank, at age 87, married Louise, a widow he met through the Canecians, a club for Catholic widows and widowers. What amazes me when I read my uncle’s memoir is that, after being a part of such carnage and terror, he (and many other veterans) came home and actually began to live a “normal” life. Some, I know, did not. I was a little girl back then and didn’t realize that my uncles–who teased me, gave me quarters, and danced the polka with me–had witnessed such unspeakable horrors only a few years earlier.
To this day my uncle remains an example of love, faith, goodness, courage, sensitivity, and joy for me. When I was growing up, at every family get together Uncle Hank would unpack his accordion and
play for us. He didn’t read music but played everything by ear. He sang songs in both Czech and English—often harmonizing with his brother Charlie, his cousin Joe, and my Uncle George. In his retirement, Uncle Hank made a beautiful stool for me and dozens of his other relatives. It sits next to the chair I pray in each morning.
Let us pray for all veterans on Veterans Day, thanking them for their service, helping them in their need, and listening to their stories if they wish to share them with us. And in their honor, let us continue to pray and work for peace.
Two more Pictures:
PS: Thank you for the prayers for the retreat this past weekend at Villa Maria, PA. Twenty-seven beautiful women and men made the weekend. ALSO: I will be making my own retreat November 10-17. Therefore, there will be no new post on Monday November 11. My blog will continue on November 18. I promise to remember all of you in special prayer during my retreat, and I ask that you remember me in prayer too. Many thanks!