Article written by and appears from the Wall Street Journal: by Michael M. Phillips Oct. 19, 2012 10:31 p.m. ET
ST. JOHN, Ind.—Soon after she finished her junior year at Lake Central High School last spring, Marissa Emery visited the American war cemetery in St. Avold, France. Walking in, she could see just the blank backs of the white marble crosses, a vast, grassy field of the anonymous dead.
Only when she was standing among the grave markers did Ms. Emery turn and see that the front of each one bore a name, including that of the man she was there to visit: Cpl. Homer “Binks” Gettler. The 21-year-old soldier was killed fighting his way across France in 1944, while pining for Betty, the fiancée waiting for him at home in Indiana.
Ms. Emery gathered a pile of small stones in her T-shirt. On top of Cpl. Gettler’s cross she arranged them in the outline of a heart. She took one dark rock and threw it against the paved pathway until it broke in two. Ms. Emery placed half in the center of the heart. The other half she tucked into her backpack. That was for Betty.
Some 1,750 Indiana soldiers have lost their lives in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam and many more in World War II. Ms. Emery’s high-school history teacher, Tom Clark, wants his students to know that each one comes with a story.
Tracing the Stories of Fallen Troops
For 27 years, Mr. Clark has had his students track down the families of the state’s battle casualties. In hundreds of files jammed with letters, records, telegrams and photos, his classes have mapped the tides of the nation’s relationship with its wars and its dead.
The World War II generation was revered. Men who served in Indochina often came home to hostility. Today, with U.S. troops gone from Iraq and packing up their gear in Afghanistan, the country’s feelings have evolved again, with a support-the-troops ethic overriding political differences over the wisdom of the conflicts.
Mr. Clark’s project began in 1985, when one of his students launched a campaign to erect a memorial for five Lake Central High School graduates killed in Vietnam. Mr. Clark had his students interview the men’s families so the plaque could include details of their lives. The project swelled from there.
In August, Mr. Clark, 58 years old, handed out files and told his new students they had a semester to find out as much as they could about the dead servicemen. He held up a history book. “This textbook is going to say 58,142 died” in Vietnam, he told them. “Is that meaningful? No. That’s why I do this.”
His classroom is like a forgotten corner of the Smithsonian. Mr. Clark has a letter from a Marine asking his mother to mail rain gear to Vietnam, and a photo of the private sitting on a tank wearing the coat she sent. He later stepped off that tank and onto a land mine. Mr. Clark, an Afghanistan veteran himself, also has a disarmed bazooka, the uniform of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq, a trove of Purple Heart medals and a pile of Afghan army helmets.
He has the golden lieutenant’s insignia that one cash-strapped officer gave his girlfriend in lieu of an engagement ring before he died in Vietnam in 1966.
“Are you seeing the war?” Mr. Clark asked his new class. “The war is all around you.”
World War II
Mr. Clark and his students have been working on Cpl. Gettler’s history for years. They spoke to his sisters, now deceased, and collected binders filled with letters to and from the front lines.
Last year, Ms. Emery’s first three cases, all Vietnam casualties, went nowhere. Then Mr. Clark asked her to interview Cpl. Gettler’s former fiancée, now Betty Kolodziej. The two of them—17-year-old Ms. Emery, with her bouncy enthusiasm and wavy golden hair, and the 87-year-old Mrs. Kolodziej, with her hunched shoulders and tinted glasses—talked for four hours, the teenager smiling over Betty’s stories about her romance.
“Binks” Gettler was a star pitcher at Dyer High School, class of ’41. He threw five no-hitters and signed with the Chicago White Sox, to the chagrin of his Cubs-loving father. Betty, whose parents owned an ice-cream shop, would gaze out of geography class and watch him play ball. The teachers frowned upon hand-holding.
“We passed a lot of notes in the hallway,” she told Ms. Emery.
Binks and Betty became engaged before he shipped out for Europe with the 35th Infantry Division. Sometimes she would picture him overseas throwing grenades like baseballs.
On Sept. 22, 1944, he wrote to his sister Charlotte: Betty “should know by now that I am thinking of her at all times. All I do is pray for the day to come so we both can be together again, and married.”
His letter must have crossed with one from Charlotte. “Write some,” she said, “and I’m praying constantly for you.”
The envelope, now in Mr. Clark’s classroom, came back unopened and marked in red ink: “Deceased.”
About a week after Cpl. Gettler had written to his sister, German troops penetrated the division’s lines and drove the corporal and other American mortarmen out of position. Armed only with a pistol, he and a comrade pushed their way back to their mortar tube to repel the Germans. Cpl. Gettler was killed by enemy fire, earning a posthumous Silver Star medal for valor.
His 15-year-old sister Paula was home alone in Dyer, Ind., when the taxi driver delivered the Western Union telegram that now resides, tinged in brown, in Mr. Clark’s classroom.
“THE SECRETARY OF WAR DESIRES ME TO EXPRESS HIS DEEP REGRET THAT YOUR SON CORPORAL HOMER A GETTLER WAS KILLED IN ACTION ON TWO OCTOBER IN FRANCE LETER FOLLOWS. J A ULIO THE ADJUTANT GENERAL.”
Paula screamed at the driver to get off her porch.
“I didn’t believe it,” Mrs. Kolodziej told Ms. Emery. Even a couple of years later, she thought perhaps he had just been wounded and hadn’t returned because he was suffering from amnesia.
The corporal’s mother, Alma Gettler, chose to leave his body in France; she didn’t want him to come home like that.
‘He left four lives here and to know that it wasn’t in vain and he saved four people was just overwhelming.’
“Thousands of names,” Ms. Emery wrote in her journal after visiting the cemetery. “Thousands of soldiers who lost their lives fighting for their country. Thousands of mothers who lost their sons. Thousands of lives, just gone.”
In August, after her senior year began, Ms. Emery brought the broken stone and a candle to Mrs. Kolodziej’s house in Crown Point, Ind.
Putting her cane aside, Mrs. Kolodziej hugged Ms. Emery. Ms. Emery read from her journal, “so you could feel you had been there and been part of it.”
Mrs. Kolodziej held out arthritic knuckles and showed Ms. Emery her wedding ring. The engagement diamond she had received from Cpl. Gettler was set among the stones from the man she ultimately married, Peter Kolodziej, who had fought in the Battle of the Bulge and survived a German prison camp.
“She’s making me go back so many years, like I was young,” Mrs. Kolodziej told Mr. Clark. She held a photo of Cpl. Gettler’s tombstone at arm’s length. “I don’t want to get any tears on it,” she said.
“You did something really very beautiful there,” she told Ms. Emery.
Yolanda Smith-Hess was five when her father, Spc. 4 Wardell Smith, was killed in Vietnam on July 4, 1968. He was 27.
Her mother and grandmother rarely spoke of his death. “I think my mom was just so devastated that her husband was killed over there,” said Ms. Smith-Hess. Her uncles kept saying how her father, and the U.S., should never have been in Vietnam in the first place.
Ms. Smith-Hess’s memories are blurry and faded: Her mother sitting on a chair across from his casket; of being distracted by a puff of smoke during the 21-gun salute, as the body was lowered into the grave; turning back to see that her father had disappeared. She thought it might be magic.
Relatives always described her father as a natural leader. She grew up angry he was gone.
“It makes you wonder about everything,” said Ms. Smith-Hess, now 49. “I was just stuck in the fact that I was a child growing up, not having an opportunity to have her dad in her life.”
Mr. Clark and one of his students began researching the case in the late 1980s. They contacted Spc. Smith’s mother, Elnora Cast, who lent the class a small formal photo. He gazed straight ahead, betraying no emotion in his black tie and peaked Army hat.
By the time the class tried to return the photo a few months later, Ms. Cast had died, never knowing the circumstances of her son’s death.
Mr. Clark eventually tracked down Ms. Smith-Hess. “I’ve never seen a picture of him in uniform,” Mr. Clark recalled her saying. Her grandmother, she figured, had kept it in the wooden chest that she and her three siblings had always been told was off-limits.
Over the years, Mr. Clark’s students pried Spc. Smith’s military records out of the Pentagon. The records identified him as “negroid” and described his civilian work experience as distributing “sausages to different stores.”
In 1997, the Smith case was in the hands of Melissa Wells, a 17-year-old 11th-grader who now describes her high-school self as a “girlie girl,” with little interest in the military or history until she took Mr. Clark’s class.
That year, she and her classmates discovered that Spc. Smith had earned the Bronze Star and Silver Star medals, and that they were never issued. In the spring, Ms. Wells and Mr. Clark drove to Ms. Smith-Hess’s home in Gary, Ind., with the official military citations.
The Bronze Star was almost a pro forma consolation prize for dying in battle. But the Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest military honor, was awarded for an uncommon act of valor.
Ms. Wells told Ms. Smith-Hess how her father had been at a base camp when it came under enemy attack. He left a sheltered position, braved a “fire swept area” and sped to the besieged perimeter bunkers, where he brought two wounded men to safety, according to the records she read. Hearing there were more injuries, he raced back to the perimeter, but was thrown to the ground by an explosion.
He got up and despite the “heavy volume of fire” reached the perimeter bunker to begin treating the wounded. Then he dashed to the adjacent bunker in search of more injured men. He was killed by an explosion as he entered the bunker.
Ms. Smith-Hess wept as the teenager talked. “I had actual documentation that I could read about who he was,” Ms. Smith-Hess recalled years after the visit. Mr. Clark “was able to give me those last hours of my father’s life.”
She felt a little ashamed she had been so angry for so long. She wondered whether the men her father helped had made it out of Vietnam alive. She wished she could meet them.
“He left four lives here and to know that it wasn’t in vain and he saved four people was just overwhelming,” Ms. Smith-Hess said.
Ms. Wells, now Melissa Ferro, is a 32-year-old pediatric-oncology nurse in California. She also raises money for baby showers for the wives of soldiers overseas, volunteer work inspired in part by her experience with Ms. Smith-Hess.
“Every girl wants to believe her daddy is a hero,” she said. “I gave that to her.”
When Angie Wagner’s father, a Marine sniper, was killed in Vietnam, strangers told her she should be ashamed of him. Ms. Wagner, then just a child, learned to lie and say she didn’t know how her dad had died.
Twenty years ago, she received a call from Mr. Clark and his students, who wanted to know about her father. She remembers it as the first time anyone outside the family had said anything nice to her about her dad. Today, her own daughter, Allison, is a senior at Lake Central and taking Mr. Clark’s history course.
One evening in August, Allison Wagner, two of her classmates and Mr. Clark went to the childhood home of Staff Sgt. David Nowaczyk, determined to show the sergeant’s parents that they weren’t suffering alone. The soldier, a Lake Central graduate, was killed at age 32 on April 15 in Afghanistan.
For more than an hour, they sat in the living room, under Sgt. Nowaczyk’s photo and Purple Heart medal, and asked Andrew and Patti Nowaczyk about their son. What was he like? How did he die? How has his death affected the family?
“He’s not just another name to us,” Ms. Wagner told them.
“Thank you,” said Mr. Nowaczyk, a 57-year-old oil-company maintenance supervisor.
The 17-year-old girls—Ms. Wagner, junior Sarah Harnish and senior Natalia Ruiz —heard about the ups and downs of grief still fresh. They heard about the comfort provided by friends and neighbors who sympathized with the Nowaczyks’ loss and respected their son for his sacrifice.
Mrs. Nowaczyk, age 54, an assistant in a law firm, told the girls about David’s mischievous youth. How at age 6 he had disassembled the front-door lock. “He was all boy,” she said.
That’s about how old the girls themselves were on Sept. 11, 2001, when hijackers flew planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field. The attack got David talking about the Army. He was 22 years old and working as a truck driver. His mother begged him not to enlist, and he held off for a few years.
In 2005, he joined up, breaking the news to his mother at a restaurant so she wouldn’t cry. After his first tour of Afghanistan, he met his wife, Rachel, a nurse with a young son, Conner, from a previous marriage. They had a daughter, Kiley, now 2 years old.
On his third combat tour, Sgt. Nowaczyk’s vehicle hit a buried bomb in eastern Afghanistan. Of the five men inside, he was the only one to die.
The Nowaczyks were hosting a barbecue for neighbors in Dyer, Ind., when Mr. Nowaczyk saw a uniformed soldier and a chaplain walking to the house. He apologized to his guests and ushered them out the back, before he and his wife opened the front door to face the news they knew was coming.
The Army flew the couple to the Air Force base in Dover, Del., to meet their son’s body. When they returned home, they found their street lined with hundreds of American flags. There was a heart-shaped wreath on the lawn with a photo of their son. Neighbors filled a cooler with ice and soft drinks, and kept it stocked for weeks. A stranger sent a handmade red-white-and-blue quilt.
The wake was a blur. “You want to go hide,” Mr. Nowaczyk told the girls. “You want to go vomit. But you have to greet everybody.”
At first, they thought they didn’t want the attention. The Nowaczyks soon realized the outpouring of support meant their son wouldn’t soon be forgotten.
Ms. Harnish asked how Sgt. Nowaczyk’s death had affected the family dynamics. Mr. Nowaczyk said he often sleeps on the floor beside his granddaughter, Kiley. For a while, the little girl, having been told her father was in heaven, would let loose balloons and wave at passing planes.
“We’re still at the stage where we’re still tiptoeing around each other,” said Mrs. Nowaczyk, who wears a memorial dog tag around her neck.
“You have good and bad days?” Ms. Harnish asked.
“It’s not even days,” said Mrs. Nowaczyk, “it’s moments.”
The third student, Ms. Ruiz, had been mostly silent. Then she broke into tears. “I was 11 when my dad died,” she said, “and I didn’t have the courage to speak at his funeral.”
This time the Nowaczyks comforted her: “No child should ever have to bury a father,” Mr. Nowaczyk said.
Ms. Wagner told the Nowaczyks of her own grandfather’s death in combat and of her mother’s battle with bitterness and shame. The Nowaczyks recalled the cold reception that veterans and their families received during Vietnam and how different their experience has been.
“We carry a big black cloud over our heads, and it rains every day,” Mr. Nowaczyk told the girls. “The fact that you came here is incredible.”
Write to Michael M. Phillips at firstname.lastname@example.org