Uncle Hank: Veteran of World War II

by Melannie Svoboda SND on November 4, 2013

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.

Dad Army Portrait 001

My Uncle Hank 1943

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,

Hank serving Mass in Italy.

Hank serving Mass in Italy.

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

Hank and Jean, 1947

Hank and Jean, 1948

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

Hank and Jean, 1997

Golden Wedding Anniversary portrait of Hank and Jean 1998

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:

The stool my uncle made for me. I keep it next to the chair I pray in every morning.

The stool my uncle made for me and on which I keep my prayer books.

Louise and Hank 2012

Wedding portrait of Louise and Hank 2012

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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!

{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Kathleen Magiera November 4, 2013 at 5:03 am

Beautiful reflection on your Uncle Hank. He never lost his humanity in all that pain.

Thanks for sharing.

Kathleen

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Melannie Svoboda SND November 4, 2013 at 1:36 pm

Dear Kathleen, Thank you for your response. Maybe all that pain only deepened my uncle’s humanity…Take care! Melannie

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Peggy Svoboda November 4, 2013 at 10:51 am

Hi Dolly,

Thanks for the beautiful article about my Dad! Although I am familiar with all of the facts you wrote about, I still cried while reading it. Just one minor correction — Dad does read music. He took accordion lessons as a teen. However, he also can play by ear any song someone can sing. He’s doubly talented!

Love,
Peggy

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Melannie Svoboda SND November 4, 2013 at 10:59 am

Dear Peggy, Thank you for your response–and for that clarification. I just remember your Dad’s amazing musical ability. We would just hum or sing a song, and he’d play it as if he had written it! And thank you, Peggy, for emailing me these precious pictures I used! Your Dad is really a beautiful man! You must be proud to call him Dad! I know I’m proud to call him Uncle! Love, Dolly

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S. Pat Newhouse November 4, 2013 at 1:03 pm

As I read your Veterans Day blog it made me think of my dad and Uncle Joe who served in WWII. They were all great men and sacrificed much for our freedom. My grand nephew Kevin, 19 years old, just graduated from Army boot camp a month ago and is now a serving a 3 year tour of duty in Germany. Please pray for him and all our service men and women. Thanks Melannie for you many wonderful reflections.

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Melannie Svoboda SND November 4, 2013 at 1:37 pm

Dear Pat, I will pray for Kevin. It struck me that he (like my uncle) is only 19…Thank you for writing! God bless you! Melannie

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Mary Ellis Zelinsky November 4, 2013 at 1:18 pm

Wow! I’ve known Mr. and Mrs. Svoboda for 40 years, and although I knew he was a World War II veteran, I surely didn’t know the full story. Thanks so much for sharing your poignant memories of your Uncle Hank with us! What a life! What a perfect example of a Christian man.
His family, immediate and extended, are blessed to have him.
Mary Zelinsky, friend of Peggy Svoboda

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Melannie Svoboda SND November 4, 2013 at 1:38 pm

Dear Mary, How nice it is to know you know my Uncle Hank personally! You have met his goodness first hand! Thank you for responding! Melannie

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Karen November 4, 2013 at 2:46 pm

Thanks for sharing the story of your Uncle Hank and what a gift he has given the family to write down those memories for future generations. Its too bad that when we’re young, we are not that interested in history in general or our family genealogy, but as we age, that changes. You are blessed that Uncle Hank is still with you so you can ask him questions!
My husband’s Uncle returned from WWII and then entered the Priesthood, however he never spoke of his experiences. After he passed away, we requested his military record and found he had been in all the major battles in the Pacific, and contracted Malaria twice. That generation understood service!

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Melannie Svoboda SND November 4, 2013 at 5:04 pm

Dear Karen, Thank you for your wise words about how our appreciation for history and our family genealogy grows as we age. Maybe in heaven we’ll finally have “the time” (after all, it is eternity!) and the wisdom to ask those questions of our loved ones…Your husband’s uncle sounds like an exceptional man. Yes, that generation understood service. Amen to that! Sr. Melannie

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Annie November 4, 2013 at 4:22 pm

What a beautiful reflection you wrote! Will pray for your retreat.

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Melannie Svoboda SND November 4, 2013 at 5:04 pm

Thanks, Annie! I appreciate that! Melannie

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Mark Svoboda November 4, 2013 at 6:30 pm

Dear Cousin Dolly,
To echo what Peggy wrote, thank you for the beautiful article. We have all been blessed by the hardships endured by all who served in the military, including our uncles, cousins, neighbors, and friends. Our family feels especially blessed because Dad took the time to write down his experiences.
Mark

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Melannie Svoboda SND November 4, 2013 at 8:53 pm

Dear Mark, Yes, we have been blessed by those who endured such hardships in the military…And yes, what a blessing it is that your dad wrote down his war experiences for all of us–and for future generations. It’s great hearing from you, Mark! Thanks for writing! Dolly

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Ann Stockmaster November 4, 2013 at 9:09 pm

Sr. Melanie: Thank you so much for your memorial on my Uncle Hank. as a Regina alum and cousin to the Svoboda family, I’ve known a bit about you for many years. Remembering our veterans is so important and the members of the “Greatest Generation” are slipping away too quickly for words to express. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you!
Ann Stockmaster, Regina Class of 1976 and the daughter of Andy Stockmaster a World War II U.S. Army Ranger

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Melannie Svoboda SND November 5, 2013 at 4:59 am

Dear Ann, How nice it was to hear from you. I remember your Dad very well. I knew we were “related” indirectly because we shared the same aunt and uncle…It’s always good hearing from another Regina High School graduate too. Thank you so much for responding! Melannie

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Jean Shott November 4, 2013 at 10:50 pm

Dolly, thank you for writing such a moving story on Dad. He would probably be embarassed at the attention. I am forwarding this to my “kids” so they, too, can appreciate this side of Grandpa. He would never talk about his experiences – I’m glad he wrote them down.

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Melannie Svoboda SND November 5, 2013 at 5:01 am

Dear Jean, Yes, I’m sure your Dad would be embarrassed by all the attention, but he deserves it nonetheless. Thank you for writing, Jean, and for being one of those five “beautiful children” Uncle Hank and Aunt Jean raised! Love, Dolly

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Suzanne Sayer November 5, 2013 at 9:52 am

What a touching tribute. I am moved to tears. Thank you for reminding us of the great debt we owe to all who have served to protect us and our freedoms.

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Melannie Svoboda SND November 5, 2013 at 11:08 am

Dear Suzanne, And I was moved to tears as I wrote this…Thanks for responding! Melannie

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Kathy Hassink November 5, 2013 at 12:52 pm

Cousin Dolly –
Wonderful article on Uncle Hank! He is truly one of our nation’s heroes and I am proud to be honoring him this Veteran’s Day!

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Melannie Svoboda SND November 5, 2013 at 1:09 pm

Dear Kathy, Thanks for writing! I certainly agree with your words! Dolly (Readers: Kathy is the youngest daughter of Uncle Hank’s oldest sister, Helen). Melannie

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Tom November 5, 2013 at 8:26 pm

Melannie,

I have the privilege of sharing meals with a WWII veteran who was in the medical corp and involved in all the great battles on the western front. He still ponders how he has spent the rest of his life ‘making up’ for being away at war during the first four years of his marriage and fatherhood. I cannot imagine how anyone who has seen the horrors of war is able to recapture their human dignity.

Tom. PS: Have a great retreat.

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Melannie Svoboda SND November 6, 2013 at 6:43 am

Dear Tom, It is good that you are listening to the stories of a WWII veteran. Like you, I wonder how anyone who has experienced the horrors of war can “recapture their human dignity.” Thank you for your response to the blog! Melannie

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Carol Chimera November 8, 2013 at 9:28 am

Dolly,
Thanks for your beautiful tribute to my dad. My own children have now asked to read his account of his time in the service. Its a time in his life that he rarely speaks about so they had no idea what he experienced. Thanks for reminding us all about the debt of gratitude owed to all veterans.
Carol

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Melannie Svoboda SND November 8, 2013 at 10:22 am

Dear Carol, I’m so glad your kids are interested in reading their grandpa’s account of his military service. Yes, what a debt of gratitude we owe to all veterans! Thanks for writing, my dear cousin! Love, Dolly

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Carolyn November 12, 2013 at 6:35 pm

Sr. Melanie, my son in law just returned from a year in Afghanistan. I had 3 uncles and an aunt who served in WWll. WHY can’t we stop wars? If only mankind could learn to live in peace!!! Thank you for your beautiful tribute to your uncle and all veterans. Let us pray for peace!!!Carolyn

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Christina Ross November 10, 2014 at 11:51 am

Sr. Melannie, Lovely tribute to your Uncle Hank and to all who have, and who are serving today in our armed forces. I was moved to tears. God bless you for reminding us on Veteran’s Day that we truly owe many of our blessings to our veterans. May they feel the peace of God in their lives.

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Jean Moe Hartl November 10, 2014 at 12:09 pm

Sister Melannie,
What a beautiful reflection of your Uncle Hank! We thank them as we pay tribute to all the soldiers that served our USA. Those brave souls include my Dad, Bud, for his service abroad and at home to his church and family. Blessed are we.

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Dorothy November 17, 2014 at 6:57 pm

Sr. Melannie,
In reading your Uncle’s summary of World War II, it brought back memories of my cousin who fought in the war over in the Pacific. He came home, but 6 months later he was killed in a car accident. We owe so much tribute to those who suffered & came home & those who didn’t make it. God Bless all of them.

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