His name was Frank Sadowski.
This Memorial Day, I couldn’t help but think of all of the people who made that ultimate sacrifice and how their deaths changed history – and I don’t necessarily mean history on the battlefield. I’m talking about personal history. Many changes are invisible in the big picture – but life-altering to the people on the receiving end.
You see, Frank was scheduled to be my father. Frank was engaged to my mother. But Frank never came home from WWII. All gave some, and some gave all. Frank gave all. The ultimate sacrifice.
When I was about 10 years old, I found a man’s ring in my mother’s jewelry box that I didn’t remember seeing before. Not her “current” jewelry box, but the special box for “old things.” I got the ring out, put it on and started playing with it. I thought it might have been my Dad’s, who had died a few years earlier. The ring, of course, was much too large. I waltzed out into the kitchen with the ring dangling from my finger, and the look on my mother’s face would have stopped a freight train. Someplace between shock and horror – and then pain as she cried. She came, retrieved the ring, put it away and told me I couldn’t play with that. I asked whose it was, and she simply said she couldn’t talk about it. I felt just awful. So did she.
It would be many years, but then one day, as I faced Vietnam married to a Marine, she told me the story of Frank.
I felt like I was an intruder into a sacred space made just for two, a time capsule all sealed up. That capsule was full of both joy and sorrow. It was the sorrow that sealed it for years.
We sat on the edge of the bed, and Mom told me about Frank, and about her and Frank. I stared at the pattern on the bedspread, burned into my mind yet today, unable to look at her. She wasn’t there anyway. She was someplace else – back in Chicago with Frank in the 1940s. Her sorrow, even after all those years, was current, real, palpable and painful. You could feel it in every word she spoke, and even in the pauses between words and the sometimes long stretches between sentences. Tears silently rolled down her cheeks. Tears roll down mine today as I remember…
Frank had hopes and dreams and plans. He was the all-American boy, participating in clubs in high school.
He wanted to be a doctor. He wanted to get married – to my mother. He wanted a family. But the war interfered. That war interfered with nearly everything.
Mom went to Chicago in 1943 or 1944 to dance with a professional tap and ballet company that performed primarily at the Edgewater Beach Hotel, a swanky upscale beachside hotel on Lake Michigan that featured acts like Bing Crosby. Her troupe was sometimes the main attraction, and sometimes the backup act for big name talent. You can see a video about Chicago nightlife in 1947 here. I think mother is the dark haired women in the front beginning about minute 6:14.
Mom was a beautiful, talented lady and had many beaus and suitors. She lived in a house with a widow lady, who she called Mommie Mackenzie, who acted as her surrogate mother/grandmother and chaperone. It was just not acceptable for a respectable young woman to be unchaperoned in Chicago. Mother was 20 in 1943.
I don’t know how Mom and Frank met. I didn’t have the heart to ask Mom any more questions that would be painful. I do know they fell in love in Chicago and planned to marry as soon as he came home.
Frank enlisted in February of 1943, perhaps before he met mother.
By Christmas of 1944, they were an item. He was stationed in San Francisco at that time, but would ship out to the Pacific theater in early 1945 and faced some of the bloodiest battles of the war. Those, he survived.
Mom said Frank was a doctor. I think he actually was a medic, but I really don’t know. It doesn’t matter now. What matters is that Frank enlisted to help people. He died doing just that in a medical unit. Mom said that Frank was killed trying to help another man “after the first truce but before the second one.”
Mom said that she knew the last time she saw Frank off at the train station that he would never come home. I asked her how she knew and she said she didn’t know, but that she cried too hard – and she knew. Mom always had a way of knowing things like that.
Mom repeated to herself over and over that things would be alright, that Frank would come home…trying to make it true by virtue of sheer willpower. But it wasn’t to be.
VE Day, or Victory in Europe Day was celebrated on May 8, 1945 but it would be another three months until VJ Day, Victory in Japan Day, was celebrated on August 15th, 1945. Frank was stationed in Okinawa during that time. He never saw VE or VJ Day, because he was killed on April 19th, just days before the end of the war.
Mom tells how she was called and asked around noon on VJ Day, the 15th, to participate in the impromptu Chicago celebrations held in the streets downtown. The country went insane with celebration described as an “outbreak of giddy.” Life was going to return to normal and Johnny would come marching home. Except Frank didn’t.
Mother said she wanted to be happy, and to celebrate, and she did go and sing with the group of performers – but she could not be happy. One of her songs was a patriotic solo and she said she very nearly could not make it through the performance. The celebration could not overcome her somberness and grief. While, she was glad that the war was over and no one else would be killed, there was no joy in the celebration for her.
The man who was to be my mother’s husband and my father, would never be those things. He was robbed of that opportunity, and so was Mom. Frank gave all.
Frank came home, but in a different way. Frank is pictured above with his father, also Frank, who would bury his son four years later and request a military headstone. Yes, it took the family four years to get Frank’s body back. Four very long years. On the back of that photo is written “Who’s that handsome fellow in the zoot suit?” and then a note below it with an arrow that says “Sis’s corny cracks are on all pix she sends.”
I don’t know who called mother with the news of Frank’s death. I’m guessing it would have been Frank’s parents. I know she corresponded with Frank’s sister for decades. Mom was treated as Frank’s future wife by his family, and then as his widow.
Mother never talked about Frank’s funeral. Nothing, ever. I think it was just too difficult for her – even 20 years and then decades later. I know she came entirely unglued every time she heard taps and would do almost anything to avoid that circumstance.
To me, 20 years seemed like an eternity ago, more than a decade before I was born, but looking back now at things in my life that happened 20 years ago, it doesn’t seem so long and many that are painful are still quite fresh. Sometimes it’s extremely difficult to verbalize experiences that were overwhelmingly painful. Sometimes talking about them opens that terrible gash again.
Mother was heartbroken. Devastated. It would be another decade before she met my father and nearly 20 years after that until she married again, in her 50s. And that decade in-between Frank’s death and my father, well, let’s just say it wasn’t wonderful. It’s difficult to live with unrelenting grief so profound. I don’t think anyone ever measured up to Frank, at least not until she met my step-father. My own father was simply another heartbreak for mother.
Frank’s death took his life, but it also took the life that mother and Frank had planned, and it took the lives of the children they never had. It robbed them of their future together…and altogether. It changed the course of my mother’s life in such a fundamental way that I can’t even imagine the different life she would have had with Frank, or who I would have been or would be today. Would I even be me? Half my DNA and half my ancestors would have been different – as would my entire set of life experiences. I would have been a Catholic child raised in Chicago with Polish ancestors – not a Hoosier with ancestry throughout Appalachia.
Frank was supposed to be my father, but instead, on a train, someplace between Philadelphia and Chicago, while traveling with the dance troupe, almost a decade later, my mother met my father, a devilishly handsome and extremely personable stranger who already had a wife…but failed to mention that pesky little detail.
The rest, as they say, is history.
At least they are together now. I imagine that was one incredibly joyful reunion – delayed by 61 years. Love never dies.