Military Monday – Excerpt from “The Replacement”

On May 8, I will release my next book Stories of the Lost, available through my author website. You can pre-order a signed copy today! This is an excerpt of one chapter about Frankie Winkler.

The Family Story

Frank Winkler, 29th Infantry Division

Frank Winkler, 29th Infantry Division

My grandmother told me a story about my cousin Frankie Winkler, saying he enlisted in the Army when he was 19. He had started college but chose to enlist because of the guilt he felt for not fighting. His father, Frank Sr. did not approve of his choice. It was said that Frank Sr. was very protective of his only living son. So protective he wouldn’t let him even ride a bike for fear he would be hurt. Family lore also said Frankie’s uncle, Frank Kokoska, would join the fight and watch over Frankie.

As the story continued, my grandmother said Frankie came ashore on Omaha Beach on D-Day with the 29th Infantry Division. He spoke German and was doing reconnaissance work. I wondered how they would have known he was in reconnaissance.

My grandmother also told me Frankie died on June 24, 1944 of head wounds received on D-Day. A photo appeared in Life Magazine of a soldier sitting on a beach on D-Day with his head wrapped, holding a cigarette in one hand and a pack of smokes in the other. The family to this day swears it is Frankie.

The story continued and grandma told me when Frankie’s remains were returned to Chicago, his mother was too distraught to view them. Instead, Frankie’s uncle and father went to the funeral home. After viewing the remains they did not think it was Frankie. This did not make sense to me. Why would they not have thought the remains sent home were his?

I listened to my grandmother’s story, took notes and left it at that. It was not until my parents European vacation in October 2010 in which answers to my questions began to emerge. My parents visited several American Battle Monuments Commission cemeteries. They asked many questions about the war and where to locate information on Frankie’s service. Using the information my parents provided, I spent two years researching his story and discovered many twists and turns. In the end, the story I tell is different from the family lore.

© 2014, Jennifer Holik, Generations, Woodridge, IL

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The Family Story and Remembering a Soldier

Please bear with me as I get a train of thought out. I have been talking with a colleague who identifies himself (as I do) as a historian and genealogist. We were talking about the NARA records article I shared yesterday and a comment I saw about genealogists not being included in this NARA survey. This colleague and I talked about this article and that comment, which led into a discussion about the telling of family stories and the research that is involved in genealogy related to those stories. That led me to a realization. The point of this blog post is about the STORY passed down through the family. In my military lectures and books I start out with the family story.

One guy in particular, Frankie Winkler, who was a D-Day guy. He was not. I explain the family story is he went in with the 29th on D-Day and received head wounds. He died a few weeks later of those wounds. He spoke German and did reconnaissance work. The family swore – still to this day they swear, the photo of one of the guys from the 1st Division who came onto Omaha with the 29th that was in Life magazine is Frankie. It is not. The family also said Frankie enlisted. He did not. They say that people would come into his dad’s (also Frank) Butcher Shop and ask why Frankie had not gone off to serve. He had started college. So there was some shame involved and pressure.

The records show Frankie was 18 years and ¾ months when he was inducted into the Army. That was correct for late 1943 – the Army had changed the rules regarding age. He had graduated HS and probably was in college (this has yet to be confirmed.) So he was the “right” age to go off and serve but couldn’t until the Army would accept him. Did he speak German? Maybe but the records show he was placed into Camp Wolters, TX – an infantry replacement training camp. He was being trained to be a rifleman. Did he do reconnaissance work?

Joe Balkoski the former 29th Historian worked with me and got me the Morning Reports. They only show Frankie coming into the 29th Division, 115th Reg on 23 June, KIA 24 June. It does not specify from where he came – Joe said an Infantry Replacement Depot in England or Ireland. His obit says he was in Ireland so he must have sent letters home. One family member has some but won’t share because she says they are too personal. Joe said he likely went out on patrol (reconnaissance) the 23rd and was killed within 24 hours.

That’s what the records show. A different story than the family. And I show the paper trail and explain my reasoning through military and genealogical records and history about how I arrived at this altered version of the story. I also think the family may have received  a letter perhaps from someone in the 29th after he was killed that used the word reconnaissance. Think about that – reconnaissance is a more impressive word than the phrase, “out on patrol.”  So over time these stories about our soldier and war dead may become embellished a little because of our use of words. Maybe the family used this as a coping mechanism. Their boy wasn’t just “one of the thousands of riflemen lost” he was doing reconnaissance because he spoke German – he was in their eyes perhaps more important than a rifleman.

Stories like this get passed down all the time but I never considered the WORDING used in stories that get passed down and how they can be interpreted until this discussion. I also think that often, families are worried that if they dig into records, the story will change. And does THAT add shame or something else to the soldier or the family if the story is different? Are we dishonoring the memory of that soldier if the records show something different?

How do YOU cope with the changes in family stories based on the records you uncover? Do you tell the new story in comparison to the old? Do you take into account how the family has felt about this story, this individual or family involved, through the generations? How do you dig into the records and deal with the outcome? Or  do you even bother to dig?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

© 2014, Jennifer Holik, Generations

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