the secretary of war asks that i assure you of his deep sympathy in the loss of your brother private frank j surek report received states he died seventeen february in italy as result of wounds received letter follows
the secretary of war desires me to express his deep regret that your brother private first class joseph d surek was killed in action thirteen july in france letter follows
On August 24, 1944, at 12:43 in the afternoon, a ticker in a Pennsylvania Western Union office hammered out a telegram addressed to Mr. Leo Surek of Beaver Brook, Pennsylvania. A United States Army officer was dispatched to deliver the missive to the clapboard home of Mr. Surek, my grandfather, who was underground at the time in the anthracite caverns of Carbon County. Instead, his wife Rose opened her door to the uniformed messenger, and knew instantly. Moments earlier, she had been sitting in her living room, cradling her newborn daughter—my mother. Both cried as the olive-clad soldier awkwardly tried to offer comfort.
Four months earlier, the scene had been rehearsed when Frank Surek was killed in Anzio, Italy. Now his brother Joseph was gone, too, lost somewhere in France.
For as long as I can remember, Frankie and Joey’s pictures have hung in my grandparents’ living room without fanfare or decoration—two simple black-and-whites of two proud soldiers. It was provided by the Army so mothers and fiancées could have a photo hanging on the wall at home or hidden inside a treasured locket; he was their son, their would-be husband, their hero, and he promised he’d be back home when it was all over. It was also the same photo, when it was all over, that would appear in the newspaper and christen a new goldstar mother.
After the Surek brothers died, everything they touched became a relic: the letters home, the G.I. Christmas cards, the telegrams, the official letter from President Roosevelt, the Purple Heart, and the burial notice. All were sacred; family history became hagiography. Today, the telegrams are sheathed in plastic, a letter is pleated by its original creases, and the Purple Heart is encased in its presentation box. My granduncles rest side-by-side an ocean away in an American military cemetery in St.-Laurent, France.
It has never been easy for me to explain what it means to grow up in a family that lost two uncles in that second great war. I never met them, but I was never allowed to forget them. Just as my grandfather’s mining tales reminded me that this family understood the meaning of labor, the tears that welled up in his eyes at the mention of his brothers, Frankie and Joey, showed me that the family also knew about loss. While the brothers were fighting in Europe, two other Surek sons were stationed overseas, on in the Philippines and one in Panama. Their only remaining brother, my grandfather, received deferments every six months because mining was an "essential wartime occupation." Thus, when word came that both Joey and Frankie were dead, few family members were there to receive the news. War revisited Beaver Brook a few more times in 1944: my grandfather’s first cousin was killed, as was a childhood friend of my grandmother.
I have often wondered how it felt to lose two brothers in combat. As an only child reared in New Jersey at the end of the cold war, such realities seemed far removed. It has been an equally daunting task to fully appreciate the sacrifices of granduncles who were killed in a war that I understood only from sanitized statistics or descriptions in history books. That is, until I went to the movies this summer.
Richard Alleva’s review of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was worthy of its powerful subject (see "A Brutal Masterpiece," Commonweal, September 11, 1998). Since the film dealt with the fate of a soldier who loses all three of his brothers in the war, I thought it might echo the experiences of my own family. It surpassed all expectations. Art imitated life.
One of the film’s battles took place after D-Day, in St.-Lo, France, and featured a sniper firing his rifle at Allied troops from the cover of a church steeple. In 1944, PFC Joseph Surek was killed after being targeted by a sharpshooter hiding in a steeple. It happened in St.-Lo, only days after the D-Day invasion.
For twenty-two years, I saw a Purple Heart handled with reverent care and read letters that were read and reread and refolded for half a century. My mother remembers her father sitting in his rocking chair and crying when he thought of his brothers. Nobody ever "got over" their deaths. There was no recovery, no rationalization. When Joey died, my grandmother said, it was just too hard to believe. They have remained numb ever since.
When I walked into that movie theater, I had thought about my granduncles, the war, and what it meant to lose family. Hearing the vague references to their heroism and seeing their saintly memorabilia had instilled in me a sense of my family’s loss. But Steven Spielberg completed the picture and gave me a perspective that I never expected. He showed me what it meant to die in war—to rush into a flurry of bullets, to call for your mother in your last breath, and to be killed in a small French town, the victim of a sniper hidden away in the heights of a deceptively benign church. Spielberg helped me to appreciate what my family could never bring themselves to imagine: the unpretentious bravery and courage of my granduncles, two men who literally helped, as Stephen Ambrose has written, to save the world.
A Purple Heart will never look the same to me.
Related: Frankie's Secret: The Forgotten Costs of War, by Peter Quinn