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Memories a Salve for 3 Uncles Lost in War

Family: A film inspired the writer to learn about her relatives who died in World War II. The search brought pain but peace of mind.

June 30, 2002|JONI BALUH BEALL | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

They were always smiling, always looking down at me.

There were four men in uniform in the portrait in my grandmother's living room. They are my uncles, soldiers during World War II.

Three of them--Jay, Tom and Danny Baluh--died in that war, all within 12 months. My grandfather was in the picture too; he died years later, heartbroken.

My uncles died before I was born. My family didn't speak of them often and I'm ashamed to admit I didn't ask. I knew almost nothing about them.

It was the 1998 film "Saving Private Ryan," and its effect on my parents, that aroused my curiosity. It wasn't their reaction to the movie, because they didn't see it -- they wouldn't see it. It was their reaction to hearing about the film.

"It hits too close to home," my mother said.

In "Saving Private Ryan," one brother is killed in the Pacific campaign, and two others die on Normandy's beaches. In real life, Tom died in the Pacific, and Danny and Jay died in France.

In the movie, there is a daring mission to bring a fourth brother back home. There were no such heroics in real life; there was nothing left to rescue.

Except for the memory of my three uncles, and I set out to do just that.

*

When I began my search in 1998 I had no intention of involving my family. There was no point, I thought, in having them relive all that pain just to satisfy my curiosity.

There were all sorts of obstacles.

A 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis destroyed 80% of the military records from 1917 to 1959. Records in Pennsylvania were destroyed by Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972.

And the biggest obstacle of all: World War II vets are dying at a rate of 1,000 per day. As one vet told me: "You should have started this 10 years ago."

First, I tried to get my uncles' military records, but I had only their names to go on. An official at the records center said I needed their service numbers and politely told me I would need a closer relative to make the requests. Their parents are dead, I said, and the men never married and had no children.

He said a brother or sister would do--but I didn't want to involve them.

The Army said it would need the dates of death to search death and burial files. The Church of St. Stephen in Plymouth, Pa., could tell me only that "they were buried sometime between Sept. 19, 1947, and Nov. 15, 1947," and the Larksville American Legion, where their bodies lay in state, didn't have records of the funeral.

I remembered hearing that a Baluh post had been named in their honor. After a few calls I learned that the Larksville Veterans of Foreign Wars Baluh Memorial Post No. 6551 was established on April 25, 1946, but declared defunct on May 27, 1953.

Finally, I stumbled onto two wonderful people: Ken Schlessinger, a military archivist at the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Md., and Jesse Teitelbaum of the Luzerne County Historical Society in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Schlessinger found my uncles' service numbers and Teitelbaum sent me newspaper clippings about their funeral.

My father had told me the funeral was a big deal, and he wasn't exaggerating. Articles started appearing in the Wilkes-Barre Record in October 1947, when my uncles' bodies arrived in New York.

Of course, the men's pictures were printed. Jay was a string bean, tall and incredibly thin. Danny was cute, and young--he was drafted at 18 and died about two months after his 19th birthday. Tom wore a big grin, and as I got to know him better, I learned how different he was from the others. There was a lot going on behind that smile.

My grandparents, John and Mary Baluh, reared their seven boys and a girl in coal company housing in Larksville, a town of about 8,000 in northeastern Pennsylvania's Wyoming Valley. And it was to Larksville that the boys would return.

Originally, they were scheduled to be shipped back separately. But I would later learn that my grandfather had requested that all three be sent home together "because [of] the expense of three funerals and the emotional upset that would result from burying each boy at different times."

They arrived on Nov. 10, to more than 500 people waiting at the station. There was a procession through Wilkes-Barre, Kingston, Edwardsville and then Larksville, where the bells of St. Anthony's, St. John's, St. Casimir's and Brooks Memorial churches tolled.

"As the three caskets were carried to hearses at the railroad station, the veterans present to pay homage stood at attention" with tears in their eyes, reported another paper, the Times-Leader Evening News.

Grandma cried, "Which one is in that one?" as the first casket was placed in a hearse.

"But the veterans and the undertaker, Andrew Strish, busy with the task at hand, did not hear her, and no one could give the answer," the paper reported

On Nov. 12, the Record told the story of the funeral, how "scores of ex-servicemen" paid their respects and "hundreds of people lined the streets."

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