Honors help heal scars of WWII POW survivors

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I'm in the Kravetz living room in Chalfant. "Family Feud" is on but nobody's watching. Frank Kravetz is showing me a divot, about the size that a sand wedge might leave if it could cleave skin, in his left thigh.

That's his souvenir from a bombing mission over Germany on Nov. 2, 1944. That and more than 100 pieces of shrapnel in the leg, and 30 more in his right foot, compliments of the German fighter planes and anti-aircraft fire that ripped apart his tail-gunner's perch in a B-17 Flying Fortress.

"That's pretty now," says his wife, Anne, of the wound she first saw through a 19-year-old's eyes when her beau returned home in 1945.

I took her word that the old wound has gotten more attractive. It still looked pretty fierce, but the Kravetzes are celebrating their 67th anniversary this weekend and I don't think she'd lie.

Mr. Kravetz, 89, who served for roughly a decade as the national director of American Ex-Prisoners of War, is one of four World War II POWs who have lived in this borough with a population of less than 1,000. Mr. Kravetz is the only one still living. At noon Saturday, Sept. 21, the day after National POW/MIA Recognition Day, they will be honored at a flag-raising ceremony at the borough's war memorial.

The other Chalfant POWs were Steve Minnaji, another prisoner of the Germans; and Joseph Bisaha and James Joyce, prisoners of the Japanese. A fifth resident, Nicholas Mogus, was missing in action in the European Theater. Three more were killed in action there: Michael O'Rourke, Henry Ambrose and Joseph Leonard.

Further details are scant. This little slice of the Turtle Creek Valley once made an extraordinary sacrifice of its young men, but life goes on, and people forget. Mr. Kravetz, who spent months recovering from his wounds in a German prison hospital and then a prisoner-of-war camp, has gathered his memories in a self-published autobiography, "Eleven Two."

Nov. 2 -- or 11/2 -- is the date he reported for duty with the Army Air Corps in 1943, the date he was shot down in '44 and the date he was honorably discharged in '45. It's also the date his book was published in 2010.

The man has a vivid way of sharing the brush strokes that paint a life. Try to imagine any modern parent giving a child the autumn chore his Slovak mom gave him in East Pittsburgh: After a head-to-toe scrubbing, he'd step into a barrel filled with freshly washed and shredded cabbage to begin the roughly six hours of stomping needed to make it right for that winter's sauerkraut. (Try that today and ol' mom would be the lead story on the 11 o'clock news.)

Coincidentally, a picked-over cabbage patch west of Hanover, Germany, was his lucky landing place after the badly wounded Sgt. Kravetz was tossed from the crippled B-17 by his crew mates, with him holding an already open parachute crumpled in a ball in his crossed arms. It blessedly blossomed, and he gave himself a morphine shot on the ground before his capture.

Then began a long ordeal that had him on his back for more than three months as the hospital was overwhelmed with other wounded Allied soldiers from the Battle of the Bulge. The Germans convinced their captives that the Allies were losing the war.

They lied. Mr. Kravetz, who'd drop from 180 pounds to 117 while in captivity, returned home. At that time, POWs weren't honored. He'd hear "you gave up" and learned to zip his lip about what happened to him.

It wasn't until the POWs returned from the Vietnam War in the early 1970s that the climate changed, he said, and it wasn't until after the hostages returned from Iran in 1981 that the Veterans Administration belatedly offered therapy to World War II and Korean War POWs for post-traumatic stress disorder.

A father of three grown children by then, Mr. Kravetz was still having nightmares about free falls and being lost in a maze. After getting together at the VA Hospital with other ex-POWS "who dumped their hurts, fear and anger," he wrote, he went "deeper into my journey of healing."

Now there aren't too many of them left.

"We're disappearing," he said.

But they're not forgotten. Anyone with further details on any of the other Chalfant POW, MIA or KIA can contact me, and I will relay the information to borough officials before this month's ceremony.


Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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