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Article on Praha Nine

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  • Matt Cross
    Hi all, I found this article online today and thought it well-written and interesting. Thought I d pass it along. Matt The Boys of Praha A BUZZFLASH GUEST
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 1, 2004
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      Hi all,

      I found this article online today and thought it well-written and
      interesting. Thought I'd pass it along.

      Matt

      The Boys of Praha

      A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
      by James Moore

      "It gave you a part in something that you could believe in wholly and
      completely and in which you felt an absolute brotherhood with the others who
      were engaged in it. It was something that you had never known before but
      that you had experienced now and you gave such importance to it and the
      reasons for it that your own death seemed of complete unimportance; only a
      thing to be avoided because it would interfere with the performance of your
      duty."

      -- Ernest Hemingway, "For Whom the Bell Tolls"

      * * *

      They no longer exist. And even in the Texas farm country where they were
      boys, their names are slipping from memory. People who live among the green
      hills here are hardly more likely to know about Praha�s loss than the
      strangers who travel the dark farm-to-market roads in their pickups and
      minivans, taking scenic detours on their way to Houston or San Antonio. This
      is understandable. Being told the factual history does not make the truth
      about Praha more believable. A trip, however, to the church and cemetery at
      Praha will leave the visitor carrying away a distinctly American heartache.

      The few thousand visitors traveling to Praha for Veterans Day ceremonies
      approach from the north, noticing first the stark, white steeple of the
      parish church, which hovers brightly over the landscape. The blacktop of FM
      1295 runs south off of U.S. Highway 90, directly at the Church of St. Mary�s
      Assumption. Close to the cemetery, the pavement curls back deferentially to
      the west and infrequent traffic passes quietly, the distant hiss of wheels
      on asphalt insufficient to disturb the serenity of a spot many U.S. military
      veterans have come to view as almost holy.

      Praha provides old soldiers a measurement of sorts for concepts like the
      price of freedom. There is, though, something incalculable, impossible to
      assess or even understand, about the sad history of Praha. Today, it is
      little more than a ghost of a town with only about two dozen residents. The
      New Handbook of Texas claims the population never surpassed 100 people
      during the 20th century. Those numbers are where the anguish begins in
      Praha�s tearful truth.

      After Veterans Day ceremonies conclude, the curious and the proud stand in
      front of the nine graves. There, they try to comprehend how war�s bloody arm
      could reach this far, gather up this much life and destroy it. By the dates
      on their tombstones and the locales of the deaths, the Allied offensive
      against the Nazis, Mussolini and the Japanese is recorded in the destinies
      of these nine fallen farm boys. Little Praha was not protected from World
      War II by statistical improbabilities.

      The Boys.

      Pfc. Robert Bohuslav died Feb. 3, 1944, after Patton�s and Rommel�s tanks
      had already driven deep into North Africa, and the worst of the combat had
      passed. Three more sons of Praha went down in France, beginning the week
      after D-Day. The War Department sent notices of death to the families of
      Pfc. Rudolph L. Barta, June 16; 1944; Pfc. George D. Pavlicek, July 7, 1944;
      and Pfc. Jerry B. Vaculik, July 23, 1944. In Italy, Pfc. Adolph E. Rab
      became a casualty of war two days after Christmas 1944. Pvt. Joseph Lev,
      shot in the stomach during the attack of Luzon Island, died July 24, 1944.
      Pfc. Anton Kresta Jr.�s life ended in that same tropical theater on Feb. 12,
      1945. On Sept. 7, 1944, Pvt. Eddie Sbrusch was lost at sea in the Pacific.
      Nineteen days later, Pfc. Edward J. Marek died in battle at Pelelieu Island.
      All their lives were lost, ironically, as an Allied victory appeared
      inevitable.

      In the space of 12 months and nine days, Praha gave up most of its youth �
      and nearly all of its future � to confront unimaginable forms of evil on
      faraway continents.

      The soldiers are buried in the Praha cemetery in two rows of four and three;
      Eddie Sbrusch�s empty grave lies just to the northeast; George Pavlicek�s
      remains rest in a family plot across the walk. Veterans Day 2002 finds the
      tombstones marked with small fluttering flags, toppled vases of plastic
      flowers, and wooden posts mounted with military service shields and American
      Legion emblems. The graveyard is unprotected from the pressing Texas sun,
      but nearby a centuries-old post oak tree reaches out with a promise of
      eventual shade.

      These men are remembered, but not widely, and they are honored by name each
      Veterans Day. The loss to their families, however, and to the parish of
      Praha, is barely acknowledged by history. The commonality of their
      sacrifice, it has been argued, is what made it so powerful and gave America
      a source of righteousness. Veterans who gather, on the Praha church grounds
      each Nov. 11 tell bystanders, "Without places like Praha, there would be no
      place like the United States." But what war did to Praha still hurts. And it
      always will. Finally, the town itself � mortally wounded by circumstance �
      became a casualty.

      When the route alignment of the Southern Pacific Railroad situated the
      tracks about a mile north, Praha�s population and economy were drawn away to
      the prospects of a rail line. A town named Flatonia, just over the rise from
      the Praha Catholic Church, became an agricultural crossroads and a stop on
      the Southern Pacific route. Money and business left Praha to grow with
      Flatonia. Praha was never to become much grander than a small country parish
      with farm and ranch families settled on acreages around the gothic church
      structure.

      At the outset of World War II, Flatonia and Praha were no different than
      many other rural communities across the American landscape. Patriotic fervor
      led people to gather scrap metal and rubber, delivering the materials
      further east on the rail line to the larger town of Schulenberg. Young men
      were coming in from the countryside to enlist and say their goodbyes before
      leaving for boot camp and deployment overseas. To call it a simpler time,
      though, is to belittle the emotional and intellectual complexity involved in
      the decision to serve. Even along the dirt roads of Fayette County, Texas,
      families understood that Hitler and Japan represented more than just a
      threat to Europe and the Pacific.

      Nonetheless, no one was able to ignore the patriotic enthusiasm that
      followed the boys through their military careers. As they went away for
      training and duty, stories about them began to appear on the front pages of
      the local newspapers. The Flatonia Argus ran photos and headlines of
      hometown soldiers whenever they were promoted in rank or had been dispatched
      to an important battle. Letters written home from the front or from basic
      training were often printed on the front page of The Schulenberg Sticker.
      Caught up in the national compulsion to sacrifice and serve, no headline was
      too bold nor any copy too extreme.

      A 1943 edition of the weekly Flatonia paper included a full-page ad urging
      residents to buy more war bonds. The message, with its stirring
      illustration, must have undone every conscience in a five-county region. The
      drawing in the ad shows a soldier with his mouth open and eyes bulging in
      shock. Beneath his stricken countenance, the bold typeface asks, "I died
      today. What did you do?"

      The First Casualty.

      In Praha, they began to suffer. A notice of the community�s first casualty
      was delivered in March 1944. Instead of a bold headline and a photo, The
      Flatonia Argus reported the death with a few matter-of-fact lines of copy in
      its March 16, 1944, edition.

      "The War Department has notified Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Bohuslav that their
      son, Pfc. Robert Bohuslav, was killed in action in Northern Africa. Services
      were held in St. Mary�s church in Praha this past Sunday. Bohuslav died in
      Africa on Feb. 3, 1944. In addition to his parents, he is survived by two
      brothers, Ernest Bohuslav of Halletsville and Herman Bohuslav of Praha." The
      reporter did not mention the names of Bohuslav�s sisters.

      "There is not a Sunday in church when I don�t think about him and pray for
      him," said Herman Bohuslav of Corpus Christi. "He was my big brother and he
      was everything to me. I can still see the two men from the Army coming up
      our farmyard to give the message to Momma and Daddy. It took me several
      years before I was even able to believe it had happened. I just kept
      believing my brother would come home."

      At age 74, Herman Bohuslav has enjoyed the full life that war robbed from
      his brother. He settled on the Texas coast with his wife, opened a grocery
      store and gas station, and raised five children who have provided him with
      16 grandchildren. Bohuslav, however, has neither bitterness nor anger over
      his brother�s fate.

      "I�m sure what he did, he did for us," Bohuslav said. "I mean, there were
      some evil people in the world back then, you know. And something had to be
      done. My brother was a part of what needed to be done."

      A scan of subsequent editions of the Flatonia publication offers no
      additional information of how Pfc. Bohuslav encountered his fate. No
      reportage is present to indicate the battlefield or his mission in Africa.
      The details of the end of Pfc. Bohuslav�s life are undoubtedly locked up in
      Pentagon files in Washington on a database or in a drawer where his story is
      not easily accessed. Beyond the fence line of the Praha cemetery, Pfc.
      Robert Bohuslav is hardly more than a statistic.

      To his family, however, he is the one who missed all the years with children
      and travel and vacations and holidays. He might have lived to 90, as did his
      father, or to his mid-80s, like his brother and sister. Bohuslavs are given
      to longevity. The private�s oldest sister is 85 and his eldest brother is
      83. Instead of working the farm, though, Pfc. Bohuslav commanded a bazooka,
      won two Purple Hearts and died on foreign soil.

      Dying Wish.

      The public was told slightly more about Pfc. Joseph Lev of Praha. As the
      U.S. began an offensive against the Japanese, Lev was part of the ground
      assault at Luzon Island. The announcement of his death was published in the
      Flatonia paper with the imminently predictable language.

      "Mr. and Mrs. Emil J. Lev were notified by the War Department last week �"

      Lev, who came from a family of six children, was killed in action in July
      1944. Apparently, the Lev household had too many children for the paper to
      list their names, and the two short paragraphs concluded with the
      information that one brother and four sisters survived Lev. Argus� headline
      pronouncing Lev�s death was accorded no larger type than articles of lesser
      consequence, such as "Garden Club to Meet Sat." and "Barbecue Set for Labor
      Day."

      Regardless of how Pvt. Lev�s days unfolded prior to Luzon, his ending bore
      the drama of a movie. Were it scripted, producers might have called his
      death too saccharine a scene to be plausible. The Rev. John Anders, pastor
      of St. Mary�s Church in Praha, notified the Schulenberg Sticker of a plea
      from Lev as he lay mortally wounded. Anders had received a letter from a
      soldier who had been next to the Praha man. Lev suddenly took a bullet in
      the stomach from a Japanese sniper and went down, doomed to slowly bleed to
      death after surviving the island�s fiercest battle.

      The narrative of the letter to Anders claimed Lev begged his comrade to
      write home to his parents about the disposition of his will. In New Guinea �
      before shipping out for the front � Lev had been emotionally overwhelmed by
      the work of the Divine Word Missionaries, who had been serving the native
      children. In his final breath, Lev dictated to the soldier that his life�s
      savings be sent to the New Guinea missionaries. On Feb. 15, 1945, Divine
      Word Missionaries received a check for $4,204.11 from a Praha boy, who died
      in the tropical sands not far from where the missionaries served.

      Friendly Fire.

      Death in combat, of course, is rarely glorious. Accidental, almost
      meaningless casualties can be even more painful. Mr. and Mrs. Joe Sbrusch of
      Praha had heard their son, Eddie, had been taken as a prisoner of war in
      Luzon. In uniform, photographed before going overseas, Pvt. Sbrusch had a
      head of curly, disorganized hair offset by almost pointed ears. His face
      made him appear diminutive, but his wide smile showed him eager and his eyes
      ready.

      On Sept. 7, 1944, the Japanese were moving POWs from the Philippines to an
      unknown location when a U.S. vessel attacked the transport carrying the flag
      of the rising sun. American commanders, unaware their own men were in the
      hold of the Japanese ship, launched a torpedo and sank the transport.
      Japanese authorities later reported 750 Americans were aboard. Pvt.
      Sbrusch�s remains were never recovered. The Flatonia Argus wrote that his
      parents, two brothers and one sister survived him.

      Soldiers Endure in Others� Memories.

      The boys of Praha live now only as fading memories and sepia-toned
      photographs. A small sheet of paper posted on the western wall of their
      Praha church displays all their portraits. In the sanctuary where they sat
      through Mass and Sunday sermons as boys, the display gets no more attention
      than might a group photo of a local championship baseball team. On the
      church grounds, however, three separate prayer chapels have been built in
      their honor.

      In his picture, Lev�s service cap is cocked to the side of his head to
      suggest indifference, but his soft, boyish features give him away as
      sensitive and intellectual. Jerry Vaculik and Anton Kresta appear
      thoughtful, while Eddie Marek is happy and dimpled. Looking at the expectant
      grin of Rudolph Barta, anyone might think he lived a healthy and financially
      rewarding life, which ought to be just concluding with the laughter of
      grandchildren at his feet.

      Behind the church at the gated entry to the cemetery, a memorial stands to
      honor the lost sons of Praha. Names and photos are arranged in a perfect row
      along the bottom of the marble pedestal. Dates and locations of their deaths
      are carved into the stone. No one can easily enter the cemetery without
      first confronting the rock monument and pondering the wives and children
      these men never knew, the work they never lived to perform, the dreams they
      never pursued.

      Unlike Veterans Day, on most days of the year no one is present to learn the
      stories of these men. Visitors spot the faded flag over Eddie Marek�s
      headstone and the vase of plastic buttercups, tipped on its side where Anton
      Kresta lies. On either side of the graveyard fence, the land lowers easily
      into a green world where things are growing and people are living another
      season in freedom.

      Nothing ever changes here until the Sunday morning before Veterans Day when
      U.S. military servicemen and women from across the country gather to listen
      to speeches, which never come close to explaining this loss. Their minds are
      forced to simplify the tragedy of Praha. Vintage aircraft fly overhead; one
      peels off into the missing man formation, and flowers are dropped, settling
      like a sad rain across the cemetery. The tears fall faster.

      If they were to look in a Fayette County phone book before returning home,
      visitors to Praha might recognize a few surnames. Mostly, though, the family
      members of the nine lost boys of Praha have spread out, moved away and lived
      out their time in quiet anonymity. Their lineages are disappearing while war
      survives.

      Before he died, Vietnam Medal of Honor recipient Roy Benavides of nearby El
      Campo, Texas, told a Veterans Day crowd at Praha that "people need to know
      about this place. They need to hear about what happened. They need to
      understand."

      Understanding may prove eternally impossible. But if every leader of every
      country were first made to visit Praha before declaring war, the world might
      be forever changed.

      A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION

      James Moore is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas. Readers may
      contact James by e-mail at jimoore@....

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