Because Memorial Day is a time to remember those who have fallen in our name, I am republishing a story I wrote several years ago. This was first printed in American Legion magazine and was noticed by political leaders in Texas, who were unfamiliar with the little town’s history of sacrifice and service. The attention prompted the construction and dedication of a memorial to the boys of Praha, which is now at the center of the state cemetery in Austin. From the first time I heard about Praha, I have been haunted by it and, even though I know what happened there is true, it is still difficult to believe. – JM
“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.
Visitors traveling to Praha for Memorial Day or Veterans Day 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.
The curious and the proud often come here and stand in front of the nine graves in a state of near bewilderment. 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.
Pfc. Robert Bohuslav died Feb. 3, 1944, in Italy when a shell exploded on his position where he was dug in and fighting. 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’ and Memorial Day 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 Memorial and 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 in May and November 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?”
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. (Sadly, the military had gotten the location of Bohuslav’s death incorrect. He had fallen in Italy.) 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.”
As he spoke, Herman Bohuslav was age 74 and had 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. 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.
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.
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.
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 Memorial Day or 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 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.