Frank Smyk Remembered
Frank Smyk Remembered 40 years later January 5, 1968 -- January 5, 2008 © by Mike Sadaj
It was the week of January 14, 1968, and I had been out of the jungles myself only since December 11, 1967. I was still reeling from my reintroduction to civilian life while trying to fight off some of my own readjustment difficulties as I tried to figure out my next move. People that have not been in combat don't know the mindset of someone that has been through the hell of life and the possibility of violent death on a minute to minute basis. I was covered from head to foot with "jungle rot" from being in a tropical jungle for a prolonged period of time. My mind raced with vulgar cautionary words associated with every possible actual or imagined threat. My sense of well being and goodness had been replaced with the harsh reality that evil does exist in the world, and that evil was more than just a word or idea. The feeling of lost youth and innocence was palpable.
I had just been to the VA Hospital in Allen Park, Michigan, a near suburb of Detroit and the hospital was overflowing with veterans needing medical care that day. We were entering the height of the Vietnam War; the casualty lists were large and getting larger, and the military was so overwhelmed with wounded, hurt and sick warriors that they were discharging them with the admonishment, "If you have more medical difficulties and problems, visit your local Veterans Administration Hospital for care." It was a case of the military "passing the buck". I guess they never read the saying on President Harry Truman's desk, "The Buck Stops Here!"
I was sitting in Duke's Bar in Detroit near Hamtramck, the Polish enclave within the city limits of Detroit having a piwa and talking to another Polish friend of mine named Archie Pruss about the war and our future when Bobby Sutkievitch came in to have a shot and a beer with us and said, "Did you hear that Frankie Smyk was killed in action in Vietnam?" It went through me like an electric shock. I had known Frankie Smyk all my life. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to Bobby, his family would suffer the loss of one of his brothers, Allan, in the same way, culminating in concurrent funerals for Frankie and Allan from the same church and funeral home on the same day. We lived in an area of Detroit/Hamtramck where the boundaries blurred because we lived right on the border of the two cities at Carpenter St. between Joseph Campau and Conant Sts. Other people that didn't live there would refer to them as different cities, but it was all the same to us that lived there. It was one of the largest Polish American enclaves in the country, second only to Chicago.
We didn't get much information about his KIA status other than he had been killed in action on January 5, 1968. It got really quiet, and everyone slipped into their own thoughts with somebody saying every once in awhile, "What a damn shame that somebody as nice as Frankie got killed." Or, "One of the nicest kids in the neighborhood you'd ever want to know." I thought, "It will kill his father, Edward Smyk" a Detroit Police Officer at the Davison Precinct which was the Precinct that served our home neighborhood. Mr. Smyk, who was also a World War II Veteran, used to take us kids to the Detroit Zoo or Tiger baseball games through the PAL Police Athletic League Program.
Frankie was born Frank Barth Smyk on August 9, 1947 to Polish parents, Edward and Stella Smyk. Frankie was born in the New Grace Hospital in Detroit, Michigan that serviced the Polish American Community which is where I was born, also. He was the oldest son and second oldest of six children in the Smyk family -- his brothers were Edward and James; his sisters were Marlene, Kitty, Corrine and Sue. The Smyk family was members of the Polish Roman Catholic Our Lady Help of Christians Church on McDougall St. in Detroit where Frankie and I were altar boys together. He said mass and served at funerals at the parish associated Anthony Wysocki Funeral Home where so many of our friends and relatives had said their last goodbye.
The Smyk family lived at 3322 Cody St. in Detroit; just two (2) short blocks from the Polish settlement of Hamtramck. Frankie and all of his siblings attended Our Lady Help of Christians Parochial School with him graduating from Pershing High School in Detroit in 1966 after attending St. Ladislaus High School for a year. When Smyk was 19 years old, his number came up in the Selective Service Lottery, and he was drafted into the United States Army. To the uninitiated, you may ask why I specified, "He was drafted into the United States Army". Back in those days the causality lists were so high for killed and wounded in action, anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 a month, combined with a shortage of men for the other services, that men were being drafted for the Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard and Marine Corps as well as the Army.
Men were being processed at a heightened rate with inadequate training to go into the meat grinder known as the jungles of Vietnam. There was and is a direct correlation between the amounts of training a man has for combat and his ability to survive that combat. That's why the elite forces such as Army Rangers or Airborne Troops, Navy Seals, Air Force Pararescue and Marine Corps Forced Recon have a much lower mortality rate; they and their comrades are highly trained which also creates unit cohesion and a greater likelihood of survival. So, after minimal training in Basic Training or "boot camp" of as little as 8 weeks and in some cases only 6 weeks, Frankie was going into the highest risk job of an entering military person -- US Army, draftee, combat infantry specialty - on his way to Southeast Asia to fight in the Vietnam War. The military, given its mandate by the civilian leaders of the government, could do nothing more than, "salute" and say, "Yes, sir!" which was a disaster for so many young men that were draftees.
I can remember Frankie and his sister, Kitty, as far back as about 1954 or 1955 coming into Joanne's Candy Store on Davison Ave. between Joseph Campau and Conant Sts. after mass to get an ice cream cone. I can remember Frankie with that shock of wild red hair that looked like a haystack, smiling, freckled face and a green suit that he had outgrown. And, when he came in, he was so full of life that he lit up the whole place with his aura and the smile on his face like he had just done something mischievous. Frankie was just the cutest little kid! That's one of the many fond memories I have of Frank Smyk. Because of the joy the world was cheated out of by his loss, it is so sad for me to think of him 40 years after his terrible, untimely death. But, then again, I'm getting a little ahead of myself.
Some days later Frank Barth Smyk's body came home from the battlefields of Vietnam. He was transported to the place where we served as altar boys many times, Anthony Wysocki Funeral Home right across the street from our childhood parish, Our Lady Help of Christians Polish Roman Catholic Church. Back in those days there was a much more ritualized arrangement for viewing, masses and a funeral, especially in length, than there is today. To make this already sad event even sadder, another young Polish American Catholic kid from the neighborhood who happened to be Frankie's boyhood friend and was exactly the same age as Frankie, 20 years old, Allan Sutkievitch, was killed in an equally senseless shooting incident and was laid out in the room across from Frankie in the same funeral home at the same time. Death is always sad, but when it comes to those so young it is tragic.
Silver Star Award
The Smyk Family was a well known active member of the parish and community so the outpouring of people was very large. I remember going to the funeral home the first night for the viewing and it was standing room only. I went in and went right to the casket and knelt down, made the sign of the cross and prayed for Frankie, but the thing I remember the most is the fact that he had an open coffin. I had known battlefield death intimately and in many cases you would not want to know what the remains looked like or if they were all there which would exclude the viewing of any kind. Death, often, especially from war is not pretty and in fact is ugly and gruesome which is the face of war and death in war. I couldn't take my eyes off Frankie because I couldn't believe that this cute little kid I knew all my life was laying dead in front of me. I was struck by the fact that Frankie looked like he was sleeping and I had the fantasy that any minute he would sit up and say, "What are you all doing here?" But, he did not and would not.
Finally, I got up and went to where the family was seated and offered my condolences. Frankie's oldest sister, Kitty, who I had a crush on while I was growing up, pulled me into a seat next to her to talk to me. As I said, we always had a passing interest in each other and we had a conversation about Frankie, reminiscing about all the good times. We talked about how shocked we both were that he had been killed in action in Vietnam. Then I said to Kitty, "I can't get over how good Frankie looks, it's almost like he's sleeping" and she said, "Yes, it does." Then she grabbed me by the hand and led me to the casket and said, "Look over Frankie's left eye, and you will see where the bullet that killed him entered above his eye." Then Kitty said, "Frankie looks like he is sleeping but he will never get up again." The Smyk Family really suffered over the loss of Frankie and it was a very solemn occasion.
One of the really good memories I have of this terribly sad occasion and remembrance has to do with such a touching and traditional ritual amongst my Polish American countrymen. A very fine husband and wife, Mr. and Mrs. Michael and Martha Golabek were Polish American neighbors of the Smyk Family that lived three houses east of the Smyk Family and told me that they remembered the day Frankie came home from the hospital when he was born in August of 1947. In fact they saw him the very first day he ever lived in his family home there at 3322 Cody St. in Detroit. So, Mrs. Martha Golabek went around to all the neighbors in the neighborhood to collect money for flowers for Frankie's remembrance to be delivered to Anthony Wysocki Funeral Home and then to be transported on the day of the funeral to Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Detroit.
For some reason beyond my understanding, I was haunted by and continued to be haunted by Frank Barth Smyk's death on the battlefields of Vietnam. Time passed and the feelings of sadness and loss never left me. After some years, it occurred to me that I needed to do something for Frankie and me to put this chapter of my life to rest and exorcise my own demons from that war. In 1968, another man was killed in action in Vietnam by the name of Victor David Westphall III from New Mexico also known as David. David's Father, Dr. Victor Westphall was so overcome by grief over the loss of his namesake son that he took the money he received from David's GI insurance, $10,000, and used it as "seed money" to build a memorial to his son that has blossomed into a Memorial for all Vietnam Veterans located in the beautiful mountains of Angel Fire, New Mexico.
So, I decided I was going to establish a memorial to Frankie to be located at the Memorial in Angel Fire. I set about to collect information and data about Frank Barth Smyk and I did a pretty good job. The only thing I was lacking was some photos of Frankie. I didn't even have a school picture, snapshot or any kind of image of him and this was the key for me. So, I started searching and made contact several times with Frankie's family, but for whatever reason I never even received an answer. Some years later, I made contact with one of his sisters that was living in Toronto and we had some nice conversations. But, after about the third conversation, I finally brought up Frankie and what I was trying to do for a memorial for him. I must have touched a pool of sadness that was too deep, because I never heard from this sister again and she would not answer my phone calls. This was a very frustrating time for me because without a photo of any sort, I felt as though it would be an inadequate and less than respectful memorial, given the other memorials I had seen in Angel Fire. So, my search for a photo of Frank Smyk intensified and took on a desperate and hopeless nature as I couldn't think of what to do next.
A few more years went by, and then the internet was developed. So I had a new avenue available to me to find people, information and photos. I researched the information concerning Frank Smyk's Army units while he was in the Army at the time of his death. What I found out was that his unit designations were 2nd Platoon, Company B, 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry (Manchu) and 25th Infantry Division. I found out through the National Archives that Frankie had been killed in action on January 5, 1968, in South Vietnam, in Tay Ninh Province. He was a ground casualty by hostile, small arms, gun fire and that his body was recovered, as I knew. I also found out that his tour of duty in Southeast Asia began on July 11, 1967 and his Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) was 11B20 which stands for Drafted Army Infantry. In addition, I found out Smyk's Military Grade was Specialist 4th Class, or as they were known at the time Spec. 4, his pay grade was E-4 standing for enlisted man that he was a Male, Caucasian, Catholic and a U. S. Citizen.
So, armed with all of the above information, I started a search on the internet for any additional information about Frank Barth Smyk. I scoured the internet but didn't really find much more information than I already possessed, but this was about 1995, in the infancy of the internet. So, I kept searching on and off over the next couple of years until about 1999 as the internet started getting more sophisticated and user friendly but still had no luck. But, if I am anything, I am persistent and I kept searching until, finally, in 2001, I found a website for the 9th Infantry (Manchu) of the 25th Infantry Division. I did a search of the website for anything about Frank Smyk but there wasn't much more than I already had. I saw that they had a "Manchu Message Board" and I posted a simple message, "Looking for anyone that knew and/or served with Frank Smyk in Vietnam." I left it alone, forgetting about it and didn't do anything about my search for close to three years. Three years almost to the date I received this e-mail,
I knew Frank Smyk in B Co. I don't think I have any pictures of him, but I might be able to find someone who does.
Larry Mitchell B/4/9 OCT67-OCT68"
Well, I was so excited I could hardly contain myself and shot off an answer to Larry Mitchell that started the most incredible correspondence between two people that have never met face-to-face. We both shared information about Frank Smyk that the other had no idea about. I was filling in Larry's questions about Frankie's life before the Army, and he was filling in my questions about Frankie while he was in the Army and Vietnam. We carried on quite a communication for sometime with me explaining to him what it was I wanted to do for Smyk. Finally, on August 13, 2004, four days after what would have been Frank Smyk's 57th birthday, I received an e-mail from Larry Mitchell with the subject line, "BINGO!!! - photos". There were two very good photos of Frankie with one of them being a haunting clear, almost prophetic picture of Frankie staring into the camera so intensely that he reaches out from time and eternity to say, "Here I am!" It is one of the most incredible and haunting images of it's kind, and I am a photographer that has seen and taken thousands of photos. The note said that, "Denny came through big-time." Meaning Dennis Wagner, one of Frank Smyk's closest friends in Vietnam had come up with these two photos of Smyk for posterity. Finally, after 35 years on my quest, I had what I had been searching for so long and so hard.
These two men, Larry Mitchell and Dennis Wagner, even though I have never met them face-to-face, have become some of my closest friends and confidants about the war through our correspondence and the work we did to establish a memorial for Frank Barth Smyk. I communicated with them every step of the way in establishing the memorial for Frankie. It was a well thought out, methodical and tender process of remembering someone so good and so young who gave his life on the altar of freedom for his country. There is no more glorious sacrifice human beings can make for their fellow countrymen than to give their all for an idea and concept called freedom.
My plan was to travel to the Vietnam Veterans National Memorial in Angel Fire, New Mexico from my home in Zionsville, Indiana to enshrine Frank Barth Smyk's memory in a fitting memorial to his life, death and resurrection to eternal life. I asked Dennis Wagner and Larry Mitchell to write down some remembrances of Frankie so we could provide them for his memorial to make him come to life and become a real human being not just a memory. After all, we will not be here one day but the memorial will and it's important to know Frankie for the vital, good and valuable human being he was for the short 20 years he was on this earth.
This is what Dennis Wagner had to say, "Frank and I had a pact about trading parts of C-Rations." I always took what he didn't want because it really didn't matter to me. - We always had a good time in the trade process. - His favorite was the pound cake and peaches and I always traded mine in exchange for his fruit cake. He didn't like the ham and lima beans so I always traded for what I had if he liked my selection.
We were both tall and lanky so we saw eye to eye on a lot of perspectives. He was usually happy and had a big smile on his face. I remember him telling stories about growing up in Hamtramck and the Detroit area. I still remember his vow that he was going to make it back home alive and getting out of SVN and counting the days.
His face and voice will always be permanently etched in my mind, and that memory will never fail. I still remember the last scene of seeing him alive that day. I lost a very close friend that day and cried a lot the next day. We were all devastated by his death. He will never be forgotten. The portable "Wall" has been to Boise twice, and each time I find his name on the wall, and I remember.
Mike, thank you for developing the memorial to Frank at the DAV Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Angel Fire, NM so that he will always be remembered. I know his family doesn't know how close we became and the depth of my grief. After 37 years it still hurts. When you are at his memorial, tell him, "I'm sorry." Friends are friends forever, and we will see each other again. " "We had a good time together." "I hope you still like pound cake and peaches. ""Love, Denny."'
These are Larry Mitchell's remembrances, ""This seems like a small thing, but in Vietnam where a pair of dry socks was more valuable than tickets to the theatre, it meant a lot. No one ever got enough sleep, and when you got a chance you wanted to get as much as you could. The Army issued some pretty nice mosquito nets that you could slip over your head at night and improve the quality of sleep tremendously. The problem was that the stiff circular frame (probably 10" diameter) made the thing difficult to stow away and carry the next day. Frank had some experience in a machine shop where someone showed him how to fold up a band saw blade into 3 small, neat concentric circles for storage. He immediately applied this to the mosquito net, and it folded up pocket sized. He showed me how to do it, and I showed everybody I could. It transformed a marginal piece of gear into an absolute luxury."
Frank and I shared a foxhole during a mortar and ground attack at Bo Tuc during the week before Christmas, 1967. We had to keep watch over the area in front of our position due to the ground attack, but we had to get down in the hole when mortars were dropping nearby. I noticed Frank ducking down, so I would follow. Sure enough, a mortar would go off nearby. He explained that he could hear them dropping, and get down just in time. After a bit, I was able to hear them as well. No one had ever told me that before. The next morning our gear outside the foxhole was riddled from shrapnel from the mortars. Had Frank not gotten us down at the right time and taught me how to do it, I probably would be telling a much different story right now, if at all. Frank had a sharp mind, and it served him and his friends well."
My contribution was the remembrances I shared earlier in this story, the research I did and the memorial program that follows. The program is a one page 8" X 11" piece of paper, folded over so you have 4 pages -- front back and two pages in the middle.
The Smyk's followed a parallel path to the Westphall's without them even knowing of the existence of each other or the contribution that they were each making to their fallen sons. The Westphall's built a Memorial to Victor David Westphall III in Angel Fire, New Mexico with the $10,000 GI insurance policy paid for upon his death in combat. And, the Smyk's used the $10,000 GI insurance policy paid for the death of their son in combat to build and run for 35+ years a resort they named after their fallen son called Frankie's Modern Resort in Houghton Lake, Michigan. Both of these were fitting memorials to their respective sons that made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
So, 37 years after his death, with the moral support from Larry Mitchell and Dennis Wagner along with their memories and photos, I visited Angel Fire with the companionship of Linda Gregory as a witness to this august gathering, and provided a fitting memorial to our friend, comrade-in-arms and Brother-in-Christ Frank Barth Smyk, thus laying to rest the haunting need to do something to remember Frankie. Now, marking a milestone of 40 years after Frankie's passing, we remember him again with these words of love and respect.
AVE ATQUE VALE, Frankie!
Finally, I will go to Angel Fire to the Vietnam Veterans National Memorial in New Mexico to remember Frankie again, on this, the 40th anniversary of his passing from our lives. I will say a prayer for him and our other lost, but not forgotten, brothers and comrades-in-arms in the Peace Chapel on the mountaintop of the former Val Verde Ranch of the Westphall's at the end of the switchback descent into the Moreno Valley. Beautiful, indeed!
True Story by ~~ Mike Sadaj