The rectangular grave stone sits quietly among thousands of others at Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Racine, Wisconsin. Its granite lettering pays tribute to the man who lies beneath it, but his real story has never been fully told. Lt. Edmund Richard Collins was a young lawyer and Knight of Columbus who went to war in 1917 as a leader of men. He returned home 100 years ago in a casket, a war hero with the distinction of being among the first U.S. soldiers to engage Communist Russians on the battlefield.
Most people do not know that an expeditionary force of American and Allied troops were diverted from World War I’s European theater and sent to North Russia and Siberia to fight the Bolsheviki, the Red Communist Russians who seized power during the Russian Revolution. It became known as the Polar Bear Expedition.
American and Allied troops landed in August 1918 at Archangel, a key port on the White Sea in the northern part of European Russia. The Allies were commanded by British Maj. Gen. Edmond Ironside. When Allied forces took Archangel, the Bolsheviki fled south. Over the next nine months, American troops faced brutal conditions such as minus-20 degrees Farenheit temperatures and chest-high snow. Troops moved on foot and equipment moved via sled or sleigh. Before the winter set in, commanders urgently requested 1,000 pairs of skis, 5,500 pairs of snow shoes, and 7,500 pairs of moccasins to aid the men in advancing on the battlefield. Other requested equipment included 50 long cross saws and tongs for obtaining ice blocks for drinking water, and 100 sledges with dogs and harnesses.
Just as the Armistice ended World War I in Europe on Nov. 11, 1918, the action in North Russia was just getting started. The U.S. Army’s 339th Infantry Regiment brought more than 4,000 soldiers to the many battlefields across North Russia. They fought an enemy that was often well entrenched; defended by batteries of machine guns. The Bolsheviki used the deep snow as cover. U.S. patrols reported Bolsheviki suddenly emerging from massive snow banks to open fire on Allied troops or take prisoners.
Allied troops fought and died in places with names like Obozerskaya, Chinova, Onega and Bolshie Ozerka (also spelled Bolshie Ozerki). Collins led his men in some of the fiercest fighting of the North Russia campaign. On March 17, 1919, Collins and some 30 men and one Lewis gun left Chekuevo and a traveled all night to reach Chinova. They advanced toward Bolshie Ozerka and had come within 1 verst (about two-thirds of a mile) of that place when they were fired upon by five or six machine guns at once. “It was only through the enemy’s high shooting that the whole detachment was able to slowly withdraw, crawling through the deep snow,” wrote Lt. Col. N.A. Lawrie in his battle summary.
On March 23, 1919, Collins led a detachment that engaged the enemy at Bolshie Ozerka. His men covered a front of about 300 yards, most of which ran through the woods. During the battle, the Bolsheviki laid down heavy machine gun fire, striking Lt. Collins and a sergeant from Company H of the 339th Infantry. Collins was shot through the lungs, while his compatriot suffered wounds to the shoulders and arms. Another lieutenant took command and advanced the troops 500 yards under heavy fire in waist-deep snow. The Allies returned heavy fire and held their ground for five hours until reinforcements arrived, according to a summary written by Capt. Richard W. Ballensinger of the 339th Infantry.
Badly wounded, Collins was evacuated to a dressing station. On March 24 he was being transported toward the hospital at Chekuevo. “He died from the effects of his wounds before he reached this station,” Ballensinger wrote. “I consider it my duty, since the weather permitted, to send his body at once to Archangel.” Lt. Edmund Richard Collins would be forever 28.
“Officers and men in this engagement did extremely well under trying conditions. I am sorry that I am forced to report the loss of a good officer.” –Capt. Richard W. Ballensinger
Collins was one of nearly 100 Americans killed as a result of combat before the campaign ended in May 1919. The men, who had been buried in various places around North Russia, were retrieved and sent to Archangel for transport home to the United States. Word of his son’s death reached Dr. William P. Collins in Racine over the weekend of April 5, 1919. The Racine Journal-News account said Collins died on March 29, five days after being shot. However, battlefield records indicate he died March 24, the same day he was wounded. The family would have to wait seven months for Collins’ body to return home for a funeral and final burial.
Dr. Collins would have his heart broken again in November 1919, when a series of mistakes resulted in the wrong body being sent to Racine for burial. More than 100 soldiers’ bodies were aboard the Army transport Lake Daraga when it docked at Hoboken, N.J. on Nov. 12, 1919. Collins’ body arrived at the train station in Racine just before midnight on Nov. 19, surprisingly without military escort. When Collins’ casket was opened the next day, a mistake became immediately apparent. The man in the casket was much taller than Collins and was balding. Collins had a full head of hair. The man’s dog tag read, “Charles O’Dial 2021851.” It was the wrong body. Reports came in of incorrect soldier bodies being received in several other cities. Collins’ funeral was postponed.
In Carlisle, Indiana, the funeral and burial of Odial had already taken place. The body was exhumed and discovered to be that of Frank Sapp of Summitville, Indiana. A frantic Dr. Collins wired military officials in Washington. “Body sent to me belonged at Carlisle, Ind. Body exhumed at Carlisle at my request belonged at Summitville, Ind. Body exhumed at Summitville on my request was not right body,” Collins wrote. “All bodies so far proved to be misplaced. Is it not time to get busy?”
The War Department issued a statement that did little to clear the air, blaming the mistakes on a rush to load the ships when pulling out of Archangel. In the end, Dr. Collins was the one to solve the mess after obtaining a list of the bodies on the ship and the numbered caskets. As it turned out, Collins’ body was still in Hoboken. On Nov. 25, the body was finally shipped via rail to Racine.
The tragedy took on another sad dimension when it was learned the officer who accompanied what was thought to be Collins’ body was killed in an auto crash in Chicago on Nov. 19, 1919. Further muddying an already confused story, the Chicago Tribune reported the dead man was Raymond R. Collins, the brother of Lt. Edmund R. Collins. However, according to U.S. Census records, Edmund Collins had no brother named Raymond, nor a brother who served in WWI.
The city of Racine was finally able to say goodbye to its fallen hero on Nov. 28, 1919. His funeral Mass was held at St. Patrick Catholic Church. “When the flag was sent to north Russia, Lieut. Collins unhesitatingly followed, and heroically gave up his life for his country,” said Father John Landowski, chaplain of the 339th Infantry Regiment. “When he was sent out on a hazardous expedition, he hesitated not, for he fully realized that the lives of his men depended on him. He recognized in that order, which proved fatal in the end, the call of the Most High. He fell in service, fell as a martyr of his land.”
MILWAUKEE – Herman “Rocky” Espinoza has always wanted to be a police officer, but he will never get the chance to realize that dream.
“He’ll wear his police shirts every day,” says his mother, Deborah Exner of Monroe. “I even bought him a police siren for his bike.”
Rocky, 12, a Racine native, counts several police officers among his good friends and owns a toy gun and authentic handcuffs.
“He’s the good guy,” Exner said. “That’s probably straight from his mouth. He really holds that status so high.”
Rocky has always been a boy full of life, rarely complaining and always looking out for his mother. But for seven years, Rocky has battled an inoperable cancerous tumor growing at the base of his brain.
Time after time he fights back from the effects of the tumor, but there is little doctors can do for him.
“I don’t think I ever put it to him that he’s going to die,” Exner said. “I put it to him that this is just a kind of stopping ground. The next stop is heaven. He understands that.”
Despite the troubles that have fallen upon him, Rocky shows the courage and optimism many adults would envy. On Friday, he lay in his bed at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, resting.
Pinned to his hospital gown was one of his favorite police badges. On the cassette stereo, a song from his idol, John Schneider, played softly.
Nice and simple, just how he likes it.
Exner walked around the side of the bed, leaned over and kissed him softly on the cheek. She took his hand, looked into his half-open eyes and said a few reassuring words.
Behind Exner’s kind eyes and smile lie the thoughts of a woman who knows her son’s illness is beyond her control. All she can do now is make him comfortable.
Threat of death
Last month, Rocky had to return to Milwaukee after he began having seizures caused by the pressure the tumor exerted on his brain.
“All through the seven years there’s always been the threat of death,” Exner said. “No matter how bad the doctors thought it was, he popped out of it. (Doctors) don’t believe it. They are just amazed.”
The disease is to the point that doctors cannot keep up with an expanding cyst caused by the tumor. He has had three operations in three weeks to relieve the pressure.
Despite Rocky’s strong will to live, the cancer is exacting its toll.
“He’s been through so much,” Exner said. “I think he’s just real tired of fighting. He’s not giving up – he’s just tired.”
Rocky has trouble responding when people talk to him, but not always. “When I came into the room, I bent over and kissed him and said, ‘I love you,’ ” Exner said. “He said, ‘I love you, mom.’ “
Herman picked up the nickname “Rocky” because his cancer was diagnosed when the “Rocky” movies were popular. Besides, Exner said, he has been a real fighter.
“I took it worse than he did. I cried,” she said. “He took it really well. He has always just said, ‘It’s OK, mom.’ He knew he was real sick. He knew it was something he would have to deal with the rest of his life.
“He used to wake up in the middle of the night, just screaming with incredible headaches. I thought it was nightmares.”
When the headaches would not go away, she took Rocky to a Racine doctor, who referred him to a neurosurgeon at Children’s Hospital.
“Dr. Dunn could tell that the tumor was quite large,” she said. “He told me right away that there wasn’t any hope at all. There wasn’t anything they could do.”
But Rocky kept fighting back and giving himself extra time.
‘I’m not a wimp’
Outgoing and charismatic, Rocky lever lets on if he has any fear of his illness, relatives say. Before he went in for a recent operation, he told the doctors, “I’m Rocky – I’m not a wimp.”
Bob Pitts, of Mount Pleasant, Rocky’s uncle, said he told the boy to get better so they could arm wrestle. But Rocky couldn’t wait – he stuck his arm out and put up a pretty good fight.
“When he was first diagnosed,” Pitts said, “he wasn’t supposed to make it three months. He’s fighting every inch of the way.”
Rocky also enjoys riding a bicycle. “He was just learning to ride the bike again, then he had to come back here,” she said.
Schneider, who played Bo Duke on the “Dukes of Hazzard” television series, met Rocky at a Janesville concert last year and gave him his ID bracelet, which is now one of Rocky’s “most prized possessions,” Exner said.
On Friday, Schneider heard Rocky was back in the hospital and telephoned the family to check on him, relatives said.
A former student at Trinity Lutheran School, Rocky was not real big on the books, but he did like school.
Financial toll, too
Exner said she has accepted Rocky’s illness, but admits it has been hard for her in many ways.
“I don’t work, because I stay home and take care of Rocky,” she said. “It’s very hard. Right now I’m trying to find some ways of getting some more financial support.”
Rocky’s medical bills are paid mostly by Medicaid. But Exner has to pay her way to Milwaukee and back, which she said is difficult on a very limited income.
“Financially, I’m very strapped,” she said. “I couldn’t get any help to buy a car” and had to take a loan. “Now, I’m a little worried about that.”
‘Going to heaven’
The biggest toll is emotional.
“It’s hard to face it,” Exner said. ‘What puts me at peace with death (is) he is definitely going to heaven. That gives me peace.
“Sometimes I just wish I could trade places,” she said. “God has always made me a promise that says ‘I’m not going to push you any more than you can handle.’ “
Exner’s adjustment to Rocky’s terminal illness has included hysteria, a lot of tears and anger. But she said her main concern is seeing that Rocky does not suffer.
“If his life is going to hurt him any more, with the love I have for him, I’d rather see him at peace in heaven, ” she said.
“If he does die, I guess a part of me will die too. But I don’t want to be selfish. He’s been through enough. We’ve done as much as we possibly can and now its time to stop.”
Exner’s pain seemed well hidden on Friday. She and her relatives were able to laugh and recall their favorite stories about Rocky. She knows the pain is not over.
“When he actually does die, I think I’m going to fall apart,” she said.
Instead of focusing on the bad things that have happened, Exner counts the good times she has had with her son.
“I’ve had 12 of the hardest but most wonderful years with that young man,” she said. “I’m just thankful for that.”
She said the mother-son bond between them could not be stronger.
“I think that kid is a miracle,” Exner said. “I’m just proud to be his mom. I don’t know what I did, but I’m glad he’s mine.” ♦
Herman “Rocky” Espinoza, the former Racine boy who battled an inoperable brain tumor for several years, died Sunday in a Milwaukee hospital, wearing his favorite police shirt and badge.
Rocky, 12, who dreamed of growing up to be a police officer, died in his sleep Sunday morning at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin.
“I was able to hold him, just like I wanted,” said Deborah Exner, Rocky’s mother, who now lives in Monroe. “When it came right down to it, it was just Rocky and I.”
Exner said she was sleeping on a cot next to Rocky’s bed when a friend noticed his breathing getting shallow. Exner said she got up, put music from Kenny Rogers and John Schneider – two of Rocky’s favorites – on the cassette stereo, then held his hand and waited.
Rocky wore the police uniform Exner had trouble getting off him at home. He will be buried in it, she said.
“l just held his hand and tried to talk to him,” Exner said. “I believe he was very, very peaceful ….I talked him into heaven.”
Diagnosed with cancer at age 5, Rocky was in and out of the hospital many times, fighting the effects of a cancerous brain-stem tumor. Only expected to live months after the tumor was diagnosed, Rocky bounced back time and again
Most every day he would wear the police shirt and badge given to him by a family friend. He also owned a toy gun and a pair of authentic handcuffs.
Even in the hospital, dressed in only a green gown, he wore one of his badges. This time, it seems, the badge was one of courage.
He got the nickname “Rocky” because the Sylvester Stallone movies were popular at the time and because his family felt he was a fighter. Exner said Rocky dealt with the disease without much fear.
“He was a very brave boy,” she said. “There were no tears.”
Rocky’s corneas were donated to the Lion’s Club eye bank and doctors removed his brain to study the large tumor they were unable to stop, she said. Funeral arrangements are pending in Racine.
Relatives described Rocky as an a eternal optimist who was always looking out for other people. On Sunday, Exner recalled one such occasion.
Rocky was being examined at the Shriner’s Hospital in suburban Chicago, Exner said, when the doctor asked to speak to her in the hallway.
“Rocky just spoke up and said, ‘Wait a minute, I’ve got something to say,’ ” Exner said. ” ‘It doesn’t matter if you can do something for me. You just keep on helping all the other kids.’ “
Exner said although the seven-year ordeal has been painful for her, she was doing pretty well on Sunday.
“I’m very much at rest right now,” she said. “He went out like a champ and I was proud of him.”
Bob Pitts of Mount Pleasant, Rocky’s uncle, said, “I’m going to miss him very much. I think he was just a brave little boy. Now he’s at peace.
Late last week, Exner sat in the cafeteria at Children’s Hospital and described how Rocky would wake up screaming in the middle of the night, with what she thought were nightmares. When his headaches persisted, they sought medical help and the tumor was diagnosed.
At times on Friday, Exner laughed when recalling the good times she had with Rocky. At other times, pain seemed to well just beneath the surface when she discussed their pending separation.
“I get real angry sometimes,” she said. “At first I think, ‘Why me? Why not someone else?’ Then I get realistic about it, because who would I want to wish that on? Nobody.”
Exner, who described her son as “a miracle,” said she wants to write a book about the experience.
Family members attributed Rocky’s long survival with the massive tumor to a strong character, medical help and love.
“I think he made it this long because of his doctor (David Dunn) and this hospital,” Pitts said.
Exner thought about that statement for a moment, then added her own reason Rocky fought so hard:
Herman “Rocky” Espinoza never realized his dream of becoming a police officer, but on Thursday, local police will give him a funeral escort usually reserved for their distinguished comrades.
At least four squad cars and officers from the Racine Police Department, the Racine County Sheriff’s Department and the Sturtevant Police Department will escort Rocky’s procession from the funeral home to the church and cemetery.
After reading newspaper accounts of Rocky’s seven-year fight with a brain-stem tumor, several officers had planned to present him with police badges and hats Monday at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin.
Rocky died early Sunday in his mother’s arms.
Deputy Chuck Kwapil said officers then decided on the escort “to have an opportunity to show how he touched our lives.”
“I think it was the bravery,” Kwapil said. “He was a fighter all the way through. He cared about other people and I think that was touching.
“He would have been one heck of a policeman,” Kwapil said “It would have been nice to work with someone like that.”
Racine police provided an Officer Friendly hat and badge that will be placed in Rocky’s casket. The sheriff’s department will also present the family with an officer’s hat and badge.
“It has just been unbelievable,” said Bob Pitts, Rocky’s uncle, of the police response. “I think he would be the happiest little boy on earth.”
Pitts said when the family heard of the police offer of an escort, “We all had tears in our eyes.”
Pitts said Rocky “was always the good cop. To have a will that strong is something.”
A Racine native who most recently lived in Monroe, Rocky spent nearly every day at home wearing a Sturtevant police shirt he got from a family friend.
When a relative recently gave Rocky a bicycle, his mother bought him a police siren. Even when he was struggling for his life in the hospital, his favorite badge was pinned to his hospital gown. And the day he died, he wore the uniform in which he will be buried.
“I don’t know of anybody that read (news articles) that couldn’t be moved by his courage, what he was facing and his concern for others,” said Racine Police Sgt. Thomas Cooper.
“If somebody cared that much about being a police officer, it’s the least we can do, to show him the same respect we would show an officer,” said Sheriff’s Deputy Jim Aiello.
“I’ve never come across anything like this, and I’ve been on this department 14 years,” said Sturtevant Police Sgt. Robert Mallwitz.
“There you’ve got a real, legitimate hero.”
The escort will begin about 10 a.m. at Strouf-Sheffield Funeral Home, 1001 High St., then proceed to Trinity Lutheran Church, 2065 Geneva St. After a funeral service, the procession will head to Calvary Cemetery, 2510 Kinzie Ave. ♦
Herman “Rocky” Espinoza did not win his seven-year struggle with an inoperable brain tumor, but on Thursday, his dream came true.
The buoyant 12-year-old’s strongest wish in life was to serve the public as a police officer, but terminal cancer ended his life Sunday. Even in death, his wish was not forgotten.
Dressed in a blue police shirt, tan pants, badge, handcuffs and holster. Rocky was escorted to Calvary Cemetery by a procession of 13 law enforcement officers and eight squad cars.
The officers, representing the Racine County Sheriff’s Department and police from Racine, Mount Pleasant, Sturtevant and Caledonia, said they were not just honoring a courageous boy, but one of their own.
“He’s one of us now,” said Sturtevant police Sgt. Robert Mallwitz, a member of the escort. “It was just an honor to help a kid realize a dream.
“I was very proud, very honored to be there,” Mallwitz said.
At the funeral home, one officer stood at attention in a silent watch outside the visitation room. Others passed through the room in a show of solemn respect.
The procession to the church and cemetery was complete with a line of squad cars with emergency lights flashing. Nobody would have been prouder than Rocky.
At the cemetery, a police honor guard stood watch as Rocky was moved to his final resting place under a sugar maple. Atop the casket was perched a lone hat with the Racine Police Department logo on the front.
Inside the casket was Rocky’s collection of badges and hats from several other police departments. Even a teddy bear tucked inside wore a sheriff’s hat and miniature badge.
These were the symbols of a child’s very existence.
The officers who attended did not know Rocky, but the pain of loss was visible in their faces. They knew what their presence meant.
“We’re thinking that his dream did come true – finally,” said Racine Patrolman Scott Barrows, known to many children as Officer Friendly.
“He probably did see us there,” said Caledonia police dispatcher Pam Vanko. “I was glad that we could kind of help him with that dream.”
Mount Pleasant Patrolman Steve Swanson said he was proud that a young boy had such strong feelings for police.
“He came as close to being an officer as anyone has come without being sworn,” Swanson said. “(We) were in awe of his courage and strength.”
The escort was a fitting end to the story of a boy who, from the time he knew what the word police meant, wanted to be an officer. Despite a cancer that for seven years grew in his brain stem, Rocky spent his days and nights thinking of a time when he could wear the real uniform.
Officers in attendance Thursday believed Rocky wore the real thing.
“If he would have pulled through, he would have been one hell of a cop,” Mallwitz said. “It just seems unfair, a kid that’s so good gets taken so early.”
“I don’t think I could have gone through what Rocky went through for as long as he went through it and have the attitude he had,” Swanson said.
Students from Rocky’s former school, Trinity Lutheran, said goodbye with several songs at a funeral service. The school’s bell choir played music that for a brief moment drew a smile from Rocky’s mother, Deborah Exner.
The Rev. Patrick Baynes, of Trinity Lutheran Church, summed up what many in the church were undoubtedly feeling.
“Death can leave us helpless, because for once there is nothing we can do,” Baynes, said. “No treatments. And more frustratingly, no more words.” ♦
Deborah Exner knelt over her son’s grave, quietly arranging the fresh flowers she placed in a decorative orange jack-o’-lantern.
She carefully plucked blades of grass from around the small wooden cross that marks the site, pulled a daisy from the planter and slowly walked away.
The mixture of pain and acceptance on her face went a long way toward explaining what her life has been like for the past eight years.
For the mother who one year ago lost her only son, Rocky Espinoza, to an inoperable brain tumor, it is still hard to come to Calvary Cemetery. “I don’t go to the cemetery very often,” she said. “It doesn’t do anything for me at all. It’s a very empty feeling.”
Rocky died of cancer after a seven-year fight with the slow-growing tumor that expanded at the base of his brain.
An optimistic 12-year-old Racine native, Rocky lived a dream of one day becoming a police officer. He wore a police shirt, hat and holster every day at home. His bicycle was proudly outfitted with a siren. Even while at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, he wore a badge on his green gown.
But despite his strong dreams, the cancer proved to be stronger, claiming his life on Oct. 11, 1987.
Racine County’s law enforcement community was touched by Rocky’s respect for the badge. At the visitation service, dozens of Racine police officers filed past the boy’s casket during shift change.
And 13 officers gave him a police escort to the cemetery and a full honor guard – the kind of respect usually reserved for fallen colleagues.
Rocky was buried in his favorite police uniform.
Exner said she saw her son’s death coming, but was not prepared for the pain that would rack her existence and lead her to question the worth of her own life.
“I don’t think I really believed it was going to happen,” she said. “I felt, ‘It can’t happen to us – we’ve succeeded too many times.’ “
Those successes included Rocky’s recovery from numerous operations to relieve pressure from the tumor.
Exner recalled one day after Rocky was home from the hospital, he fought with determination to push his “police” bicycle up a steep hill in order to keep riding. Dreams of being an officer “motivated his whole life,” she said.
But trips to the hospital got more frequent. The tumor began exerting a heavy toll. One day, Exner told doctors enough was enough. She told her son it was OK to die.
Nearly one month after Rocky died in his sleep, that decision sparked doubts and guilt in Exner’s mind and began a tumultuous grieving process.
“I really felt like I was selfish,” Exner said. “I should have kept on doing everything I possibly could.
“Sometimes I even felt like he cheated me,” she said. “He shouldn’t have went, he should have fought harder “
After seven years of caring for a terminally ill child, the death left Exner without direction.
“I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with my life, and I still don’t,” she said. “He was all I knew.”
In November 1987, Exner hit rock bottom. All the calm she experienced directly after Rocky’s death gave way to painful emotions and thoughts of suicide.
“I felt there was nothing left in this world for me,” she said. “Everything I fought for and lived for was gone.”
Guilt continued to plague her.
“Did I do the right thing?” she asked rhetorically. “I felt like I had been selfish, because I wanted it to be over. I felt it was time to just stop and let God take over.”
Period of escape
There was a period she didn’t want to think about Rocky or be near children or hospitals.
She sought to have her fallopian tubes tied, but her doctor asked her to wait. She backed away from the idea and now says she might someday adopt children.
It took months to realize there was no blame to be laid for the cancer, Exner said. She became comfortable that she made the right decisions.
“The doubt is still there at moments,” she said. “But Rocky and I had this understanding about the whole thing. He trusted me and I trusted him.”
The healing has come slowly, but Exner said the grief is starting to ebb. She’s now able to remember the good times and can read news articles about Rocky without crying.
On his birthday last month, she bought toys and gifts – the kind Rocky liked – and gave them to sick children at a hospital in Monroe, where she now lives.
She cleaned out his room and donated much of his belongings to charity. She saved some favorite mementos, however.
‘Not really gone’
“Whenever I still feel real, real low, I’ll go in and open the trunk and look through that stuff,” she said. “I realize he’s not really gone, he’s inside of me.
“I think, ‘If I could have one more hug, or say, I love you, one more time,’ ” she said.
While it was Rocky’s illness and death that led to the pain Exner continues to endure, he may well be the key to healing.
Sense of pride
“The main thing that keeps me above water is that his life was for the good,” Exner said. “It makes me proud, he was such an understanding and caring child. It makes me feel I did my job as a mother. I don’t think I’ll ever meet anyone like him in my life.”
Asked whether she was starting to heal, Exner looked away in careful thought, seeming for a long moment to be somewhere else. “I feel more stable. I don’t think Rocky would have wanted me to quit,” she said. “He was always proud of me – it always made me feel good. I still have to go on.”
The future might well hold opportunities for working with the terminally ill and their families, she said. But for now, Exner is trying to remember.
She wants to someday write a book about her son and what they went through together. But first there are questions and conflicts to be resolved.
“I’m still searching for the reason all this happened to me,” she said. “I couldn’t see it being for nothing.” ♦
Tony Melendez has serenaded Pope John Paul II and performed in front of thousands, but he says he is still shocked by the emotional reaction from the people he touches with his music.
“Some of the people’s responses are so touching,” Melendez said. “I can’t believe the response Some come crying and give me a hug. Some want to kiss the same cheek the pope kissed.”
The strong reactions are not just because Melendez, 26, sings with a smooth tenor voice, or that he plays nearly flawless acoustic guitar.
People are inspired because Melendez was born without arms and plays guitar with his feet, in a seemingly effortless manner.
Whole new world
“The music has just opened up a whole new world for me,” Melendez said before a performance Saturday night at St. Rita’s School, 4433 Douglas Ave.
“It’s been scary,” he said of the reaction he gets. “I’m not used to that overwhelming thrust toward me.”
Melendez, of Chino, Calif., performed for about 200 people at St. Rita’s, combining Christian music, storytelling and a healthy sense of humor.
Melendez is at ease with the fact he has no arms and does not consider himself handicapped. He even calls his company “Toe Jam Music.”
He told the group he stopped using prostheses because “my feet could do it so much faster quicker, neater. People ask me, ‘Do you eat with your toes or your feet?’ ” he said. “I eat with my mouth.”
With the guitar flat on the stage before him, Melendez’s bare feet glided up and down the strings effortlessly, while he sang about hope, inspiration and God.
As he walked to and from the stage, people pulled him aside for a hug, or kissed him like he was their own son.
“It still to me is very surprising,” he said. Crowd response comes from “a lot of young, and old. It’s really neat.”
Melendez earned national recognition last year when he played and sang for John Paul II– a performance that so moved the pontiff he touched Melendez’s legs and kissed his cheek.
Eight months later, Melendez recalls that performance as “a moment in my life I never thought would happen.”
John Paul’s reaction was nothing short of shocking to Melendez.
“I thought I was going to sing, then ‘clap, clap, clap and go home,” he said. “It really was a true blessing for me when he came over and gave me that kiss.”
In the time since, Melendez has been to 29 states, sometimes doing three performances a day.
Melendez was born in Nicaragua in 1962. His mother took thalidomide, an anti-nausea drug that caused the birth defect he has overcome. He spent much of his life in schools for handicapped children, but decided as a high school sophomore he wanted to be in public schools.
It was at about that time, when he was 16 he first tried playing his father’s guitar, after learning how to tune it with his feet.
“I did it and it just worked, and I kept at it,” he said. “I didn’t consider it practice. I loved it so much, I played five to six hours a day.”
While still getting a case of stage fright now and then, Melendez said the music helped him grow. He now promotes a pro-family, pro-love message during performances.
Music opens doors
”Once I start, it just automatically flows,” he said “Once I’m up there, something just takes over.”
Music “opened a lot of doors,” he said. “It’s given me a little more sense of security.
“I think they (spectators) sometimes go home saying, ‘If he can do it, I can do it,’ ” Melendez said. “When people go home, they feel a little bit better about themselves.”
Jose Melendez Jr., Tony’s concert manager, told the St. Rita’s crowd he learned things by watching his brother. He said one day when the pair was younger, he wanted to play Frisbee, but could not bring himself to ask, for fear he would hurt Tony’s feelings.
But Tony picked up the Frisbee in his toes and threw it, striking Jose in the face. It was then, Jose said, he realized his brother’s strength.
“That’s the first time I saw his arms and his hands.” ♦
Postscript: Tony Melendez continues touring, recording music and sharing his story around the world. He performed for Pope John Paul II four more times. He has recorded a number of contemporary Christian albums. He is married and lives in Branson, Missouri.
Trickster Makes Short Work of Racine Jail
By Joseph Hanneman
Most husbands gave candy or sent flowers to their wives on Valentine’s Day. Todd Martin escaped from jail.
The 23-year-old Houdini-style escape artist from Sheboygan slipped out of two pairs of handcuffs, a belly chain, a canvas mailbag, three iron-bar jail doors and a locked wooden door Wednesday at the Racine City Jail.
And it took only seven minutes.
After defeating the final lock at the jail Wednesday, Martin chatted with reporters and gave his wife, Amara, a Valentine’s kiss. Another day, another jailbreak.
Relatively long time
“That’s the longest I’ve ever been held,” said Martin, who has broken out of the pokey some dozen times before. “You sure can be proud of yourselves.”
The man who calls himself Anthony the Great wore a black stretch body suit and cape as he was led to his cell, trailed by dignitaries that included Mayor N. Owen Davies, Sheriff Robert Rohner and Alderwoman Dorothy Constantine.
Alderman Michael Vidian patted Martin down and checked his hair and mouth for tools. Police Chief Karl Hansen put two pairs of handcuffs on Martin, and shackled his forearm to a belly chain. He was then placed in a canvas mailbag and locked in the cell at exactly 2:18 p.m.
The gathered throng of local officials, reporters and photographers waited in the hall outside the jail as Martin plied his trade. All they could hear was the rattle of each lock as he made his way closer.
Then, at 2 25 p.m., he emerged.
“I’m glad we’re closing the jail on the first of April,” Hansen quipped. The jail will be gutted to make way for a new communications center and city prisoners will be transferred to the county jail.
Martin said the lock on the jail cell was the most difficult to open, because it had a weighted spring that held down the lock hook.
“It’s difficult to manipulate a lock like that,” he said.
Try it in a coffin
The escape was probably a yawner for Martin, who escaped from a locked coffin in 1988 after being tossed from an airplane 13,500 feet above Sandwich, Ill.
When he was 18, he was sealed in a hole-riddled coffin and pushed into the Sheboygan River while covered in 20 pounds of chains and 500 pounds of rock. He escaped in 50 seconds.
“I think I did a good job,” he said matter-of-factly. “Two hours would have been a good time.”
After the escape, Martin posed for pictures in the locked cell and recreated parts of the escape for a national television crew. When the last photo had been snapped, he called for the jailer.
“Now I need a key,” he said. ♦
Postscript: Now age 51, Martin continues to perform under the name Anthony Martin (Anthony is his middle name). He is also a Christian evangelist. In 2013, he published a book, Escape or Die: An Escape Artist Unlocks the Secrets to Cheating Death.
It was just after daybreak on a Saturday when Father M.W. Gibson climbed to the spire of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Racine, Wisconsin. In a bold sign that faith and patriotism go hand in hand, he hoisted an American flag onto the spire, where it waved in the breeze for all to see. It was April 20, 1861 and the War of the Rebellion had just broken out. Father Gibson wanted to remind area Catholics what was at stake in defending the country’s sovereignty.
Later that same day, a crowd of 1,000 people gathered in Racine’s Market Square (now called Monument Square) and marched north across the Root River to St. Patrick’s. They sought to thank Father Gibson for his patriotic statement. Gibson implored the crowd to recall that the country for which their forefathers lived and died was calling to them. The time had come, he said, to answer that call.
This true story is from a ceremony I wrote for the Knights of Columbus in 2009 to honor the American flag and those who have died defending it.
“Let us commit to always honor our flag and protect it. Protect it from enemies without – and within – who seek to diminish its honor, lower its stature or desecrate it in protest.”
Those words were used in a ceremony providing a reverent retirement by fire for American flags that were no longer fit for service. On this Independence Day, they also offer a look at how previous generations viewed the United States and the symbol of its freedom. We quoted the stirring words of Father Raymond Mahoney, who as chaplain of the Racine Knights of Columbus penned a poem in May 1920 honoring the American flag:
“Heaven itself is unfurling the flag of the land we love, and I hear Columbia telling her children the story of how the flag came to be”
In the blood that they gave for the cause of right A thousand true martyrs lay And the angel that tends on hero souls Came down at the close of day To gather them in, and to carry them Before the Lord of all Then as over their forms she kindly stooped Her snow white wings let fall
On the ground that their blood had incarnadined And it left on them a stain And she feared that the Master would chide her When she came to His presence again Because on those wings once so undefiled Now glowed that crimson stain
But as she passed on through the evening skies The souls to her bosom clung She tore from the skies a bit of the blue And over her shoulders flung That azure so deep, that was star begemmed In thought perhaps it might When she came to the throne of the Master, hide The stain of blood from sight
So she lay at his feet those hero souls And bent low with wings outspread And he saw that those wings were star sprinkled blue, and white, and bloody red He asked what it meant, why the wings were stained In fear the angel said “Oh, the red is the blood that theses heroes spilled The blue is Your own fair sky And with it I have sought to hide the stain Lest it displease Your eye”
“The stain on your wings,” he answered her “Is truly a blessed one And is always the mark of a crimson tide That for liberty has run
“For it tells of service and sacrifice Of a life and a death or right And the blue speaks of hope, the white as truth Sends forth a welcome light To gleam for mankind as for travelers beams The building star of night
“Spread out your wings o’er the universe That all who behold may see The flag that speaks of love, truth and hope The virtues that make men free”
You can watch the entire flag retirement ceremony below.
It seems every year the politically correct trot out a growing list of indictments against the great explorer Christopher Columbus. As we observe Columbus Day in the United States this October 12, some will claim Columbus was an oppressor. Others will wrongfully accuse him of racism. To get a real sense of why Columbus is under constant attack, remember that while he was a great explorer, he was first and foremost a faithful Catholic.
Some of the greatest minds in the history of the Church and the have spoken eloquently about the meaning of Columbus and his discovery of the New World in October 1492.
Father John M. Naughtin, who served as Wisconsin state chaplain of the Knights of Columbus in the opening years of the 20th century, preached an eloquent sermon on Columbus on October 16, 1910 at St. Rose Catholic Church in Racine. Naughtin’s audience at that 8 a.m. Mass was a large gathering of Racine Knights of Columbus and their families. (See below for the full text.)
“The very name Christopher is symbolic of the man’s character and deeds — Christopher mean- ing ‘Christ bearer’ — a messenger of peace,” Naughtin said. “Our great patron was a messenger bringing the knowledge of Christ from the old world to the new. What better name could God have selected for the man who was to do so much good for the universe?”
Pope Leo XIII issued an encyclical, Quarto Abeunte Saeculo, on the 400th anniversary of Landing Day. The Holy Father said this of Columbus: “The greatness of his mind and heart can be compared to but few in the history of humanity.”
The late Father John Hardon, S.J., an expert on Columbus, said the Genoa native “was the instrument of extraordinary grace.” “It is one thing to say that Columbus discovered America,” Hardon said in 1992 on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the New World. “It is something else to realize that he opened the door to the most phenomenal spread of Christianity since the time of St. Paul.”
Hardon said Columbus’s “phenomenal career on earth was a heroic response to a sublime vocation. He was the destined herald of the true faith to half of the human race.”
Let’s remember this year to celebrate the real Columbus and ignore the nattering of the revisionists.
Homily of Rev. John M. Naughtin, October 16, 1910:
In the annals of history and tradition, no man stands forth more prominently than the man whose deeds we are commemorating today. For although Columbus has been dead about four hundred years, he is just beginning to be appreciated now. Only the infinite knowledge of God himself can grasp the meaning of the work of Columbus.
Think of what this western world has developed into since Columbus’s time — the home of millions and the homes of millions yet to come — all the work of a simple, practical Catholic man, Christopher Columbus, the Genoese. A man who was not understood in his own country; who many times did not have enough to eat. Italy would not have him; it jeered at him and practically turned him out to find in Spain a welcoming hand and the substantial aid that made his great work possible.
America owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to Spain. We are told of the deeds of the Caesars, of Napoleon and of Wellington, but all these figures were simply national — striving for one country, but Columbus is a worldwide character; he worked that the whole world might benefit from his deeds.
The very name Christopher is symbolic of the man’s character and deed: Christopher meaning ‘Christ-bearer’ — a messenger of peace. Our great patron was a messenger bringing the knowledge of Christ from the old world to the new. What better name could God have selected for the man who was to do so much good for the universe? In his youth, Columbus often sat by the seashore and wondered where and whence the great white winged ships came from. No doubt some had been on trips to the Holy Land and the Sepulchre and to follow in their footsteps became his one desire and that one thought dominated his life.
Columbus did not belong to the 20th century class of explorers; he did not seek for material gain, but his great Catholic heart was filled with an overwhelming charity and love of God. He founded a home for people from every part of this world’s surface—for all colors, all races and conditions of men. His first act, upon reaching land, true, to his faith, was to fall upon his knees in devotion, dedicating this new world to the Almighty God. He did not crave acres of this new country, but rather that to the souls of these strangers might be brought the knowledge of God. Columbus was great — there have been none greater — but Columbus the Catholic was still greater. It was his faith which gave him the strength and the courage to undergo the trials of his explorations; to undergo, as Christ had undergone, the misrepresentations, the calumnies, the backbiting of his enemies and even to his returning to Spain in shackles after his wonderful trip which resulted in the discovery of a new land.
It is a good thing in this world of ours to have some model. The model we, the Knights of Columbus, have to imitate was, to be sure, a mere man, but great enough and powerful enough to do as God willed. The name Knights of Columbus is very appropriate—the word “knight” typifying everything that is admirable in a man, embracing all the manly qualities and this coupled with the name Columbus, has a wonderful significance.
Even as the attention of the stranger entering New York harbor is arrested by the Statue of Liberty towering for hundreds of feet and standing for the freedom of the new land, so does the greatness of Columbus tower im- measurably above that statue so that the whole world may gaze upon him, and gazing upon him, do him honor.
I wish I could get you a big birthday gift this year, like prepaid college tuition or a new car. But I can’t. I think I have something much more valuable to share, though. I wrote the letter below almost 23 years ago, when you were barely two weeks old.
Much has changed in our lives and in the world since then. You grew up and overcame big challenges on your way to high school, and then college. You’ve gone out into the work work and supported yourself as you pay for your own education. I know that has been hard, but it is a great credit to you, and I’m very proud of you.
When I wrote the letter, we had no idea who you would become. You were at times a cranky baby, with lots of colic. But you were mostly happy. It was a sheer delight watching you grow up. As I see you ready to celebrate your 23rd birthday, I can say that I could not be a more proud Dad of my only son. Just like the letter says, you’ve grown up to be a good man. I love you.
Feb. 2, 1992
Dear Stevie —
You probably don’t like us calling you Stevie anymore, but right now, it fits you perfectly. It’s 10:30 p.m. on a Sunday. I’m watching a rerun of M*A*S*H on television as your Mom naps on the couch. You are asleep in your crib down the hall. I can hear you breathing over the nursery monitor.
There are a lot of things I want to say to you. The first is that your Mom and I love you very much. You’re only 2 weeks old, but you’ve added so much to our lives. And now we sit and imagine what kind of a person you will grow up to be. We know you’ll be a good boy, and eventually, a good man.
First, some history. You were born at 8:41 p.m. on Jan. 20. You weighed 7 pounds 13 ounces. I’ll never forget your little hand clutched around my finger as you lay on the incubator table. You were so alert as you waited to be put in a blanket.
The day you were born, George Bush was President of the United States. Tommy Thompson (a good friend of your great Grandpa Carl) was governor of Wisconsin. Your Dad works as a reporter for the Racine Journal Times, covering state government and politics. Your Mom works for Communications Concepts in Racine, doing graphic arts on a computer. The top TV shows are Cheers, Murphy Brown and L.A. Law.
You are a beautiful baby. You have dark eyes, red hair and soft, rounded cheeks. You’re only 2 weeks old, but already you can lift your head in the crib. I wonder what you are thinking when you gaze up at us while you’re feeding or playing. We nicknamed you “Popeye” because when you want your bottle, you look up with only 1 eye open and open your mouth.
You were conceived at the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Your Mom was in the Army Reserves and was called off to war in Dec. 1990. She was stationed in Augsburg, Germany, as a food inspector. When she came home from war in April 1991, we had you. You were part of what was called “Operation Desert Stork,” named after the war, “Operation Desert Storm.”
As I write this your Mom and I are looking forward to seeing you crawl, take your first steps, and all the things that come after. But for now, there’s one thing we’re sure of — how happy we are you’re here.
At Christmas 2014 with Mr. Puggles.
A 2008 image of Stevie.
Stevie with one of his patented expressions.
We used to stuff pillows in our sweatpants and hip check each other around.
One of my favorite photos, taken at Wisconsin Dells.
By Joe Hanneman
For more than 25 years, the University of Wisconsin-Parkside’s two duplicates of the famed “Sifting and Winnowing” plaques that memorialize the Richard Ely academic freedom trial sat in a corner of the archives, virtually untouched. On at least two occasions, efforts were made to put the plaques on display, but to no avail. Then in 1998, with the university’s 30th anniversary looming, Interim Chancellor Dr. Gordon H. Lamb decided the time had come to give the plaques their proper due.
Old trophies line the shelves inside the former Madison Brass Works on the East Side of Wisconsin’s capital city. Just feet from where craftsmen over the years made everything from airplane parts to torpedo components sit icons of more leisurely pursuits: a bowling champion from 1949, boat-racing trophies from the former owner. They sit seemingly untouched since the day they were placed there nearly 50 years ago. Much about the wood-frame foundry seems in a time warp. Old foundry patterns hang along the side walls like suits in a closet. The floor is stacked with flasks and jackets for pouring and forming molten metal. A huge green muller sits in the center, used to mix sand and carbonite. It all looks straight from the 1940s.
It’s a good thing this place lives in the past. This building where the University of Wisconsin’s “Sifting and Winnowing” plaque was made in 1910 came to play a big role in UW-Parkside’s project to restore and display its versions of the 255-pound plaque in 1998.
The Madison Brass Works technically no longer exists. Now called Celestial Stone Foundry and Forge, the company and its one employee/owner helped repair and restore UW-Parkside’s two sifting and winnowing plaques and cast a rededication plaque using the very same pattern-maker’s letters from the original.
In 1910 when UW-Madison student Hugo H. Hering made what he later called the “purely hand-made” wooden pattern for the sifting and winnowing plaque, he couldn’t have intended for it to survive much beyond creation of the one plaque.
His effort not only survived his time, but it may still exist today. When contacted in early 1998 about making rededication plaques, Tom Pankratz, the owner of Celestial Stone Foundry, located the old wood pattern buried under others at the foundry. He can’t be sure it is the exact version from 1910, but it is a distinct possibility it is original material from the Class of 1910.
“It was accidental that it survived to this day,” Pankratz said, surveying the old pattern, which was badly singed by a fire at the foundry in the 1960s. “It was buried under something.”
Dave Olson, a retired Madison Brass foundry worker who volunteered his time to work on the UW-Parkside project, said it was unusual for patterns to survive so many years. “Most places would either return it to the owner or get rid of it,” he said.
Pankratz carefully lifted letters from the historic pattern to create a plaque for UW-Parkside that states: “Rededicated 1998.” It has the look and feel of the first sifting and winnowing plaque with the added historic flavor from the original letters.
Pankratz also found a master copy of the bronze anchor covers that adorn the original plaque on Bascom Hall in Madison. The ornate, 1.25-inch square tablets were used to cover the holes where the anchors were inserted to hold the plaque in place. Using the master, Pankratz created matching anchor covers for UW-Parkside’s plaques.
“Originally it was probably made by a hand carver,” Olson said.
Artists Martha Glowacki and Mary Dickey of Sylva Designs of Sauk City worked with Pankratz to repair and restore the two 4-by-4-foot plaques. The UW-Parkside plaques were cast in 1964. The holes drilled in the plaques when they hung at the old UW Centers in Racine and Kenosha were welded and new holes drilled to match the original plaque. The black surface under the brass letters was repaired and repainted. The brass surfaces were machine- and hand sanded and polished. At completion, the restored plaques had a luster probably matched only by the original sheen.
Glowacki also created plaques that include explanatory text briefly telling the sifting and winnowing story. Those exquisite bronze plaques have etched letters and an etched photo of the UW-Parkside campus. “We enjoyed the project,” Glowacki said. She, Dickey and Pankratz, all UW-Madison graduates, said it was a privilege to work on a project of such historic importance to the university.
In the case of the Sifting and Winnowing plaques, the third time was a charm. A committee of the 20th anniversary first attempted to find a suitable location for the plaques, but that effort was never completed. In 1992, UW-Parkside Interim Chancellor John Stockwell expressed desire to install the plaques, but the project didn’t happen before he left the university.
In 1998, Interim Chancellor Gordon H. Lamb saw an opportunity to install the plaques, tie them in to the 30th anniversary and promote a longstanding tradition of academic freedom. “The plaques symbolize such tradition,” said Lamb, who went on to lead the University of Missouri System after leaving UW-Parkside. “I felt it was important the campus embrace the history and the tradition.” Lamb headed a committee that oversaw the restoration and planned for the new displays at UW-Parkside. The group included UW-Parkside Archivist Ellen Pedraza, who called new attention to the long-stored plaques in 1993.
At the rededication event held at UW-Parkside in late November 1998, new Chancellor Jack Keating expressed gratitude for the work to “free the plaques from the archive.” He said the plaques are an important reminder of free intellectual discourse.
W. Lee Hansen, professor emeritus of economics at UW-Madison, called the 1894 Regents report that led to the plaque a “forceful and vivid expression of a university’s commitment to the search for truth.” Hansen is editor of the 1998 book Academic Freedom on Trial: 100 Years of Sifting and Winnowing at the University of Wisconsin. The statement on the plaque, Hansen told the assembly, “affirms the right, indeed the obligation, of faculty and students to pursue the truth through the Sifting and Winnowing process.” (Dr. Hansen’s entire talk from the event is available on his UW-Madison web site.)
The plaques were installed just outside the UW-Parkside library near the portrait of founding Chancellor Irvin G. Wyllie, and outside of the Admissions Office in Molinaro Hall.
And the rest, as they say, is history. ♦
(A version of this article appeared in the winter 1998-99 issue of Perspective magazine at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside.)
Pankratz and Olson prepare the form for the molten metal.
Pankratz moves the bucket of molten metal with the aid of a hoist.
The load is steadied before the pour.
Pankratz pours molten metal into the form while Dave Olson watches.
The anchor covers were used as give-aways at the rededication.
Martha Glowacki and Mary Dickey do finishing work on one of the plaques.
Tom Pankratz examines what is believed to be the original wooden “Sifting and Winnowing” plaque form.
After a year leading UW-Parkside during its search for a new chancellor, Dr. Gordon H. Lamb was named interim head of the University of Missouri System. He later founded his own consulting firm in Missouri doing executive recruiting. Dr. Lamb was a renowned expert on choral music and the author of Choral Techniques. As a music professor and choral conductor, he conducted concerts in 17 states and in Europe. He spent 10 years as president of Northeastern Illinois University, preceded by 16 years as a music professor and administrator at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Dr. Lamb was a skilled leader, a true gentleman and a great man — the best boss I’ve ever had. He died on February 6, 2012 in Columbia, Missouri.
Mary Dickey is curator for River Arts on Water, a gallery in downtown Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin. She recently designed and created a roadside shrine, “A Call to Beauty,” part of the Fermentation Fest Farm/Art DTour in fall 2014.
Martha Glowacki is recently retired from her role as curator of the James Watrous Gallery in Madison, part of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences Arts & Letters. She was previously director of the Design Gallery at UW–Madison. She and Tom Pankratz worked together on the 1999-2000 restoration of the World War I Doughboy statue in West Bend, Wisconsin. Pankratz sold his Madison foundry in 2014 and moved out West.
W. Lee Hansen, professor emeritus of economics at UW-Madison, has been conducting research on the UW System’s diversity programs. He is writing a book that will, among other things, examine the costs vs. benefits of diversity programs, arguing the university should have an admissions system based on merit and academic promise. He has also written extensively on the issue of academic freedom.
By Joe Hanneman MAJ. JOSEPH SMALL III GREW CONCERNED as he peered out the windshield of his U.S. Marine Corps OV-10 Bronco reconnaissance plane, cruising low over enemy territory just inside Kuwait. It was early afternoon, Feb. 25, 1991, the second day of the Allied ground war. It was an all-out assault against Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces, who held the tiny oil-rich nation with an iron grip. But unlike the clear skies on the first day of the ground offensive, the weather had turned ominous.
Small lowered his twin-engine turboprop plane to about 4,500 feet. He was just beneath the low, stormy cloud ceiling and in the midst of thick, sooty smoke from the oil-well fires that scorched the earth below. He didn’t like being this low in a plane that flew only about one-fourth the speed of a U. S. fighter jet. He’d been the target of two Iraqi surface-to-air missiles on a previous mission, but was never low enough to really worry about being hit.
Today was different.
Small and his aerial observer, Marine Corps Capt. David Spellacy, were searching for an Iraqi tank column that had slowed the advance of the 1st Marine Division’s 1st Tank Battalion into southwest Kuwait. They set up a search pattern, and planned to call in air and artillery strikes on the tanks once they found them. While Spellacy surveyed the desert floor below, Small kept “jinking” the plane in erratic movements, hoping to make the aircraft a difficult target for Iraqi gunners.
After a few minutes of searching, they came upon a large, trench complex dug into the sand below. They were close enough to see soldiers moving about on the ground.
SMALL QUICKLY REALIZED HE’D STUMBLED ONTO a hornet’s nest of Iraqi troops, and was flying low enough to get stung. While Spellacy took down target coordinates, Small thought about getting the plane out of there. It was too late.
Screaming from the ground at 5 o’clock, a shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile ripped into the right wing, killing Spellacy and crippling the aircraft. “I remember a loud explosion,” Small said. “It felt like a giant hand came out and smacked the airplane, like swatting a fly. I remember a brilliant, white light, coming from somewhere. The airplane was instantly, completely out of control.”
Not knowing Spellacy’s condition, or that the plane’s right wing had been blown off, Small tried to regain control of the craft. It didn’t work. Racing against time, Small pulled the eject handle. Within a second, both men rocketed free of the crippled airplane, 3-5 miles inside enemy territory. “I don’t remember any noise,” Small said. “My next conscious thought was when I was under the parachute.”
Small’s duty in Operation Desert Storm was the first combat assignment for the Racine native and 1975 UW-Parkside graduate. He’d arrived in Saudi Arabia on the first day of the air war, Jan. 17, with Marine Observation Squadron 1 from New River, N.C. Typically, he flew one mission per day. He’d leave the airstrip near the port city of Jubayl each day for a 4-hour flight, mostly patrolling the Kuwait-Saudi border and mapping enemy tank and troop locations.
IT WAS A LONG WAY FROM TINY SYLVANIA AIRPORT in Racine County, where Small fulfilled his dream of earning a pilot’s license on the day he graduated from UW-Parkside in December 1975. During his 17 years in the Corps, he’d flown other dangerous missions. He flew a helicopter on search-and-rescue missions to aid survivors of Hurricane David in the Dominican Republic in 1979. On one mission, his helicopter ended up belly-deep in mud as survivors rushed the craft to get at relief supplies.
He also flew drug interdiction missions in cooperation with the U.S. Customs Service and the Coast Guard in 1987. On one mission, he stumbled onto an air-to-boat drop of drugs, and guided law enforcement to the scene. The dealers were caught and convicted. Another time; another enemy. Now, floating into the hands of the Iraqis, Small pulled his survival radio from his vest and got off a quick mayday, noting his location. Now all he could do was wait to hit the ground.
When he landed, Small tore ligaments in his knee, and suffered a deep cut on his forearm. He laid on the ground, facing up. Within seconds, a dozen Iraqi soldiers were all over him. There was no running. “Evidently, the sound of my aircraft crashing got them out of their holes. Why they didn’t shoot – to this day I don’t know.”
After disarming him and removing his survival vest at gunpoint, the soldiers put Small in a land rover and drove north. A soldier in the front seat had his rifle pointed at Small’s face. A rival group of soldiers in another vehicle tried to run them off the road. Small looked to one of his captors for a clue to what was happening.
“He looked at me and said, ‘They’re crazy. They want to kill you.’ ”
SMALL WAS TAKEN TO AN UNDERGROUND BUNKER complex several miles away. He waited about 45 minutes as the Iraqis figured out what to do with him. One of the soldiers held a cigarette to his mouth for a few puffs. After taking his flight suit and gear, they dragged him up the stairs and stuffed him into another vehicle. This time, the destination was Kuwait City. At a building in the center of the Kuwaiti capital, the soldiers sat Small in the center of a room for another round of interrogation. The cloth strips used to bind his hands dug into his wrists, causing deep lacerations. The beating started off with cuffs to the ears and back of the head. They administered what Small called “a pretty good whooping,” but they never struck him in the face. After being led into another room, he was whipped with what he believed was a fire hose. One soldier hit him in the back of the head so hard it knocked him out cold.
“I figured they were going to beat me, then shoot me,” he said.
Small remembered what he had read about POWs in Vietnam, and how American soldiers answered questions by being vague or telling lies. It was a technique he would use often during his interrogation; a technique he later credited with saving his life. When the Iraqis found his flight map among his belongings and began questioning him about what it meant, Small said he told the “biggest, grandest lie I think I’ve ever told in my entire life.” It worked.
After that session ended, Small was again loaded into a vehicle and driven from Kuwait City to Basra in southern Iraq, headquarters of Saddam’s elite Republican Guard. They traveled up a darkened Highway 6, which would within two days become known as the “Highway of Death,” as Allied pilots destroyed scores of retreating Iraqi vehicles.
During the next interrogation, Small was not beaten, but was threatened with death if he didn’t cooperate. The next morning, Small was put into a car and driven to Baghdad. He was afraid during the daylong drive – afraid that U.S. planes might spot them on the highway and bomb the vehicle. Luckily for him, the weather was bad and no planes were visible. “Again,” Small said, “God was on my side. He kept the weather bad. Had the weather been nicer, I’m sure we wouldn’t have made it.”
SMALL ENDURED ONE LAST ROUND OF QUESTIONING before being sent to a POW prison. Guards who led him to the questioning hit him in the head, and purposely made him walk into walls or trip on the stairs. He was unsure what the Iraqis had in store for him. He had seen the pictures of captured Allied soldiers on CNN, soldiers who’d been beaten bloody and forced to read statements condemning the war. He knew what could happen. Then the questions ended. Small was taken to a dark, cold prison and left in a cell by himself. It had been 30 hours since he was shot down, and the impact of his ordeal caught up with him. He sat in his cell and wept.
He found only restless sleep that night, on a small square of foam padding that served as a bed. The night was interrupted by U.S. air raids that drew loud anti-aircraft fire from inside the prison compound. Having hit rock bottom emotionally, Small sat in his 12-by-12 cell and prayed. It was about the only comfort he’d found since being captured. He was making peace with God. “I figured that was it; I was done.”
Although his cell door had a blanket draped over it to keep him from seeing out, Small on occasion heard muffled whispers from other cells. At one point, he heard his name whispered. Someone must have heard him announce his name to the guards when he came in the night before. In between visits by his captors, Small discovered there were five other Allied pilots in his wing of the prison. Slowly, they exchanged information in whispers. He filled them in on the progress of the war. A couple days later, two more prisoners were brought in. The men worked to keep each others’ spirits up. On occasion, Small’s guard would give him a cigarette. He even brought him some hot tea on evening. “That was a good day,” Small said.
THE FIRST HINT THE WAR WAS OVER was when the bombing stopped. The prisoners heard the report of small arms fire in Baghdad, a traditional Muslim sign of celebration. On the night of March 4, all the prisoners were gathered, put on a bus and driven to another prison in Baghdad. A representative of the Red Crescent (similar to the Red Cross) was taking down everyone’s name. Prisoners were allowed to shave, then were blindfolded.
They were loaded onto a bus, and told they were now in the custody of the International Red Cross. It was finally ending. “That was the first time I really believed it,” Small said. They were put up at a luxury hotel for the night, and treated to hot showers and good food. The next day, they were loaded onto a Swissair plane and took off for Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Near Saudi airspace, the commercial jet was joined up by two American F-15 fighters, which flew in tight formation as an escort. The pilots raised their helmet shields and gave a thumbs up. They broke away and were replaced by two British Tornado fighters. Their first official welcome home was a stirring sight for all on board. “It was the happiest day of my life, boy. We let out a whoop.”
When Small descended the steps at the Riyadh airfield, U.S. Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the Allied commander, was waiting to greet the POWs. The big, burly four-star general had tears streaming down his face.
AFTER A CHECKUP ABOARD A U.S. HOSPITAL SHIP near Bahrain, Small and his comrades flew a VIP plane to Andrews Air Force Base, Md. Waiting there were thousands of people, including his wife, Leanne, their children Lauren, 10, and Michael, 8, his son, David, 17, and his parents, Joe and Dolores Small of Racine.
Despite his valor and bravery, Small refuses to call himself a hero. And it’s not just modesty. He says many other soldiers have withstood much worse than he, including Vietnam POWs who didn’t come home to the adulation of the American public. That’s a message he’s carried to dozens of speaking engagements since the war ended. He’s also had difficulty dealing with the death of Spellacy – known as “Hank” in his unit – who left behind a wife and three young children. Small described his partner that day as the “greatest guy you’d ever want to know.”
Small has experienced “survivor guilt” and wondered if there’s anything he might have done to change the outcome. He knows there are no answers. “He was sitting three feet behind me. He got hit and I didn’t. God had something for me to do and God had something for Hank to do.”
Small, 41, was stationed in Florida after the war, training future Navy and Marine pilots at Pensacola Naval Air Station. (He retired from the Corps in early 1994 and started life as a civilian.) Small hopes his POW experience and willingness to talk about it will one day help some future soldier survive imprisonment in an enemy camp.
“If I can have some influence at some time on someone who may go through this 10, 15, 20 years from now … that’s what’s going to make it all worthwhile.” ♦
This story originally appeared in the Spring 1993 issue of Perspective magazine at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside
This is a blast from the past of the author of this blog. Reporter Joe Hanneman (skinny guy with hair at left) takes notes at a press event in Racine, Wisconsin, held by Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson. The photo was taken around 1988. Hanneman covered Wisconsin state politics and the Wisconsin Legislature for The Journal Times, Racine’s daily newspaper. The event was likely some kind of economic development announcement from the governor’s office. Also visible in the photo are Racine County Executive Dennis Kornwolf, State Sen. Joseph Strohl of Racine and State Rep. E. James Ladwig of Caledonia. Some 27 years later, Hanneman has neither thick hair nor thin waist.