Lost: 1950's Found: 1950's Returned: 3 August 2014 Location: Grayslake, IL
Sometimes, it takes decades to make good on a promise.
For John Trinca of Antioch, it took 69 years, two months and 13 hours.
The World War II veteran was just 19 when, on June 1, 1945, he was introduced to a new member of his company as the group prepared for combat in the Philippines.
“I told him, ‘My name is Chicago,’” Trinca said Sunday during a ceremony at the College of Lake County in Grayslake. “He told me his name, and it went in one ear and out the other.”
The two had enough time to learn that they both were from the same Chicago neighborhood near Damen and North avenues. They agreed that they’d inform each other’s families if the worst befell either of them, and promised to exchange names and addresses later in their foxholes.
“We came to a ridge,” Trinca said. “He laid down next to me, one step back.”
The Japanese were shooting. Trinca fired, the tracer of his bullet drawing the enemy’s attention.
“I heard the impact of a bullet going through [his] helmet, and he was killed,” said Trinca, his voice breaking occasionally as he addressed a rapt crowd in a basement auditorium at the college.
The group had gathered for a ceremony still rare, but growing in frequency — one that reunites a military medal with its recipient or recipient’s family. In this case, it was the Purple Heart of Trinca’s lost comrade, a man whose identity Trinca spent years wondering about and, in recent years, became increasingly determined to learn.
That man, it turns out, was Pvt. Thomas Bateman, whose son Thomas Bateman Jr., daughter-in-law Gail, three grandchildren (Thomas, Tricia and Trace), and their significant others also attended Sunday’s ceremony. Thomas Bateman Jr. and his wife came from Memphis, Tenn., Tricia Bateman from Cincinnati, and Thomas, his wife Leslie, and brother Trace arrived from Knoxville, Tenn.
The juxtaposition of all in the room would not have occurred without a long-ago key finding of Thomas McAvoy, who also attended. Back in the early 1950s, at the age of about 11 or 12, McAvoy found a Purple Heart in his Chicago apartment building basement.
“I lived in Hyde Park,” said McAvoy, now 74. “I used to help the janitor take the garbage down … I emptied some garbage and a box fell out. I saw the Purple Heart in it and I gave it to my mother.”
In the mid 1990s, after McAvoy’s mother had died, one of his brothers mentioned that he’d located a Purple Heart among her things.
“From then on, I’ve been trying to find out who it belonged to,” McAvoy said. “I’ve been looking for years.”
McAvoy mentioned it to others, and eventually received a call from state Sen. Michael Hastings’ office.
“They told me about Capt. Fike,” he said.
Capt. Zachariah Fike of the Vermont Army National Guard, himself a Purple Heart recipient, is the founder of an organization called Purple Hearts Reunited, which locates lost or stolen military medals and returns them to veterans or their families.
Fike called McAvoy in June.
“He said we found his family,” McAvoy said. “He said his son’s in Tennessee and there’s also a gentleman who was with him when he died. After 60 years, at least he’s got it … his family’s got it.”
Pvt. Bateman’s son, Thomas Bateman Jr., was just 10 months old when a bullet pierced his father’s helmet. He said the experience Sunday of meeting the man who was with his dad when the young private died — and of receiving not only the Purple Heart but all of his father’s service medals beautifully framed — was overwhelming.
“I never knew my dad,” he told the crowd. “So I’m grateful to have this experience to honor him today. Everyone who’s heard this story is amazed and inspired.”
Bateman said he wasn’t sure how his father’s Purple Heart wound up in the Chicago basement where McAvoy found it, but noted that his grandmother lived there.
“That’s a big mystery,” he said. “It got lost somehow in that building where my mother’s mother lived.”
The indoor portion of Sunday’s ceremony included addresses from Fike, the Rev. Scott Keenan of St. Andrew Anglican Church in Spring Grove, and Col. Paul J. Hettich of the U.S. Army Reserves, as well as Trinca and Bateman. Hettich is a neighbor and friend of Trinca’s and knew of Trinca’s search for Bateman’s identity.
Also attending was Cassandra Matz of Hastings’ office, and numerous friends and family of all involved. Outside, at the CLC veterans’ memorial, attendees witnessed a color guard, flags presentation, gun salute and Taps.
Trinca, who stood solemnly as the ceremony played out, wiped away an occasional tear and wore the expression of a man whose mind was miles away.
Two days after Bateman died, he’d said earlier, he learned that another man, a close friend, also had perished.
But he never stopped thinking about that long-ago promise he made to a man he’d known for only 20 minutes, a man whose name he’d lost in the fury and frenzy of war, or how he’d been unable to keep his promise, until now.
“We had a beautiful breakfast this morning and I got to meet his son,” Trinca said. “This has been an emotional journey that has taken me 69 years, two months and 13 hours. May he rest in peace.”
News story by Cynthia Wolf at the Lake-County Sun News: A Heart of (Purple and) Gold
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