Mary Ann Waszak’s 9-year-old fingers trembled as she tried to tear open the dreaded telegram.
It arrived in the middle of the day, during the last full summer of World War II. The oldest of her three brothers, Joseph, 20, an Omaha South High School graduate, was serving with the Army in England.
“Mother was Polish. She couldn’t read English,” recalled Mary Ann, now 84 and living in Bellevue. “She knew what the telegram was. And she handed it to me.”
After struggling to open it, Mary Ann read out loud.
The Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret …
Despite her young age, she knew what the words meant. Joseph Waszak was dead.
“I cried. My mother screamed and collapsed,” Mary Ann said. “You just don’t forget.”
Mary Ann cried again Tuesday, but this time they were a different sort of tears. She was presented with a Gold Star “Honor and Remember” flag during a ceremony at South High.
Her son, Jerry, and daughter, Kathy, were among about 10 relatives who attended. Students from the high school’s junior ROTC program presented the colors. One of them, Samuel Pineda, sang the national anthem.
“It was wonderful, overwhelming. Everything I thought it would be,” she said after the ceremony. “I’m going to put the flag on my wall.”
Tuesday’s ceremony made an impression on the young JROTC students who witnessed it.
“It was really beautiful to watch,” said junior Denilson Trinidad, 16. “It shows that we have people who really care about those who made the ultimate sacrifice.”
George Lutz, the father of a soldier who died in Iraq, created the Honor and Remember Flag — red and white, with a blue-edged gold star in the center — in commemoration of the sacrifice of his son, Cpl. George “Tony” Lutz II, and others like him.
“I needed to know somebody gave a damn,” he said.
Lutz, of Chesapeake, Virginia, started the Honor and Remember nonprofit in 2008 and began distributing the flags to Gold Star families.
The Nebraska chapter has presented flags to 195 families of soldiers killed as far back as World War I, said Jim Meier, the chapter president. Each flag includes the name, rank, date and location of the service member’s death.
“Our goal is to reach every (Gold Star) family in Nebraska,” he said.
The chapter hosts a dinner each summer for 200 or more Gold Star family members and participates in several commemorative events during the year. Meier said he is now pursuing a project to plant small groves of trees across the state, one tree for each of the more than 3,200 soldiers from Nebraska who have died in the nation’s wars, dating back to the Civil War.
Mary Ann Shotkoski (her name since her marriage to Leonard Shotkoski in 1957) said she heard about the flags earlier this year at a Creighton University baseball game. All three of her older brothers served in the military, as did her husband, her father and her daughter.
“I said, ‘I would love to have a flag like that!’ ” Shotkoski recalled.
She signed up for one on the organization’s website, honorandremembernebraska.org.
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She has only a few memories of Joseph, who was born in 1924 to Stanley and Adela Waszak, immigrants from Poland. She remembers Joseph as happy-go-lucky and smiling. She remembers him disappearing into the basement of their South Omaha house to tackle woodworking projects in his shop.
Joseph Waszak graduated from high school in 1942 and joined the Army the following year. He was assigned to the Quartermaster Corps, which was responsible for supply and logistics. He was assigned to London, which seemed to his parents to be a relatively safe place to be after the Allied invasion of Normandy.
But in June 1944, Germany unveiled the V-1 flying bomb, also known as a “buzz bomb” or doodlebug, a very early version of the modern cruise missile. These pilotless drones, 27 feet long, had an engine attached to a bomb and were launched from the coasts of France and the Netherlands toward London, dozens of them each day.
Waszak, a Catholic, attended Mass regularly. On July 30, 1944, he and some other soldiers had just left a Sunday service when a German buzz bomb exploded near where they were standing, just outside the church.
“Everyone was killed,” Mary Ann Shotkoski said.
Between June and October 1944, buzz bombs killed more than 6,100 people in southeast England and injured 16,000 more. The threat disappeared once Allied forces occupied French and Dutch territory within range of the British Isles.
The telegram delivered the news of Joseph Waszak’s death. He was buried in Waterford, England. Mary Ann said her mother fell ill, and never fully recovered from the shock.
In July 1949, when Mary Ann was 14, Joseph’s body was returned to Nebraska and buried in St. John’s Cemetery in Bellevue.
“I remember the casket being catty-corner in the living room, draped in a flag,” she said, in keeping with a custom of the time of at-home visitation.
Mary Ann can’t forget Sgt. Ralph Denmark, the soldier who escorted her brother’s body home from England. She said he refused the family’s offer of a bed to sleep in, choosing to stand watch all night by the casket instead.
Stanley died in 1960 and Adela in 1970, and they were buried on each side of Joseph. Mary Ann’s other brothers, Bernie and Richard, have passed on, too.
The flag gives her a link to her family — especially to the brother she barely knew.
“It hurts. I lost someone I never got to grow up with,” Shotkoski said. “Now I feel like I have a part of him with me.”