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updated: 8/1/2014 3:31 PM

After 69 years of pain, Purple Heart comes home

Antioch Twp. veteran fulfills promise

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  • Video: Vet talks about Purple Heart

  • Pvt. Thomas Bateman, an Army infantryman, was killed in the Philippines June 3, 1945.

      Pvt. Thomas Bateman, an Army infantryman, was killed in the Philippines June 3, 1945.
    Courtesy of Purple Hearts Reunited

  • Thomas Bateman's Purple Heart medal.

      Thomas Bateman's Purple Heart medal.
    Courtesy of Purple Hearts Reunited

  • Veteran John Trinca outside his Antioch Township home. Pvt. Thomas Bateman died in his arms during World War II.

       Veteran John Trinca outside his Antioch Township home. Pvt. Thomas Bateman died in his arms during World War II.
    Paul Valade/ pvalade@ dailyherald.com

 
 

An improbable series of events will culminate Sunday with the posthumous award of a long-lost Purple Heart medal, and the meeting of an Antioch Township veteran and the son of the soldier he had held as he died 69 years ago.

For most of the time since that battle in the Philippines, John Trinca knew the soldier he had been told to keep close only as "Chicago," and he has regretted a failed promise to the man he knew for only about 15 minutes. They spoke of coming from the same Chicago neighborhood.

"I said, 'Stay to my left and stay one step behind me.' He said, 'Do me a favor, if anything happens to me, tell my parents,'" recalled Trinca, who still chokes up at the memory.

As they started down a jungle path and bullets started chopping through banana trees, Trinca said he heard a thump. The soldier he never really knew had been killed instantly June 3, 1945.

"It means a closure of 69 years of pain -- to see a guy die on your shoulder," Trinca said of the 1 p.m. ceremony at the Willow Lake Veterans Memorial at the College of Lake County in Grayslake.

Trinca didn't know the soldier was Pvt. Thomas Bateman until a few years ago. And it would take the persistence of a 74-year-old Frankfort man who rediscovered the medal after initially finding it in the trash as a boy, and the detective skills of Capt. Zachariah Fike of the Vermont National Guard and founder of Purple Hearts Reunited, to connect the dots.

"I don't remember anything about the medal. The amazing thing is when Capt. Fike began looking for me, he found John Trinca," said Thomas Bateman Jr., of Memphis, Tennessee.

"It's an amazing story that he was right there with my dad when he was killed."

Bateman was an infant when his father died and has no recollection of him.

"I've got pictures of him and me together, him holding me," Bateman said.

Until a few weeks ago, he was unaware the Purple Heart had been discarded and had been with another family all this time.

Sunday's ceremony also marks the end of a quest by Tom McAvoy of Frankfort to connect the medal with an appropriate relative. McAvoy was not yet a teenager around 1950 when he found a little blue box containing the medal and ribbons in the trash at the South Side apartment building where he lived.

"I gave it to my mother. I forgot about it," he said. "It's been in my family for 62 or 63 years." He later learned Bateman Jr.'s grandmother lived in the building, but there is no clue as to how it got in the trash.

The medal resurfaced several years ago when McAvoy's mother died. He decided to find a Bateman family member to give it to, but he had no luck until a chance encounter at party recently that led him to Fike's group.

Postmortem Purple Hearts typically were delivered by telegram and would have been received by the family 30 to 60 days after the death.

"For a lot of these families, it's the last tangible thing they receive," Fike said. "These medals are turning up across the country, believe it or not. We currently get three to five medals a week."

Haunted by the memory, Trinca had shared his story with Mary Ann Hettich, whose son, Paul, was Trinca's neighbor.

Hettich sometimes would stay at her son's house when he was deployed by the Army Reserve, and she became friends with Trinca, who is in his late 80s.

Trinca "had a great deal of sadness. He felt that he had never kept his word by contacting the family," she said. "He kept saying, 'Mare, I have to do this before I go.'

In 2009, Hettich became aware of the veterans memorial at CLC and bought a memorial brick for Trinca and the then-unknown soldier. Two years later, Trinca -- with the help of researchers -- learned it was Pvt. Thomas Bateman.

"He didn't have any luck finding the family at all until this Purple Hearts Reunited came into the picture," said Hettich, also of Antioch Township.

While researching Bateman this spring, Fike found a newspaper story about Trinca's experience and discovery of Bateman's identity. He said he called Trinca on June 3, by chance the anniversary of Bateman's death.

"He was crying on the phone," Fike said.

Hettich thought the most appropriate and respectful place for the ceremony would be at CLC, because that's where it started with the brick. The event will include a flag presentation and a 21-gun salute.

"I'm bringing Kleenex for everyone," Hettich said.

Trinca said the memory has been with him for 69 years, but it really hit him later in life.

"I've been crying my heart out," he said.

"I hope after Sunday, I can stop this. It doesn't do me any good."

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