There’s a pair of photos in the family album of my uncle, George Donar, which as a child, I could never quite figure out.
In the studio portrait, he’s a very young man–a boy really–dressed in a sailor’s uniform. In the other—a snapshot taken more than a decade later—he’s dressed in a light colored Army uniform, dark jacket and cap, standing proudly it seems, in front of an Army tank.
As kids in the early 1960s, my brothers and I knew little about our mom’s older brother.
All we really knew was that many decades after those photos were taken—well after his return to civilian life—every few years he’d hop the Greyhound in Chicago and travel to Kalamazoo for a visit, sharing Pall Malls and a bit of wine at the dining room table with Mom.
Heads bent, they’d talk together for hours on end, in the kind of hushed undertones that kids innately know mean the grown-ups want to be left alone.
Uncle George never said much to us kids, though. He ignored us, really. I don’t ever remember getting hugged or kissed, or even being spoken to or acknowledged by him. It didn’t offend me, though. It just made me more curious about this person who clearly meant something to Mom.
After a few days, George would head back to Chicago by Greyhound once again ‘til his next visit a few years later when the quiet conversations between the pair at the dining room table would resume once again.
The visits stopped after Mom died in 1970; and a few years later he passed away as well.
Since Uncle George had no other immediate relatives nearby, my older brother Gerry—in his mid 20s by then—was assigned the duty of taking a train to Chicago to handle my uncle’s final arrangements. Our only mementos of him were those two photos and a small trunk containing a few odds and ends collected over a lifetime that George felt were important enough to save. Gerry brought the trunk back from Chicago and put it up in the attic in the house on Hawley Street where it remained for years until our family eventually moved away. Whatever became of that trunk and its contents is still unknown.
Fast forward, forty plus years when this genealogist finally got around to pursuing the mystery of the man in those military photos. Documents obtained last month from the National Archives in St. Louis, along with research on the Donar family here in Chicago, helped clear up, at least a bit of the mystery, of the man known as Uncle George.
It seems that the first photo was taken when he joined the Coast Guard in March of 1929. He was discharged after just seven months of service though—15 days after his father’s death in October of ’29, and three days before Black Tuesday—the dawn of the Great Depression. His discharge was the result of a hardship request to the government made by my grandmother, citing herself as a dependent parent with no other means of support.
George had been earning $21 a month as an Apprentice Seaman in the Coast Guard, but in civilian life, he earned three times that amount in his job as an “office boy” for a title company in Chicago’s Loop downtown. It was the kind of income his mother came to depend upon for her very survival during the Depression years that followed.
Though it must have been a tremendous disappointment for 21-year-old George to give up what he hoped would be a life of adventure as a seaman in the U.S. Coast Guard, he had no idea his greatest days in the military still lay ahead.
Over a decade later—in 1942 to be exact—he joined the military again. This time he enlisted in the U.S. Army for a three year stint as a member of Company A, 714th Tank Battalion, 12th Armored Division. It was a duty that brought George and his fellow “Hellcats” to the front lines of some of the fiercest battles on German soil—ultimately winning them recognition in April of 1945, for liberating the Kaufering concentration camps.
We’d never heard about George’s military feats from him or from our mother. For all we know, Mom wasn’t even aware of her brother’s military accomplishments during World War II—which of course, just adds to the mystery.
After the war George returned to Chicago. Little is known about his life in the years that followed, but we do know that he never married or had children of his own. As far as we knew, George lived a modest life after the war as a bartender in a neighborhood tavern somewhere on Chicago’s West side–just one of so many quiet heroes of that generation whose story had been left untold until some digging eventually brought it to light.
So…here’s to you, George Donar: Veteran of two branches of the U.S. military, whose service during World War II is still being felt today–felt by the descendants of those you helped free from those concentration camps almost 70 years ago…
…A long overdue Veteran’s Day salute to one among many unsung American heroes whose song can finally be sung.
To learn more about the U.S. Army’s 12th Armored Division and its actions during World War II, please visit its official website which contains a membership list, photos, videos, oral histories, a timeline, book recommendations, and much, much more: http://www.12tharmoredmuseum.com/
Copyright © 2014 Patricia Desmond Biallas