Until two weeks ago, Rita Dudczak of Lackawanna was unaware that her late father’s military medals for World War II service were languishing in an old desk drawer in the Rath County Office Building.
She didn’t even know they existed.
Still, she was excited to take custody of them Monday in the Matthew Glab Post 1477, American Legion, on Abbott Road in Lackawanna. Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz presented her with the seven medals – including the Purple Heart – that were earned by her father, Vincent Mikolajczyk, who died in 1983 at age 65.
“I don’t know how they got in the county’s hands, but it’s an honor to receive them, for all that these servicemen do for us,” Dudczak said during an interview last week.
Officials of the county Veterans Service Agency don’t know how they wound up with the medals, either. However, they made exhaustive attempts to reach Dudczak after the medals were found during the cleaning of unused office space in the Rath Building.
“We were missing each other on the phone and, finally, I connected with someone in Veterans Affairs,” said Dudczak, the lone survivor of Mikolajczyk’s three children.
Dudczak said her father seldom talked about his Army service. She knows he attained the rank of staff sergeant and was stationed in the Philippines, where he was wounded in the hand by an enemy bullet.
“He didn’t talk too much about the war,” Dudczak said.
A Hazleton, Pa., native, Mikolajczyk joined the Army in 1940. According to Dudczak, he was first stationed in California, where he met her mother, the former Frances Reback, who was serving in the Women’s Army Corps. They married before Mikolajczyk was shipped out to Panama for training and, eventually, to combat in the Philippines in 1944.
“In 1945, he was wounded. He was in a foxhole. A sniper hit him,” she said. “My mother was pregnant with me at the time. She was supposed to be shipped (overseas) after my father was sent to Panama. I remember her saying things about that. They told her she couldn’t go because she was pregnant. Then she went back home to Pennsylvania.”
Dudczak’s mother was from a community not too far from Hazleton – Pittston, Pa., outside Wilkes-Barre. When Mikolajczyk returned to civilian life in June 1945, the couple moved back to Pennsylvania, where he had trouble finding suitable work. Dudczak said her mother forbade him from returning to work in the coal mines after another worker was fatally struck by a runaway coal car.
Relatives in the Buffalo area encouraged Mikolajczyk to move here to work at the Chevrolet plant in the Town of Tonawanda. He was employed in the foundry there until he retired at 62. He died in a nursing home three years later.
Joining Poloncarz in the Glab Post ceremony Monday were Francis J. McLaughlin, director of the Veterans Service Agency, and local veterans.
“I’m so proud of him,” said Dudczak, who plans to have her dad’s medals framed and saved for the grandchildren.
Dudczak was joined at the ceremony by her two daughters, Jacqueline Tomaszewski of Cheektowaga and Rachael of Hamburg; her grandson, Jacob Tomaszewski, a junior at St. Mary’s High School in Lancaster; and a granddaughter, Megan Tomaszewski, a freshman at SUNY Geneseo.
“I was just overwhelmed with everything,” Dudczak said of the ceremony. “It was very nice.”