CHICAGO – John Trinca couldn’t remember the name of the soldier who died right next to him minutes after they met during World War II, and all Thomas Bateman Jr. knew of his father’s death was that it happened in 1945 in the Philippines.
The two will meet for the first time today thanks largely to Tom McAvoy, who made good on a quest to return a lost war medal he found as a child in Chicago that had only the recipient’s engraved name as a clue: Thomas Bateman.
This year – 69 years after a bullet from a Japanese machine gun killed Pvt. Thomas Bateman – their stories intersected for the first time, giving them answers to questions that tugged at them for years. At this weekend’s ceremony, the slain soldier’s son will receive the lost Purple Heart his father paid for with his life.
“I had a newspaper article that my grandmother kept that said he was killed and that’s about all I knew,” said Bateman, 69, who was just shy of his first birthday when his father was killed.
The men learned of one another thanks to Purple Hearts Reunited, a foundation that works to return the medals to their recipients or their recipients’ families. Zachariah Fike, a Vermont National Guard captain who was awarded the medal after he was wounded in Afghanistan in 2010, has managed to reunite about 100 Purple Hearts with their rightful owners since starting the foundation.
There’s a story behind each of the medals that have been returned, but none quite like that of Bateman, who was an infantryman with the 21st Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division. “To find the guy who found the medal, the guy with (Bateman) when he died, and the son,” said Fike, who will present the medal to Bateman on Sunday. “This one sends chills.”
What is known about this medal begins in the 1950s when McAvoy spotted it on the basement floor of his family’s Chicago apartment building while helping a janitor sort garbage. He gave it to his mother and forgot about it.
Then, about seven years ago, one of his brothers mentioned that he found a Purple Heart while going through their mother’s belongings after her death.
“My brothers and I, we said, ‘We have to find out who this person is and give it to the family,'” said McAvoy, 74.
After some calls to VFW halls and other efforts came up empty, someone put him in touch with a woman involved with veterans’ issues. That led to a call from a local state senator’s office, telling him about Fike.
McAvoy mailed the medal to Fike, who quickly recognized by the way it was engraved that Bateman had been killed in action. He soon reached out to Bateman Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee, and the slain soldier’s son helped solve the mystery about how the medal ended up in the Chicago apartment building: His father’s mother once lived there. It’s still not known, though, how it ended up in the garbage and whether Bateman’s mother still lived there at the time.
Fike’s search also led him to Trinca, a retiree who had recently told a newspaper about how he finally learned the name of the soldier he saw killed more than 60 years earlier and had bought a memorial brick with the soldier’s name on it to honor him.
Trinca was 19 years old on June 3, 1945, when a new guy joined his unit. The two talked long enough to realize they had both lived in Chicago. The soldier had told him his name but, “You know, you’re going into combat and it went in one ear and out the other,” said Trinca, now 88. “I figured that night we’d talk some more.”
About 15 minutes later, while on patrol in Mindanao, an island in the Philippines, Trinca heard gunfire and saw banana leaves being suddenly shredded by bullets.
“I turned my head and heard this sound of him being hit,” said Trinca. “His helmet was over his eyes and he was dead. He died on my shoulder.”
Maybe it was combat stress or the death two days later of a good buddy, but Trinca said he was unable to recall the soldier’s name when he tried.