Steinberg: Pearl Harbor memory lingers, an echo of love and loss

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Relics of Marine Cpl. Stanley Swiontek. | Neil Steinberg / Sun-Times

Stanley Swiontek played the clarinet, and it might have cost him his life.

The Chicagoan was a cook on the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor which, like many ships, had a band. On Dec. 6, 1941, there was a contest, and the Arizona band came in second, earning Swiontek the right to sleep in on Sunday morning.

So when the Japanese surprise attack came, and a bomb hit the Arizona, sinking the battleship in nine minutes, Swiontek, instead of being at work and perhaps safe, was in his bunk, deep below decks.

Or maybe it wouldn’t have mattered. Five out of six sailors aboard the Arizona died that day. Swiontek’s family never learned what happened to their Stanley. His body was never recovered — it is still entombed with 947 shipmates aboard the sunken Arizona, now a national shrine.

Franklin D. Roosevelt famously dubbed Dec. 7 “a date which will live in infamy.” And it has. But 75 years is a long time. Even infamy fades. The remaining Pearl Harbor survivors — a few thousand — are in their 90s. The smallest child to hear the shock of that Sunday afternoon radio bulletin is at least 80 now.

Which is not to say that subsequent generations are untouched. For the families of those affected, the attack and the 2,403 American lives it cost resonate still, a lingering echo of love and loss.

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Begin with parents like Swiontek’s mother Victoria, a Polish immigrant, who saved every letter Stanley wrote home, in cursive.

“Hello everybody,” Stanley would begin, knowing his letters would be passed around and read by all. “Just writing a few lines to let you know that I’m feeling fine and hope you are the same.”

He’d ask about the Roseland neighborhood: How were the married men on the block? He assured his mother he wasn’t too thin — 165 pounds — and wasn’t drinking too much.

Expand the circle to include adoring brothers and sisters.

“What a great guy,” Swiontek’s sister Rosemary Martinotti remembered in 1999. “We were thrilled whenever he would come home. My brother Ted and I were the cabooses — the youngest of nine. We used to fight about who was going to polish the brass buttons on his uniform.”

It wasn’t until January 1942 that the dreaded telegram from Washington, D.C., finally arrived, with its purple capital letters: “DEEPLY REGRET TO INFORM YOU THAT YOUR SON FIELD COOK STANLEY S SWIONTEK US MARINE CORPS HAS BEEN REPORTED MISSING IN ACTION…”

Christmas was never quite Christmas again.

“Because every year she went through her son’s death on Dec. 7,” said Rosemary. “It was so traumatic. My mother would get physically ill. It was exhausting….every Dec. 7, the Arizona sinking, and she could picture her son, her favorite son, inside of it. It just tore her apart.”

Relics of Marine Cpl. Stanley Swiontek, including this Mother’s Day pillow, held by his nephew, Rick Martinotti. | Neil Steinberg / Sun-Times

Relics of Marine Cpl. Stanley Swiontek, including this Mother’s Day pillow, held by his nephew, Rick Martinotti. | Neil Steinberg / Sun-Times

When Victoria died, the duty of remembrance fell to her surviving children. Rosemary was 12 when she last saw her brother, home on furlough for Mother’s Day 1941, bringing home a large, yellow-fringed pillow bearing a painting of the Arizona and a poem, “Mother O’ Mine.”

Rosemary Martinotti died in in 2013. All but Ted, the youngest of Swiontek’s siblings, are gone. Now, the flame is kept by the next generation, such as Rosemary’s sons, Dan and Rick, and daughter Judy Hedlin.

“We are a strong Polish family,” said Dan, 59, a union pipefitter. “Pretty close-knit. My mother did talk about Stanley. She would tell stories about him. …That’s how the family kept the memory alive and kept the name going. ”

Stories of pineapple, for instance. In Chicago, pineapple came in a can. But in Hawaii, Stanley told them, it was a big, spiky fruit. He promised to bring a pineapple back someday.

But pain remains more vivid than happiness.

“I remember growing up, December would come, for little Catholic child that meant putting up decorations and baking cookies, and my mother and grandma were crying,” said Judy, 63. “As a child, I couldn’t understand why we were sad and everyone was happy.”

The next generation remembers Stanley through their parents. Judy took her daughters to the wreath ceremonies the city used to hold at Navy Pier. Dan’s son Matt became interested in Pearl Harbor after hearing about his great-uncle.

“I believe in those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it,” Judy said. “We’d sit at Navy pier and listen to those men tell those stories, shipmates on fire, having to jump into the harbor through an oil slick on fire. You listen to this and think: We cannot do that again.”

The artifacts: telegrams, photos, that big pillow, are kept by Rick, the family historian, who still reads the letters.

“It’s just everyday life,” he said of their content.

“I look at that bag of stuff and feel, here is my little Polish immigrant grandmother, who couldn’t have read those newspapers,” said Judy. “She saved all that stuff. She couldn’t even read it, yet she saved it all. You don’t throw out a scrap of paper when it’s your son and he’s dead. It was an important memory to her. Growing up, it was something we knew about, and it was just as much alive to us as it was to her.”

“It just kind of gives you pause to think about the enormity of everything that happened, putting it onto a personal level,” said Dan. “These really were people. When you think about the ages of the people on the ship, it’s mind-boggling.”

Stanley Swiontek was 26 when he died aboard the Arizona, 75 years ago.


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