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The Flatonia Bulldog band has played a few hymns. People, some with umbrellas to block the midday sun, sit on benches and stand under the oaks. You can hear a flag ripple.
“From the north!” yells Otto Steinhauser into a microphone. Four hundred heads turn toward the old cemetery as jets crack through the Texas sky. They sear over the churchyard and, rumbling, disappear.
This is Praha, Texas, population something under 50. On the Sunday closest to Veterans Day, this Czech American community welcomes “All Veterans of All Wars” and anyone who wants to honor them.
No city or town can claim to have suffered most from war, but Praha remembers its war casualties keenly. The tiny community lost nine men in World War II: Rudolph L. Barta , Robert Bohuslav, Anton Kresta Jr ., Joseph Lev, Edward Marek, George Pavlicek, Eddie Sbrusch, Adolph E. Rab, and Jerry Vaculik. All are buried here.
After morning Mass at the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, everyone assembles outside between the church and the cemetery. A large contingent from the Knights of Columbus, wearing swords, bearing flags, is here in full plumage. So is a Junior ROTC group that has ridden a bus all the way from Alvin, Texas. Raising the P.O.W. flags are a young man and young woman dressed in fatigues; both of them are soon off to service in Iraq.
Photo: Bill Bishop
Three Vietnam vets send up the stars and stripes above a monument to Rev. Marcus A. Valenta, once the priest of this parish. Father Valenta was celebrating Mass at a barracks in Oahu, Hawaii, December 7, 1941, when Pearl Harbor was bombed.
Surely there were Armistice Day observances here before Father Valenta arrived, but after he was assigned to the Praha church, the ceremony to honor veterans took flight.
Bill Powers, an 84 year old war veteran and member of the Commemorative Air Force based in San Marcos, says that Austin newspaperman Nat Henderson urged Valenta to organize an airborne memorial around Veterans Day. Powers has been involved in the event since 1977.
“Years ago we did a mini Tora,” Power says. “Aircraft would fly in from the Houston area and from our area here and we would rendez vous and we would simulate the attack on Pearl Harbor.” The re enactment became too much to manage, Powers says, but tributes still fly over Praha each November. This year three jets from Randolph Air Force base whistled loud and low across the prairie town at 11 a.m., and 45 minutes later three older planes from the Commemorate Air Force came into view. The T 6s crossed over the church twice. On the third pass, one plane veered away, climbing high, then turning back to the north. This is the “missing man” formation” an aerial salute to servicemen and servicewomen who’ve died
Photo: Julie Ardery
With Calvin Allen, an Air Force Academy graduate and now a commercial pilot, at the throttle, the third plane came across the cemetery once more. Flying with him, Jim Liles of the Commemorative Air Force, released flowers over the graves of the "boys of Praha."
Representatives of veterans groups from across south and central Texas sat on the dias, a flatbed trailer, with the day's main speaker, Pearl Harbor veteran William Eckel. Two students, Matt Sodek of La Grange and Randall Kalinec of Flatonia, read prize winning essays in appreciation of veterans. Judge Ed Janecka, who pressed for the creation of a veterans’ health center in the Fayete County seat, La Grange, spoke of a recent visit to the Czech Republic. He told the gathering that he unwittingly had had his picture made in the same room where British Prime Minister Neville “Chamberlain gave Czechoslovakia to Hitler." Being "in that room where evil was," Janecka said, "the hair on my neck stood up.”
Janecka's story reminded the crowd that the “boys of Praha” had two missions going off to war. They fought and died for the U.S. cause and for the Old Country, too.
(For more photos of the Praha Veterans Day Memorial, see Daily Yonder's slide show, at top.)