In Memoriam: The Boys of Praha
In the space of 12 months and nine days in 1944, Praha, Texas, gave up most of its youth – and nearly all of its future – to confront unimaginable forms of evil on faraway continents.
“It gave you a part in something that you could believe in wholly and completely and in which you felt an absolute brotherhood with the others who were engaged in it. It was something that you had never known before but that you had experienced now and you gave such importance to it and the reasons for it that your own death seemed of complete unimportance; only a thing to be avoided because it would interfere with the performance of your duty.”
— Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls
They no longer exist. And even in the Texas farm country where they were boys, their names are slipping from memory. People who live among the green hills here are hardly more likely to know about Praha’s loss than the strangers who travel the dark farm-to-market roads in their pickups and minivans, taking scenic detours on their way to Houston or San Antonio. This is understandable. Being told the factual history does not make the truth about Praha more believable. A trip, however, to the church and cemetery at Praha will leave the visitor carrying away a distinctly American heartache.
Visitors traveling to Praha for Memorial Day or Veterans Day approach from the north, noticing first the stark, white steeple of the parish church, which hovers brightly over the landscape. The blacktop of FM 1295 runs south off of U.S. Highway 90, directly at the Church of St. Mary’s Assumption. Close to the cemetery, the pavement curls back deferentially to the west and infrequent traffic passes quietly, the distant hiss of wheels on asphalt insufficient to disturb the serenity of a spot many U.S. military veterans have come to view as almost holy.
Praha provides old soldiers a measurement of sorts for concepts like the price of freedom. There is, though, something incalculable, impossible to assess or even understand, about the sad history of Praha. Today, it is little more than a ghost of a town with only about two dozen residents. The New Handbook of Texas claims the population never surpassed 100 people during the 20th century. Those numbers are where the anguish begins in Praha’s tearful truth.
The curious and the proud often come here and stand in front of the nine graves in a state of near bewilderment. There, they try to comprehend how war’s bloody arm could reach this far, gather up this much life and destroy it. By the dates on their tombstones and the locales of the deaths, the Allied offensive against the Nazis, Mussolini and the Japanese is recorded in the destinies of these nine fallen farm boys. Little Praha was not protected from World War II by statistical improbabilities.
Nonetheless, no one was able to ignore the patriotic enthusiasm that followed the boys through their military careers. As they went away for training and duty, stories about them began to appear on the front pages of the local newspapers. The Flatonia Argus ran photos and headlines of hometown soldiers whenever they were promoted in rank or had been dispatched to an important battle. Letters written home from the front or from basic training were often printed on the front page of The Schulenberg Sticker. Caught up in the national compulsion to sacrifice and serve, no headline was too bold nor any copy too extreme.
A 1943 edition of the weekly Flatonia paper included a full-page ad urging residents to buy more war bonds. The message, with its stirring illustration, must have undone every conscience in a five-county region. The drawing in the ad shows a soldier with his mouth open and eyes bulging in shock. Beneath his stricken countenance, the bold typeface asks, “I died today. What did you do?”
In Praha, they began to suffer. A notice of the community’s first casualty was delivered in March 1944. Instead of a bold headline and a photo, The Flatonia Argus reported the death with a few matter-of-fact lines of copy in its March 16, 1944, edition.
“The War Department has notified Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Bohuslav that their son, Pfc. Robert Bohuslav, was killed in action in Northern Africa. (Sadly, the military had gotten the location of Bohuslav’s death incorrect. He had fallen in Italy.) Services were held in St. Mary’s church in Praha this past Sunday. Bohuslav died in [Africa] on Feb. 3, 1944. In addition to his parents, he is survived by two brothers, Ernest Bohuslav of Halletsville and Herman Bohuslav of Praha.” The reporter did not mention the names of Bohuslav’s sisters.
“There is not a Sunday in church when I don’t think about him and pray for him,” said Herman Bohuslav of Corpus Christi. “He was my big brother and he was everything to me. I can still see the two men from the Army coming up our farmyard to give the message to Momma and Daddy. It took me several years before I was even able to believe it had happened. I just kept believing my brother would come home.”
As he spoke, Herman Bohuslav was age 74 and had enjoyed the full life that war robbed from his brother. He settled on the Texas coast with his wife, opened a grocery store and gas station, and raised five children who have provided him with 16 grandchildren. Bohuslav, however, has neither bitterness nor anger over his brother’s fate.
“I’m sure what he did, he did for us,” Bohuslav said. “I mean, there were some evil people in the world back then, you know. And something had to be done. My brother was a part of what needed to be done.”
A scan of subsequent editions of the Flatonia publication offers no additional information of how Pfc. Bohuslav encountered his fate. No reportage is present to indicate the battlefield or his mission. The details of the end of Pfc. Bohuslav’s life are undoubtedly locked up in Pentagon files in Washington on a database or in a drawer where his story is not easily accessed. Beyond the fence line of the Praha cemetery, Pfc. Robert Bohuslav is hardly more than a statistic.
To his family, however, he is the one who missed all the years with children and travel and vacations and holidays. He might have lived to 90, as did his father, or to his mid-80s, like his brother and sister. Bohuslavs are given to longevity. The private’s oldest sister is 85 and his eldest brother is 83. Instead of working the farm, though, Pfc. Bohuslav commanded a bazooka, won two Purple Hearts and died on foreign soil.