Paul  Kengor

I recently sat down with Emil Styka of Boardman, Ohio. A friend of Emil’s, Jo Ann Bryan, had emailed in response to an article I wrote on a remarkable World War II campaign at the Aleutian Islands, off the Alaskan coast. The article was published nationwide, including in the Youngstown Vindicator, where it caught Emil’s attention.

“Finally, now people know,” said Emil, who spent two years in the Aleutians. Too few Americans knew of the Aleutians, let alone their strategic importance and the sacrifices made by those unfortunate American boys deployed there.

Emil Styka was one of them.

The 91-year-old Emil could pass for 71. He showed me his discharge papers, his patches, his uniform jacket—immaculate, as if just issued. The pants from his uniform were gone, as Emil wore them out when he returned to civilian life.

Emil regretted that he didn’t have his helmet, which was actually a WWI helmet. At his discharge, he was refused permission to keep it—an outrage, as it was not only quite a memento but had been signed by Al Jolson, who entertained Emil and his fellow troops at a USO show during the horrendous cold and boredom they endured in Alaska.

Emil’s life had been typical of many boys of his generation. He was born on April 13, 1919, to Polish immigrants. His mother, who lived to be 106, ran the Southland Dairy store in Youngstown, Ohio. Emil worked there as a soda jerk, making the best root-beer floats around. His father and brother worked for Wonder Bread, the father a baker and brother a dough-maker.

Emil was drafted into the Army in October 1941, and stationed at Ft. Monmouth, New Jersey. He recalls being in a movie theater, on a date, the evening of December 7, 1941, when the lights suddenly came on. A military officer announced that all active servicemen were required to leave immediately and report to the base—details to follow. Emil talked the officer into allowing him to drive his date home first. When Emil got to the base, he learned about Pearl Harbor.

Soon, Emil was a member of the U.S. Army 5275th Air Warning and Control Squadron. Formally, he became Sergeant Styka, not to be confused with Sergeant Stryker, of John Wayne fame.

Emil made his way north—way north, to Alaska, traversing up the Bering Sea, to Anchorage, to Dutch Harbor, to Attu. These were the crucial Aleutian Islands, where a hellacious battle took place, one that Emil mercifully missed. The trip up the Bering Sea was awful, with men so seasick they couldn’t move for days.