Honoring a local veteran: The story of one U.S. Army soldier during World War II

In honor of this coming Memorial Day, Cleveland Masterworks writer Tom Matowitz pays homage to his cousin, a World War II veteran, and recognizes all military members who have sacrificed protecting the United States during both periods war and peace.

Heralded by the attack on Pearl Harbor, 80 years ago this year American participation in World War II began in earnest. Before 1942 was over American soldiers landed in North Africa while Marines fought Japanese troops in the Pacific.

By the time the war ended in September 1945 over 16 million Americans had served in uniform. This is the story of one of them.

<span class="content-image-text">Frank Matowitz, left, and Don Gemeinhart, right, on leave in Florence Italy in the summer of 1944</span>Frank Matowitz, left, and Don Gemeinhart, right, on leave in Florence Italy in the summer of 1944Frank Matowitz was born on August 5, 1922 to a working-class family in Cleveland on West 41st Street. His father was a member of the Cleveland Fire Department, which he was destined to serve for 30 years. His mother was kept busy caring for a family that grew to include three boys and a girl.

Like so many friends and neighbors, they knew hardship firsthand during the Great Depression. Frank was the oldest boy and left school in his mid-teens to go to work in the late 1930s

When the United States entered the war in December 1941, Matowitz weighed his options. Service in the military was a foregone conclusion. In the early summer of 1942, he enlisted with two friends from Cleveland and they went to Fort Riley in Kansas, where they were among the very last soldiers the U.S. Army taught to fight on horseback.

The folly of this became evident, and when Matowitz went overseas in December 1942 it was as a member of a mechanized Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron. He landed in Casablanca, Morocco on Christmas Eve and remained overseas and in combat for the next 30 months while serving in the 5thArmy.

Matowitz was wounded while taking part in the invasion of Sicily in the summer of 1943. He landed in Italy in September and fought until the Germans there surrendered on May 2, 1945, with the balance of the German Army surrendering on May 8, 1945, thereby ending the war in Europe.

To reach that point. Matowitz survived the Battle of Hill 609 in Tunisia;the invasion of Sicily; the battles of Anzio, Cisterna, and the Pontine Marshes; the deadly crossing of the Rapido River; and the bloodbath of Monte Cassino.

<span class="content-image-text">Frank Matowitz’s Purple Heart</span>Frank Matowitz’s Purple HeartHe witnessed the destruction of the 14th Century Benedictine Abbey at Monte Cassino, and was present at the Plaza Loreto in Milan when Italian partisans strung up the battered corpse of Benito Mussolini in order to demonstrate to the world that the hated dictator was truly dead.

Matowitz’ unit, the 91st Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, fought in six campaigns. He served in all of them.

With the German surrender he returned home. Like so many other young Clevelanders who served in the war, his future battles involved the challenges of daily life, mortgages, car payments, marriage, child rearing, and the decline of beloved parents.

Time has proven a more brutal foe than the Germans and the Japanese during World War II. Of the 16 million men and women who served, recent figures indicate that fewer than 300,00 survivors remain today.

Frank is not one of them. He died more than 30 years ago. He was one of my favorite people and scarcely a day has gone by when I haven’t thought about him and missed him.

<span class="content-image-text">L – R: World War Two Victory Medal, European Theater Campaign Medal and Army Good Conduct Medal</span>L – R: World War Two Victory Medal, European Theater Campaign Medal and Army Good Conduct MedalI attended a reunion of his unit shortly after he died. As the event wound down, one of his old companions said to me, “I don’t know if you realize this, but you helped him a lot over the course of his life.”

Wishing to believe that, I asked why. I was told, “ How do you think it would make us feel if we went through an experience like that and then came to believe that younger people didn’t know or care anything about it? “

I have tried to keep his memory alive all these years. I hope this helps and encourages others to honor WW II veterans while they still can. Time is about to silence them forever, leaving no living voice to recount the horrors and triumphs they witnessed.

Remember them on this upcoming Memorial Day, Monday, May 30.

About the Author: Tom Matowitz

Recently retired after a 37-year career teaching public speaking, Tom Matowitz has had a lifelong interest in local and regional history. Working as a freelance author for the past 20 years he has written a number of books and articles about Cleveland’s past. He has a particular interest in the area’s rich architectural history.