They were students at Proviso East High School in 1938 and joined the National Guard in Maywood at the beginning of World War II.
Then almost 200 members of Proviso East’s classes of 1938 and 1939 were shipped overseas to the Philippines where they played a part in one of the most gruesome episodes of the Pacific Theater: the surrender of their company, followed by the infamous 80-mile Bataan Death March in 1942. Those who survived the march faced imprisonment and inhumane conditions in a Japanese prison camp – some for more than three years.
The 70th anniversary of the death march was observed in September as well as POW/MIA Recognition Day on Sept. 21.
For 50 years, the village of Maywood held a Bataan Day parade in September to honor the local boys who perished there. A tank in a park visible from First Avenue serves as a reminder of the Maywood 192nd Tank Battalion National Guard Unit.
In 1999, two Proviso East teachers used a class project to develop a website to commemorate the local members of the National Guard unit. Over the years it has expanded to tell individual stories of anyone involved with Bataan. The website, www.proviso.k12.il.us/bataan%20web/index.htm, tells the stories of local high school students who perished in the Philippines.
Among those profiled is Frank Byars, 21, the first war casualty from Forest Park.
“He died nine days before me and my twin brother were born in December 1941,” said Byars’ niece, Eunice Blazak, who grew up in Forest Park but now lives in Shell Knob, Mo. “He was one of six brothers; five of them served in the military.”
Byars grew up at 1334 Circle Avenue in Forest Park and attended Field-Stevenson School and Proviso Township High School, according to the website. Before joining the Illinois National Guard, he worked as a mechanic for the Continental Can Company in Chicago.
Byars was a motorcycle courier who delivered messages back and forth between the command headquarters and the company. He died delivering a message.
“I found out later he was killed by friendly fire,” said Blazak. “I’m not sure even my grandmother [Byars’ mother] knew that.”
Byars’ mother, Ida, got conflicting dates of Frank’s death from the U.S. Army. Then she got the most puzzling and heartbreaking telegram.
“It was from Uncle Frank and said, ‘Don’t worry, things are not so bad, I’m all right,'” said Blazak. But the telegram had been delayed. Frank was dead by the time it arrived. “I found it with her papers when she died in Missouri,” she said.
Blazak said Frank’s body, buried in a mass grave, was never recovered. She is working with the U.S. Army to try to identify his remains. “We sent them a DNA sample from one of Frank’s cousins.”
“The one thing my grandmother wished for was for his remains to come home.”
Growing up in Forest Park, Blazak said her parents never spoke about the battalion surrender to the Japanese in 1942 and the teens, age 17-19 who died or lived under torture in the prison camps. “My parents didn’t talk about it. It was only after I found my grandmother’s papers and saw the names of the other soldiers that I realized they were all uncles of my high school friends at Proviso,” Blazak said. “I think our parents wanted to shelter us.”
Proviso English Teacher Jim Opolony, a Vietnam veteran who runs the high school website, said students are always surprised and upset when they study the historical event.
“They ask me, ‘Were they in these classrooms?’ and I say yes. They realize that these men were young, just like them. They start to understand that wars are not fought by 50-year-old men.”
Opolony said he met and videotaped local survivors for the website. “I think they didn’t want to talk about it for most of their lives, but then realized they were getting old and they didn’t want their stories to be lost.”
On the website, veteran Joseph Lajzer, of Toledo, Ohio, described how the group was marched for the first two days and nights of a six-day march without stopping, including walking over “what felt like burlap bags,” but discovered they were the corpses of soldiers and civilians who had fallen in the road.
On the whole, Opolony said, the surviving soldiers, now in their 90s, were happy people. “Some of them have the best senses of humor of anyone I’ve met. When you get liberated from a POW camp what in your life is going to be that bad again?”
The dead are remembered in a special memorial garden at the high school with a plaque listing the 191 members of Proviso East who died in the war.
Some survived it all, said Opolony, including one young man who returned to Proviso to get his diploma. “Imagine being in a prison camp for 38 months as a POW and then going back to high school!”
Here are links to other Forest Park residents on the website
Fred Schweinsberg http://www.proviso.k12.il.us/Bataan%20Web/Schweinsberg.htm Frank Byars http://www.proviso.k12.il.us/Bataan%20Web/Byars.htm Willard Jennings http://www.proviso.k12.il.us/Bataan%20Web/jennings.htm Richard Danca http://www.proviso.k12.il.us/Bataan%20Web/jennings.htm All of the above men died as Japanese POWs.