Remembering Frank Charak, an American WWII Combat Hero
By Douglas Volk
He didn’t like to talk about his years as a medic in the U.S. Army.
Not with his wife or his kids or his friends in Chelsea and Revere, where he grew up and spent most of his life.
He was a soft-spoken man, and the dedicated husband of Marilyn Saltzman Charak (1928-2016). He was also a father, a grandfather and a great-grandfather. Along with his brother Nathan, he operated a neighborhood luncheonette in Chelsea for many years. Located at the corner of Heard and Spruce Streets, the eatery was known as “Joe’s Lunch” . . . and Frank Charak was known to be so kind-hearted that he often allowed those who were down on their luck eat lunch for free.
Frank worked a 12-hour day, often seven days a week. He was a cheerful, friendly man who loved to joke around with his customers. But he rarely spoke to them about his service in the military, or about the heroic role he’d played in the Battle for France during the months that followed the Normandy Invasion on June 6, 1944.
Frank Charak never bragged. But the historical record speaks loudly about the courage and the dedication he displayed as the Allies fought their way across France toward the heart of the Nazi government in Berlin.
On the outskirts of a French town called “Ingwiller” – located less than an hour’s drive from the Rhine River border with Germany – Frank Charak earned both a Silver Star and a Purple Heart for his bravery as a medic who tended his fellow soldiers while they were engaged in deadly combat with German machine-gunners. Severely wounded, he continued to help the injured and refused to be carried from the battlefield.
The citation accompanying Charak’s Silver Star notes that the U.S. Army Medical Technician Fourth Grade from Chelsea displayed “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action against the enemy while serving with the Medical Detachment, 397th Regiment of the 100th Infantry Division.”
After describing Charak’s “gallant actions and selfless devotion to duty” in helping to evacuate wounded American soldiers from the battlefield – in spite of his own wounds and loss of blood – the citation pointed out that they were “in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit and the United States Army.”
The story of Frank’s heroism on that unforgettable afternoon in November of 1944 was beautifully told in 2005 by a prominent New York City attorney, since deceased, who’d fought alongside the Massachusetts native at Ingwiller. Writing to Charak in a 2005 letter, Leonard H. Krim remembered that “I was in the field bringing in some casualties when we got word that you had been badly wounded. But as we approached you, the Germans opened up with a very heavy mortar attack.
“I don’t think I have ever been so scared in my life – hearing the shells leaving the mortar, listening to them coming down, exploding and spraying us with debris. . . . As an Aid Man, I’m sure you had that experience more often than I, but it was devastatingly fearsome.”
Another tribute to Frank Charak’s heroism that day came from an unlikely source – my own son, Jonathan Volk, who is Frank’s grandson, and who wrote an “oral history” of his grandfather as part of a high school history project, some years back.
Now an infectious disease physician in San Francisco, Jonathan described how his grandfather had insisted that other wounded soldiers be evacuated before him, on that terrible afternoon – even though his own leg had been “shattered by a mortar round” and was streaming with blood.
Like Jonathan, I was pleased to be able to honor my father-in-law and all military veterans, only a year ago, by helping to construct a nine-foot-high “Heroes’ Wall” on the lawn of my company’s headquarters in Biddeford, Maine. That structure, covered with decorative tiles, veterans’ photos and their accompanying stories, honors the legacy of Frank Charak and several hundred other men and women who served their country during wartime and peacetime alike.
Our family hero died in 2016, but he lives on in our hearts. Gentle and mild-mannered, a good-hearted man who was always the first to volunteer to help his neighbors and friends, Frank Charak made a huge sacrifice for his country – and it’s a privilege to be able to tell him, 75 years after the D-Day launching of the Battle for France:
Thank you!Douglas Volk, the recently retired CEO at Volk Packaging Corporation, is the author of The Morpheus Conspiracy, a novel about the “curse” of modern warfare: www.themorpheusseries.com.