ANTIOCH – After more than 69 years, a World War II veteran from Antioch Township finally found the closure he so longed for in meeting the family of the soldier who died in his arms.
Former Army Staff Sgt. John Trinca had known Pvt. Thomas Bateman for mere minutes before he was killed in action during the Battle of Mindanao in the Philippines on June 3, 1945. The two had just enough time to realize they were both from Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood.
Trinca said Bateman, who he nicknamed “Chicago,” told him his actual name, but given the circumstances, “it went in one ear and out the other.”
Bateman asked Trinca, “If anything happens to me, would you please let my family know?”
Trinca figured they’d have time to exchange contact information once they were in their foxhole, but that moment would never come.
As the soldiers moved out, Trinca said he checked Bateman’s ammunition, gave him two hand grenades and said, “Stay to my left.”
As the Japanese opened fire, “I heard the impact of the bullet go through Thomas and he was killed,” said Trinca, himself shot in the leg.
Deemed OK by a medic to keep moving, Trinca zigzagged to safety and continued fighting as the soldier he knew only as “Chicago” was “tagged and bagged.”
For decades, Trinca said he lived with the pain and guilt of not knowing the identity of the soldier who died by his side and for not being able to share the events of that day with the young man’s family.
Trinca told the story to his neighbor, Army Col. Paul J. Hettich, and his parents, Mary Ann and Paul I. Hettich, who spent several years trying to learn Bateman’s identity, which they discovered in 2011.
Recovered Purple Heart key to reunion
Bateman’s surviving relatives were only recently located by Army Capt. Zachariah Fike, founder of Purple Hearts Reunited, who became involved at the request of a man who found Bateman’s long lost Purple Heart medal in the early 1950s, when he was just a boy.
Tom McAvoy said he was helping the janitor of his Hyde Park apartment building empty some boxes into the trash when the medal “popped out.” Unbeknownst to him at the time, Bateman’s grandmother had lived in that complex.
Sensing the medal was much more than a trinket, McAvoy gave the Purple Heart to his mother, who held on to it until her death in the mid-1990s. As an adult, McAvoy spent years trying to reunite the medal with Bateman’s family, which recently happened with the help of state Sen. Michael Hastings’ office and Purple Hearts Reunited.
Fike called Trinca on June 3, the anniversary of Bateman’s death, to let him know the Bateman family had been found, along with the soldier’s Purple Heart, which Trinca had known nothing about. Fike had learned of Trinca through an old newspaper clipping about his search for Bateman’s identity.
“I couldn’t sleep at all that night. I was freaked out,” said Trinca.
Medals like these turn up all the time around the country, said Fike, who funds Purple Hearts Reunited. Once a soldier’s family is found, the medal is returned, along with the opportunity to have a “return ceremony,” which is where Trinca realized his dream of meeting Bateman’s family.
An emotional gathering was held Aug. 3 at the Lake County Veterans Memorial at the College of Lake County in Grayslake. It was attended by Trinca, McAvoy, Fike, a representative from Sen. Hastings’ office, the Hettich family, veterans, media and many members of the Bateman family, including Bateman’s son, Thomas Bateman Jr., who lives in Memphis.
An overwhelmed Bateman Jr. said, “I never knew my dad, so I’m grateful for this opportunity.”
Born in 1920, Bateman had enlisted in the Army in the early 1940s, serving as an infantryman with the 21st Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division. His son was just 10 months-old when he was killed.
“I regret never having known him, but I knew he loved me and planned for my future,” said Bateman Jr., noting his father had the foresight to set up a college fund for him.
He thanked a tearful Trinca for keeping his father in his heart and for his efforts to learn his identity.
“You’ve given me a peace and closure about that day.”