Frank Sisulak died Wednesday. According to his son, Tom, Frank watched the Cubs beat the Dodgers Tuesday night and “went to bed a happy man.” Wednesday morning Tom went to Riverside Foods to get some groceries and the newspaper, which had his father’s story on the front page. Frank never got to see it. Funeral arrangements are pending. Additional information should be available shortly at the funeral home Web site www.ivinsfuneralhome.com.
Uncle Sam finally caught up with Frank Sisulak in July of 1942. At the time, he had been working at Graybar Electric Company in Chicago for 17 years and was hoping to marry his sweetheart, an Indiana school teacher he kept a commuter romance with – he’d work all week in Chicago and try to see her in Akron, Ind., on the weekends.
All of that would have to wait now. At 34 years old, unmarried and with no children, Frank Sisulak was drafted into the U.S. Army and he was going to war for the duration.
Sisulak, a Riverside resident who will turn 102 on July 26, never saw combat. He was a veteran like most in World War II. He was one of the thousands upon thousands of support personnel who made up what combat troops would call the rear echelon.
He was, for the most part, out of harm’s way. But he was a vital part of the war effort, helping operate a station hospital in North Africa for more than two years.
Frank Sisulak was born in Milwaukee in 1908, the year his beloved Chicago Cubs won their last World Series. His father, Michael, an Austrian immigrant, was a carpenter who worked for the Chicago and Milwaukee Railroad, building boxcars.
Michael Sisulak landed in the U.S. in 1890. He had completed his compulsory military service in the army of the Hapsburgs’ Austro-Hungarian Empire and bore his serial number the way all his fellow veterans did – tattooed on his forearm.
A logger in northern Wisconsin, Michael Sisulak also played the accordion. He met his wife, Katherina, an immigrant from Bratislava, at a dance.
“He used to play the accordian at parties,” Frank Sisulak said. At one of those parties, “my mother was dancing and backed into a window and broke it.” It was a lucky break, as it turned out.
Frank was the couple’s second son. The family, which eventually included four boys, settled in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago. Frank spent two years at Harrison High School before leaving school at age 15 to go to work.
In 1925, he picked up a job as an office boy in what was a division of Western Electric in Chicago. A year later its name changed to Graybar, where Frank would work, outside of his three years in the Army, for the next 43 years.
“I started as an office boy, an errand boy,” Sisulak said. “Then I worked in the voucher department, in accounting, bookkeeping. Finally I was made the office manager after I got back from the service.”
His office skills would serve him well in the Army. But in 1925, all Frank and his brothers could think about was sports.
They were all excellent athletes. After being hired at Graybar, Frank and his brothers joined the Sears YMCA near Arthington and Homan on the West Side. They played all kinds of sports, but excelled in track. The four brothers formed their own relay teams and competed against some of the top athletes in the nation, according to Frank, including Frank Metcalf and Jesse Owens.
In 1929, Frank Sisulak won the YMCA’s “No. 1 Athlete in Chicago” award. It was handed to him personally by Knute Rockne. Frank’s younger brother, Jim, was also a heralded athlete. Rated the top basketball player in the city by one of the Chicago daily newspapers, Jim turned down a scholarship to the University of Illinois to join the Navy in the 1930s.
On Dec. 7, 1941 Jim Sisulak was aboard the light cruiser USS St. Louis, moored to a pier at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Observers on the ship sighted Japanese planes just before 8 a.m.
“We were hoping they weren’t involved,” said Sisulak, who, at 33, was still living at home with his parents. During the Great Depression, Frank Sisulak was the only member of the family in the house who had a steady job. He pulled down $15 a week.
The St. Louis was involved. Its gunners shot down three enemy planes before escaping the harbor. The “Lucky Lou” dodged a submarine and joined the hunt for the Japanese fleet. They returned to Pearl Harbor on Dec. 10. The next day, Jim sent his family a postcard telling them he was all right.
“Just a few lines to let you know that I am very much alive and kicking,” Jim wrote.
Seven months later, Frank was in the Army, reporting to Camp Robinson, Ark., and later to Camp Gruber, Okla. Attached to the Army Medical Corps, he studied accounting and bookkeeping and became a supply sergeant for the 57th Station Hospital, which shipped out for Oran, Algeria in the spring of 1943 and set up its permanent home near Tunis in Tunisia as Rommel and his Afrika Corps were pushed out of North Africa. Many Afrika Corps prisoners of war would end up at Camp Robinson in Arkansas.
According to Sisulak, the men treated at the hospital were bomber crewmen who flew missions over Italy and Germany.
“We were always near an airport and took care of the bombers that came back after they dropped their bombs over Germany,” Sisulak said. “We’d watch them as they left, and then watch when they’d come back to see if anyone was missing.”
Sisulak vividly remembers the heat of Tunisia (“it would get up around 116, 117 degrees”) and his quarters inside a medical supply warehouse that he shared with rats.
“They were about as big as a cat,” Sisulak said. “I’d sleep there alone at night. There was a pipe in the corner of the room, and the rats would come down. I could feel them crawling over me. I’d just pull the cover over my head.”
Frank’s job was to keep the hospital stocked with items it needed, from beds to the new wonder drug, penicillin. The hospital also served as a medical clinic for the local civilian population (work that earned the unit a special citation from the Tunisian colonial government).
If Sisulak and his buddies snagged passes, they would head down to the beach or tour Carthaginian ruins nearby.
“I just took everything in stride,” Sisulak said of his two years in North Africa. When he finally earned enough points to head home in November 1945, Sisulak was a staff sergeant.
Less than a month later he married Amy Heltzel at her parents’ home in Indiana. In 1947, he paid $12,000 in cash for a home on Herrick Road in Riverside, where he has lived ever since.
Sisulak recalled that as a boy he went to his dad’s company picnics, taking the streetcar to the forest preserve groves on Desplaines Avenue and thinking, someday it might be a nice place to live.