On May 30, 1944, during a Memorial Day ceremony conducted in Guthrie Park, Riverside American Legion Post 488 Commander Frank Hanzelin presented Gold Star Citations to the families of seven men killed in action or while preparing to fight in Europe or the Pacific. 

Not receiving a citation was the family of Lt. Richard Jicka, who was still officially listed as missing in action. 

The 23-year-old U.S. Navy aviator from Riverside was last seen Nov. 6, 1943 when the PBY Catalina he was co-piloting took off on a reconnaissance mission from Henderson Field on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. 

James and Rose Jicka, who lived at 403 Audubon Road, received word their son was missing four days later. He would be declared dead on Nov. 8, 1944. 

The American Legion prepared a Gold Star Citation to be presented to Jicka’s family on Memorial Day the following year. Dated May 18, 1945, the citation was to be presented to the family as the Legion’s “emblem of devotion to the highest duty of citizenship.”

Lt. Richard Jicka checks out one of the four .30-caliber machine guns with which his PBY Catalina aircraft was equipped. | Courtesy of Charles Zitnik

For whatever reason, the citation never made it into the hands of Jicka’s family.

That will change next week.

On May 29, two of Jicka’s nephews and his niece will be present at the annual Riverside Memorial Day ceremony to accept the Gold Star Citation that’s sat unclaimed for the past 79 years.

“I think it’s right to close the loop and finish the process with the town of Riverside,” said Charles Zitnik, the son of Jicka’s sister, Phyllis. Charles said his brother Richard, Jicka’s namesake, will accept the citation on behalf of the family.

For Riverside American Legion Post 488 Commander Joseph Topinka, presenting a World War II-era Gold Star Citation to a family is a special moment. It’s not clear when the Legion post ceased presenting the certificates to surviving family members, but in 2017 after Topinka assumed command of the post, he was handed a box containing 14 unclaimed citations from World War II.

Lt. Richard Jicka (right) posed for a portrait with his sister Phyllis (right) and mother, Rose, probably in 1942 after being commissioned as an ensign and prior to his deployment to the Pacific Theater. | Courtesy of Charles Zitnik

“No one was sure where the certificates were hiding for all these years,” Topinka said. “I just made a long sigh at the time. Now, I am starting to smile.”

It’s been hard finding families to claim them. The connection with Jicka’s family was happenstance.

“Around seven years ago I was doing Ancestry.com and along the line [someone in Riverside] noticed me or I noticed them, and we connected,” Charles Zitnik said. “At the time they were interested in renewing the memorial and the plan was to restore everything and have a rededication ceremony.”

Richard Jicka’s father painted this portrait of his late son from a photograph, adding an image of his plane in the background. | Courtesy of Charles Zitnik

A large-scale overhaul of the memorial never panned out, but some improvements were carried out in 2019 and the post had planned on re-dedicating the memorial in fall 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic hit and put an end to those plans.

 In the past year, Topinka and Zitnik were able to reconnect and set the wheels in motion for a citation presentation ceremony in 2023.

“Giving these certificates to the families of these Riverside fallen has been one of my big goals as Post 488 commander,” Topinka said. “We must always remember as a community our fallen, whether it be through these certificates, posting POW-MIA flags around the community or wearing poppies. These are all simple and humble acts to represent significant sacrifices for our country.”

Jicka graduated from Riverside-Brookfield High School in 1937 and attended the University of Illinois for three years before enlisting in the U.S. Navy prior to the country’s involvement in the war. He volunteered for flight training and won his wings in September 1942.

The following January, he was sent to the Solomon Islands, where Guadalcanal was still being contested by the Japanese. He was a crew member on a PBY Catalina, described by the National Museum of the U.S. Navy as “the principal patrol bomber utilized by the U.S. Navy.” 

Richard Jicka at the Glenview Air Base in 1941. | Courtesy of Charles Zitnik

The amphibious planes, capable of taking off from and landing on water, were used for numerous missions, including “anti-submarine warfare, bombing of enemy targets, escorting convoys, search and rescue missions, and transportation of cargo and personnel.”

According to “VP Navy: USN, USMC, USCG and NATS Patrol Aircraft Lost or Damaged During World War II” by Douglas E. Campbell, Jicka was part of the nine-man crew aboard a PBY-5A aircraft about 30 miles off the western coast of Bougainville, just days after U.S. Marine and Army units landed on that island, when it crashed in bad weather.

According to Campbell, Jicka’s squadron “was tasked with providing anti-submarine coverage, search missions and air coverage at the beginning of the Bougainville campaign.”

Zitnik, who lives in Kentucky southwest of Cincinnati, said his grandfather refused to talk about his son’s death during the war, but Zitnik knew of his “Uncle Dick” as a small child through his mom, who was 10 years younger than her brother and was about 13 years old when Jicka was lost at sea.

In January 1943, Jicka was sent to the Solomons Islands and flew out of Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. Above, Jicka writes a letter from his quarters in the South Pacific. | Courtesy of Charles Zitnik

“My mother had some of his belongings from his locker,” Zitnik said. “She gave me his pilot’s helmet. I was 6 or 7 years old, and she let me play with it.”

Richard was like “a third parent” to his sister Phyllis, said Zitnik, and his letters home show he was interested in making sure she was keeping up with her schooling and practicing the piano.

“He really took an interest in what she did,” Zitnik said.

While his grandfather might not have voiced his feelings, he made them very visible. A commercial artist by profession, James Jicka used photographs of Richard in his uniform as models for two pieces of art. One of them, a painting that now belongs to Richard Zitnik, “hung in my parents’ living room for 30 years.”

Zitnik’s parents died in 2012 and he inherited an archive of photos and documents of his uncle that had been kept by Phyllis. His interest in family genealogy would eventually reconnect him with Riverside.

Asked why he thought the family never received the Gold Star Citation, Zitnik speculated that it simply might have been too difficult to bear. The family moved out of Riverside not long after Richard’s death, Zitnik said.

“It was just such a heartache they probably didn’t want to relive it and get that certificate,” he said.

There are Gold Star Citations for 13 fallen Riverside servicemen in the possession of the Riverside American Legion that have not been presented to surviving family members, including Pfc. George D. Bohaty, Lt. Mark W. Castle, Pfc. Burt L. Krueger, Pfc. Donald C. Lundgren, S/Sgt. Marry P. Martini, A/C Robert H. MacFarlane, A/C Thomas McCue, Capt. Keith A. Orsinger, Lt. John Neal D. Smith, Cpl. Jack L. Thatcher, Lt. Graham Trevor, Lt. John T. Warner and S/Sgt. Merle F. Wolfe.