Thursday, August 07, 2008

John William "Chet" VALK (1914 - 1944), Recipient of the Purple Heart

Source: John W. Valk Badge of Military Merit; owned by Miriam Robbins Midkiff, [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE,] Spokane, Washington, 2008.

Today is Purple Heart Day.

The official name of a Purple Heart is the Badge of Military Merit. According to Wikipedia, it "is considered to be the first official military combat badge of the United States Armed Forces. It is the second oldest United States military award in existence, the oldest being the Fidelity Medallion. The Badge of Military Merit was first announced in General George Washington's general orders to the Continental Army issued on 7 August 1782 at the Headquarters in Newburgh. Designed by Washington in the form of a purple heart, it was intended as a military order for soldiers who displayed unusual gallantry in battle, or extraordinary fidelity and essential service."

Currently, "the Purple Heart is awarded in the name of the President of the United States to any member of the Armed Forces of the United States who, while serving under competent authority in any capacity with one of the U.S. Armed Services after 5 April 1917, has been wounded or killed, or who has died after being wounded." [Wikipedia]

Here in the State of Washington, living Purple Heart recipients can obtain specialized license plates with an image of the award decorating the plates. This may be possible in other states as well.


The story of the Purple Heart recipient in my family begins on a cold winter day in the City of Grand Rapids, Kent Co., Michigan on 7 February 1914. Agnes (TUINSTRA) VALK had just given birth to her fourth son and child within four years. What Agnes and her husband, William James VALK, decided to name this son is open to speculation. According to their third son--and my maternal grandfather--William "Bill" VALK, his younger brother was supposed to have been named William Thomas VALK. I think my grandfather was mistaken...why would you have two sons named William? I think my great-grandparents meant to name the boy Thomas William VALK. This makes sense because Thomas was the name of a younger brother of William Sr., who had died young, and was another translation--in addition to James--of the Frisian name Tjamme, William Sr.'s father's name. Having William as a middle name (as so many of these sons did) was a leftover Dutch tradition, where one's middle name was a patronym ("Willems").

Somehow, either "William Thomas" or "Thomas William" didn't go over, and the parents decided upon John Chester VALK, and nicknamed him "Chet." Whatever happened, Chet was registered on his offical birth record as "John William VALK"--by the doctor, according to my grandfather--and no one was the wiser until nearly 30 years later.

Chet's birth was followed by two more sons and a set of twins, one of whom was stillborn. By now, the United States was in the midst of World War I. Soon after, the Spanish Influenza Pandemic hit. I've written before about how Agnes was institutionalized after succumbing to the effects of influenza or perhaps encephalitis lethargica. When she died shortly before her 36th birthday, William Sr. was left with six sons and daughter, all under the age of 12. These children were farmed out to relatives and the city orphanage. Chet was one who lived at Blodgett Home for Children during the 1920 Census. After William Sr. married Iva Eva (LAMBRECHT) SCHADLER, a widow with a 10-year-old son, the family was reunited, and eight more children--five of whom survived infancy--were added to the household.

Chet attended Walker Township schools and grew up playing on the streets of what is now west Grand Rapids. In 1937, his 24-year-old brother Bill (my grandfather) married 17-year-old German immigrant Elfriede "Freda" LOMKER in South Bend, Indiana, a "Gretna Green" marriage location. A year an a half later, a son, James Frederick VALK, was born. Besides the obvious age difference between the couple, the marriage appeared to be doomed from the start. One morning, Bill left a dollar bill on the table with a note, and simply walked out. Freda and little Jimmy moved into her parents' home. This was Efriede's version, according to the 1941 court records of their divorce. According to my grandmother (Bill's second wife), Elfriede "ran off with Chet" (before the divorce? soon after?). However, I must remember that my grandmother heard Bill's version, and he may have been justifying his actions. Those who know the whole truth are long gone.

Source: Valk, James Frederick and Elfriede (Lomker). Photograph. C. 1941. Original in the possession of Robert Upton [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE,] Queen Creek, Arizona. 2008.

Whatever happened, Chet and Elfriede did fall in love and marry. She called him "Johnny" and he called her "Freda." Chet looked upon little Jimmy as his own, and was obviously devoted to both his own family and his in-laws. He had served in the regular U.S. Army from 1936 through 1939 and was recalled in February 1941. It was during his enlistment that the discovery was made that his legal name, according to his birth record, was John William VALK. According to my grandfather, Chet served with the 101st Airborne, but I am not sure as to the accuracy of that statement.

Source: Valk, John William "Johnny" (Fort Benning, Georgia) to "Dear Margaret" [possibly Margaret Lomker]. Letter. Undated. Privately held by Robert Upton [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE,] Queen Creek, Arizona. 2008.
(click on any thumbnail to enlarge)

From Fort Benning, Georgia, in this undated letter, Chet writes to a friend, or perhaps his sister-in-law, Margaret:

Dear Margaret,

I received your card and letter both this morning and was glad to hear from you. After reading the card I thought I'd better not wait so long this time. That sure was a good thrashing you gave me. I had it coming I guess.

It is still hotter than blazes down here and not much breeze. The little breeze we do get sure feels good. We are all feeling fine inspite [sic] of the weather.

Freda has gone back up to Rockford [Michigan, near Grand Rapids] to dispose of some [of] the things we are not taking with us. We have all ready [sic] sold the house and got our down payment back out of it. She expects to be gone only a week then she's driving down in the car with Jimmy.

Gee, I really miss that kid something awful. I wonder if he'll still remember me after those long months. Bet he'll like our new house as there will be plenty of open space to play in.

Just before Freda left we went out to look how they were coming on the house and they hadn't hardly did anything to it except installing the plumbing and electrical fixtures. I can hardly wait to move in.

I think you should give Freda a calling down. I've been trying to get her to write for ages but she doesn't seem to find time. It's touch that Cliff is gone and wish him the best of everything wherever he goes and a hasty arrival back home. I think of you two a lot and sure miss seeing you every so often. Maybe after this war is over we'll be able to pay you a visit. Freda has already told me she'd like to move to Califonria, and you know Freda when she wants something. Well Margie I guess I'll close as there really isn't much news any way. So goodbye for now. We'll try to be more prompt hereafter.


Source: Valk, John William "Johnny" (unknown location in Europe) to "Dear Folks" [Fred and Anna (Kirchdyke) Lomker]. Letter. 9 December 1944. Privately held by Robert Upton [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE,] Queen Creek, Arizona. 2008.

(click on any thumbnail to enlarge)

Chet was sent overseas to serve. On Saturday, 9 December 1944, he wrote from Europe to Freda's parents, Fred LOMKER, Sr. and Anna KIRCHDYKE, who were probably living in Grand Rapids:

Saturday, Dec. 9th.

Dear Folks,

Just a few lines to say hell-o. I know you'll be surprised to hear from me as I haven't written before. I have been thinking of you though, often. How are all of you, anyway. I'm fine and hope this letter find you all in the best of health. I hear from Freda quite often but she seldom mentions you. Just finished writing Freda a few moments ago. I'd like it very much if she'd go home. I'm afraid she's working too hard. She says she [is] going home any day now. Just hope she makes it there before Christmas. It would be nice if she were home for Christmas. I sure would like to be there too. this is really a bad mess over here and I for one will be glad when it's over with.

[Censored] It was impossible [censored] Christmas, over here for [censored] anything. Hoping she gets home for Christmas [censored] this [censored] doesn't [illegible] if you can always [censored].

I received a letter from Margaret awhile back and it sure was nice hearing from her. I hear from home often too and naturally they generally write a few lines about you all. So I do hear about you occasionally. Dad Valk mentioned pa in his last letter saying you was over a short while ago.

The weather over here has been miserable but through it all we manage somehow. We have every thing we need, plenty of blankets, clothes, east, cigarettes and so forth. That's why I never ask Freda to send me anything. About the only thing I miss more than anything is my beer. Of course, I miss Freda and Jimmy the most.

Well, folks, I still have a few more letters to write besides this one so will close for now. Hoping you all the best. Give my regards to Fred [Jr.] and the kids. Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Yours Truly,

Johnny never saw the New Year, 1945. He was reported missing in Luxembourg on December 31st, and it was later determined he was killed in action on that date, another cold winter day like the one on which he had been born. At birth, he was welcomed by his loving parents and three older brothers. At death, he was surrounded by his Band of Brothers, some of whom may have joined him in crossing over.

Many years later, my grandfather later told me that he had heard his brother had been killed near Foy, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge, and that he may have been parachuting into the area at the time. His obituary was published nearly three months later in the Grand Rapids Press.

Source: Walsh, Roland, Brigadier General, USA, Commanding (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) to "Mrs. Elfriede Valk" [Elfriede (Lomker) Valk]. Letter. Undated. Privately held by Robert Upton [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE,] Queen Creek, Arizona. 2008.

Let us remember on Purple Heart Day the sacrifices that our military men and women have made to preserve our freedoms.

Freda later moved to Louisiana and became the second female certified public accountant in that state. She married another war veteran, and had two more children, but according to her son, she was very sad about many things in her life. I suspect Chet's death affected her greatly. In addition, little Jimmy had to be institutionalized because he was--or became--disabled. He lived in the state institution at Kalamazoo, Michigan, and died at the age of 19. This must have been very grievous to bear. At that time in society, there was no physical, financial, medical or emotional support for families with disabled children, leaving them little choice but the anguish of basically abandoning them to the mercy of the state. Freda herself passed away in 1983 after a battle with melanoma.

It is through the great generosity of Freda's children that the Badge of Military Merit awarded to John William "Chet" VALK, as well as copies of his letters and the above photograph, have been returned to and shared with the descendants of the Valk family. We are exceedingly grateful.

1 comment:

Joe Sherwood said...

Hi Miriam, I can't tell if this Blog has been updated or not, but my name Is Joe and my Grandfather was Fredrick Locker, Freda's younger brother, I recently started lioking into family history and I stumbled upon this site, it's also worth mentioning that I also live in Washington State, small world Huh? Would love to talk more about this,. I'm on Facebook
Joseph Sherwood Woodland WA