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COMMENTARY

A box, a letter and a blessed connection to a soldier who died 75 years ago today

Erik Brady

Daniel Joyce looked at the unopened envelope that his mother mailed in 1944 when she was 13. Her brother, serving in World War II, did not live to read the letter inside. Now the envelope was essentially a time capsule with a postmark.

This left Joyce with a choice: Open the letter — or leave it be?

Daniel Kraynik died 75 years ago today. He was 19 — a kid, really — when his plane was shot down over Germany. At first he was listed as missing in action, allowing his family hope he was in a POW camp. Even a year later, when the U.S. Army declared him dead, Kraynik’s family held hard to hope.

When the Army returned his personal effects, including a dozen or so unopened letters, his family never unsealed them. Why would they? Those letters were addressed to him; they would wait for him to open them.

Joyce, 65, is a Buffalo attorney who is named for the uncle he never knew. This summer he took possession of a family treasure — an ammunition box filled with family letters and official Army correspondence pertaining to the life and death of U.S. Army Sergeant Daniel J. Kraynik.

Joyce sifted through the box and when he came to the envelope holding the letter from his mother — preserved as if she’d written it yesterday — he hesitated.

“I thought, ‘Should I do this?’ ” he says. “Then I said a silent little prayer and thought, ‘Here we go.’ I put the letter opener in slowly. I was very careful, almost reverent. I had to respect the moment — and everything inside.”

This is a saga of love and loss, duty and honor, war and peace, hope against hope, and family above all.

Daniel Kraynik, pictured here in 1944 with an unidentified fellow soldier, never met the nephew who was named for him, Daniel Joyce. (Courtesy of Daniel Joyce)

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Pandora’s Box is the story from Greek mythology that tells how evil entered the world. The ammunition box is a sort of inverse of that. Yes, the evil of war is at the center of the story, but it remains outside the box. Inside is only the physical manifestation of a mother’s love, still burning bright 75 years on.

Joyce’s grandmother, Regina Kraynik, was keeper and curator of the box until she died in 1998. Joyce’s Aunt Phyllis took custody after that. When his aunt died early this year, she bequeathed the metal box to him. And when at last Joyce opened it, the thing that struck him first was the way his grandmother had kept everything related to the death of her son carefully collected and bound by string.

“I looked and I thought, ‘I know that string,’ ” Joyce says. “My grandmother was the kind of person who always carried rubber bands around her wrist. She was always binding things and I could just tell that she had hand-tied all of it. I could feel how everything was lovingly protected.

“It might seem weird that I could look at string and tell that, but I could. I felt close to her as I unbound the string. And then I found the letters that were unopened and still sealed. That shocked me. I didn’t know if I should open them.”

Upon reflection, though, he came to see that it was time. His mother had no need to open her letter because she knew her big brother. Joyce never knew his uncle — or his mother at 13. This was a chance to get a glimpse of both.

What he found inside were actually two letters from his mother to her brother. One is dated Nov. 29, 1944 — three days before he would be shot down. The other is dated Nov. 28; this one was written to fulfill an assignment in her English class at Kensington High School to write a letter to a U.S. serviceman.

The twin letters cover much of the same ground — how the family celebrated Thanksgiving (“chicken with stuffing, cranberries sauce, pumpkin pie which I made”), how Kensington fared in football (an 11-6 loss to Riverside) and a listing of her class schedule (including Latin teacher Mrs. Chalmers, “the old pill”).

The family letters — the ones to Kraynik and the ones from him — are largely filled with the minutiae of the moment. Joyce senses a wish on each side to leave unsaid anything that could betray their larger fears.

This ammunition box contained a part of Daniel Joyce's family history. The string was wrapped around some of the letters inside. (Courtesy of Daniel Joyce)

The letter that his mother wrote for her English class is poignant in its salutation — “My Dear Soldier Brother” — and in its misspelled closing: “Goodbye for know and let God watch and protect you.”

It is signed, “Your loving sister, Noel.” That’s a natural name for someone born on the day after Christmas on Holly Street. She was the third of four children: Daniel the oldest, Phyllis a year older than Noel — they grew up almost as twins — and then Jimmy, the youngest.

Joyce has known for as long as he can remember that he was named for his Uncle Daniel who died in the war, but he didn’t know much more. By the time he came along, the family sorrow had long since been confined to a metal box.

Now its contents offer Joyce a fuller picture of his uncle’s death, though not nearly a complete one. Some things Joyce will never know. They are lost to the fog of war.

Daniel Kraynik was born in 1925. He left South Park High School after his sophomore year for an air cadet program in Niagara County under the auspices of the National Youth Administration. He enlisted in the Army in 1943, took basic training in North Carolina and graduated from the Army Air Forces 79th Aircrew training program in Arkansas.

He was classified as a bombardier and assigned the tail gun turret at the San Antonio Aviation Cadet Center in Texas — where, he notes in a letter home, two of his instructors were from Buffalo. Then came more stateside stops in Massachusetts and on Long Island.

“I can’t say where I am, what I’m doing or what’s what,” Kraynik wrote in one letter home, in October 1944, just before his deployment to England. That sort of reticence was common because censors screened letters to keep classified information from getting out by accident.

This sentence, though, in a letter dated Nov. 6, got by the censors: “I suppose it is all right to say that I’ve seen Germany and it is not much different from France, Holland, England, or Mass., or Texas.” The family must have understood full well there was but one way for him to have seen Germany — from the tail gun of a B-24.

A letter dated Nov. 20 tells how he attended high Mass on a Sunday visit to London. “The church was beautiful, very big,” he wrote. “Something on the order of St. Casimir, but more so.” That’s the parish in Kaisertown where Kraynik was christened.

His last letter home was dated Nov. 28, the same day Noel wrote to him in her English class. His letter asks for news clippings about B-24 bombings over Germany; his family had no way to know he was already dead by the time they read his request.

The Army wired a terse telegram on Dec. 20 that said in part: “The Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret that your son Sergeant Daniel J. Kraynik has been reported missing in action since Two December over Germany.”

(Courtesy of Daniel Joyce)

What must his grandmother have felt as she read that? Joyce knows the answer because the box contained a news clipping from the East Aurora Bee in 1989, when his grandmother was living in Elma. She told the newspaper about the small grocery store she ran in 1944 and how she was waiting on a customer when a man in a cap walked in and handed her the telegram:

“The customer looked at me and said, ‘What’s wrong? Bad news?’ I was so idiotic I said, ‘No, I don’t think so. He’s only missing.’ Then I locked the door and called my husband.

“All I remember is screaming into the phone. Then I called my sister and I screamed, ‘Daniel’s dead, Daniel’s dead.’ I’ve never forgotten it. I still see that man in the cap.”

If Joyce’s grandmother knew in that moment that her son was gone, she never truly accepted it in the weeks and months and years that followed. The ammunition box is replete with letters she wrote to the Army and to the Red Cross in succeeding years. They show how at first she believed he could be a prisoner of war in Germany; later she believed he could be an amnesiac living somewhere overseas.

She never stopped writing birthday cards and Christmas cards to her son. They’re in the box, too. So, too, is the Purple Heart that Kraynik was awarded posthumously in December 1945.

The contents of the box offer a frustratingly incomplete narrative of what happened when Kraynik’s plane crashed. Joyce can tell it took five years for his family to learn the limited information that exists, and details emerged agonizingly slow, step by painstaking step.

A letter from the Army in February 1945 said the B-24 flew into a cloud on Dec. 2 and was not accounted for thereafter. The letter contained a list of the crewmen aboard with their addresses. Soon the families began to correspond, each hoping to find some small scintilla of information from the others, and to share their mutual sorrow.

Spirits were raised when two survivors turned up at a POW camp, offering hope for all. The survivors provided conflicting accounts. German fighter planes — 15 in one version, 50 in the other — shot down the plane. The two men parachuted to safety but said they blacked out and so did not know what had happened to the others.

Both accounts make reference to the tail gunner they called Rocky — a nickname Kraynik’s family never knew. He must have picked it up overseas in the weeks between his arrival in England and his death over Germany.

It would not be until August 1948, almost four years after the fact, that the U.S. War Department offered more details. This report put the number of German fighter planes at 20 and told of an inferno inside the B-24 as it crashed to earth in Engeholle — which, Joyce notes, translates to Hell’s Corner.

Then, a year later, the War Department disclosed a burial site near where the plane crashed. The Germans had buried the remains of the men together with their dog tags and a gun with serial numbers that corresponded to the flight. This was conclusive enough evidence for the War Department, if not for Regina Kraynik; she was never 100 percent convinced of her son’s death until the day she died.

The repatriated remains were reinterred at Arlington National Cemetery on Jan. 31, 1950, more than five years after the crash. By then Joyce’s mother was 19 — the age her brother had been when he died. A year later she would meet the man she would marry. They would have eight children; Joyce is second oldest.

The cemetery at Arlington placed a permanent headstone, with six names on it, in March 1954. By then Noel Joyce was pregnant with the boy she would name after her late brother — and who would one day take on the task of telling her brother’s story.

The contents of the box tell a broader, richer, more complicated tale than is possible to relate here. Joyce isn’t sure what he will do with it all. Maybe he’ll write a book; certainly he’ll preserve it for the extended family’s future generations.

Whatever the case, he feels a mix of deep sorrow and high privilege to see in physical form the pain that his grandmother and mother carried in their hearts for all those years.

“There is a double dimension to it,” Joyce says. “I feel blessed. I feel connected.”

He was with his grandmother when she died on Dec. 1, 1998, a bit before midnight. Joyce didn’t realize the significance of the date then. Now he thinks it was Dec. 2 by the time she joined her son in heaven.

Today he plans to take a drive with his cousin Karen, Phyllis’ daughter. They’ll go by the former family home on Holly Street. They’ll stop in at St. Casimir’s. They’ll say some prayers, maybe shed some tears. And they will remember.

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