S1c Marvin Frederick Geise,
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- S1c Marvin Frederick Geise,
S1c Marvin Frederick Geise
Editor’s note: Dave Williams does great honor to his uncle, Seaman First Class Marvin F. Geise, in the following essay. It was first published in the Beloit (Wisconsin) Daily News in 2016.
Marvin Geise died December 7, 1941, on the U.S.S. Arizona at Pearl Harbor. I never met my uncle, but a letter, among the possessions he left behind, sparked an investigation that brought together two generations of two families from two different parts of the world.
He was born August 15, 1920 in Davis in north-central Illinois, the second youngest in a family of five children. In 1935 the family moved 20 miles east-northeast to Beloit, Wisconsin. Times were tough in the 1930s and everyone had to pitch in. Apparently, he was gregarious and enjoyed spending time with friends. My mother and aunt bragged of doting on him.
Marvin enlisted in the Navy in 1940 and did his training at Great Lakes, Illinois. By December of that year, he was assigned duty on the U.S.S. Arizona, which was in Bremerton, Washington. By April 1941 Marvin was at Pearl Harbor.
Letters sent back home start out mundane (send brownies, send cookies), but progressively speak of the sense of urgency on the base. Marvin’s last letter, dated November 28, 1941, admonished my grandparents to not worry.
On December 7, 1941 the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor early in the morning. Several bombs hit the Arizona. One found the forward ammunition magazine. Pictures of the spectacular explosion are iconic. I don’t imagine Marvin suffered given the enormity of the explosion. It is believed the blast from the forward magazine was responsible for the death of nearly 80 percent of the crew and more than half of all lives lost during the attack.
Back home, little was known.
My grandmother sent a Christmas card and a letter postmarked December 10. Both were returned. When official news did arrive, it was not well-received. Several letters received from the Navy through 1945 all bear burn marks.
Marvin’s life may have ended that day, but there is this letter…
As part of a pen-pal program at Beloit High School, Marvin exchanged letters with a Heinz Kozianowski in 1937.
Heinz Kozianowski was born September 13, 1921 in what was Insterburg, East Prussia.
The content of the letter Marvin wrote is unknown. The content of the letter Heinz wrote is printed below, in its entirety, with some translation:
Insterburg, May 2, 1937
I’m very glad that I was allowed to begin a correspondence which probably will become interesting. I especially have pleasure in calling an American boy my pen-friend. First I’ll tell you something about myself. I was born in 1921 at Insterburg in East Prussia as the son of a railway worker. I spent my youth in my native town. Being six years of age I began to attend school. It was an elementary school. After four years I began to attend the middle school. We are obliged to go to this school for six years before we are admitted of a leaving examination. I have been going already to this school for five years and now I am in the first form. The subjects taught in our school are as follows: English, French, German, Religion, History, Geography, Mathematics, Natural Science, Physics, Chemistry, Singing, Short-hand Writing, Gymnastics, and building of airplane models.
I think that you are interested in hearing something about our youth organization, called Hitler Youth. The whole German youth are organized in the Hitler Youth. This great organization is divided up into two parts. The boys aged from 10 to 14 years are members of the German Young People and the boys from 14 to 18 years form the very Hitler Youth. We are very enthusiastic about the life in the Hitler Youth. We are on duty twice a week. There we strengthen our bodies. Our duty consists in practicing sports and camping out. In summer our national athletic competition takes place. Then we prove that we are a sporting generation. The best of all is camping out.
[Next paragraph was entirely in German.]
Now for a few easy German sentences. Please write to me and tell me how old you are, which schools you attend, and what sort of job your father has. Please do not be angry that I wrote to you only now. In the next letter I will tell you about our camping out, East Prussia, and Insterburg.
Your German friend Heinz Kozianowski
Insterburg, East Prussia
Every time I read Heinz’ letter, I am struck by his youthful exuberance. The Hitler Youth will not be confused with the Boy Scouts of America. Yet, for Heinz, joy was in the athletics and camping. He enjoyed school. Under different circumstances, this could be one-half of a typical exchange between two 16-year-old boys.
However, the circumstances under which these letters were written are well-known. In four days (from the date on Heinz’ letter) the Hindenburg would burst into flames in New Jersey. By November Hitler would outline his plans for expansion into Austria and Czechoslovakia, and by March of 1938 those plans would be set in motion. World War II was just around the corner.
I don’t know why Marvin saved the letter from Heinz. Over the years, I found myself re-reading it and wondering, “What happened to Heinz?” I eventually decided to make some queries. Years went by without results, until November of last year when I found a German agency that maintained all records related to World War II. I wrote the agency in January and then waited.
Very early one morning in mid-June, I received an email from Gunhild Kozianowski. Gunhild is the youngest daughter of Heinz. I had sent a copy of Heinz’s letter as part of my official query. In Gunhild’s words:
“I was fully surprised about finding after a week vacation a letter from a German authority I have never heard about. Even more I was surprised that my father was allowed to have an American pen friend in 1937! I can confirm that his signature is authentic — has never changed much. The handwritten text, though, appears rather “youngish.” This is the oldest ’relique’ I now have from my father and I thank you for that.”
Gunhild granted permission for me to receive a copy of Heinz’s service record.
Heinz enlisted in December of 1939 and was assigned to an infantry battalion not far from his home in Insterburg. By July of 1940 he was deployed to the western Atlantic theater of operations. Heinz was then posted in September of 1941 to the Battle of Leningrad. Heinz was stationed at Leningrad until March of 1944. Later that year, he was defending his home from advancing Russian forces near Insterburg and then northern Ukraine. The official record ends with Heinz in Ludwigslust/Mecklenburg [in northern Germany].
Heinz made four trips to the infirmary: once for scarlet fever, in southwestern France for a damaged left knee, field hospital for nephritis (inflammation of the kidneys) in Leningrad, and a field hospital for a hernia (Germany). Along the way, he was promoted from Private to Corporal, and lastly, Sergeant.
Gunhild has told me, “He never spoke a lot about the true war. Like so many of those survivors they buried their memory in silence. Those like my relatives who must have seen imprisoned work forces among them or moving through their villages in April of 1945 never spoke about those either, to my memory. I must admit that I was also never very keen when I was younger and my father still fit to hear about it.”
Over the next few email exchanges, Gunhild sent me several attachments. When I opened the first one, I stared, dumbfounded, at a picture of my uncle.
The second attachment was a handwritten message from the back of the photo, “To remember of my pen-friend, Marvin. Died in the Battle of Hawaii, 1941.”
When World War II ended, Russia controlled all of East Prussia. It is now called Kaliningrad and Insterburg is now called Chernyakhovsk. Heinz was not only on the losing side of the war, but he lost his home, all of his belongings (except what he could carry), and was separated from his family. Yet, he managed to hang on to a picture of my uncle.
He made what must have been a huge effort to find out what happened to my Uncle. It took several days for this to sink in. For Gunhild (paraphrased), “This issue shakened me a bit…..I still do not know how my father came to know that your Uncle had died in 1941. At that time he was in war and after the war the old address in Insterburg was no longer existing.”
Heinz’s life was not easy after the war. His family was forced to flee their homeland as the Russians advanced through East Prussia. It was several years before they could be reunited. But, eventually, some normality returned. Heinz settled in Langelsheim [about 120 miles south-southwest of Ludwigslust]. He married Elisabeth in 1947 and Jutta was born in 1951. Gunhild was born in 1961.
Unfortunately, tragedy was an unwelcome companion for Heinz. Jutta died in 1963. War memories weighed on Heinz for the rest of his life. He died in 2005 after a years-long battle with dementia.
After so many of my early queries were dead ends, I had resigned myself to never getting an answer to my question, or at least not the one I eventually received. Finding out that Heinz survived World War II, had two daughters, had kept my Uncle’s letter, and made a huge effort to find out what happened to my uncle has been shocking and humbling.
A gift, beyond words, waiting for 80 years to be delivered.
This year, the letter that Heinz wrote will return home. I think it belongs with Gunhild. I know she will appreciate having it. I am very grateful for all the help and information she has provided for this article.
Although I never knew my uncle, I know I would have loved him. I hope in some small way, this article honors him for his ultimate sacrifice.
I would like to ask every reader to please say a special prayer this December 7, the 75th anniversary, for all who were at Pearl Harbor that fateful day. Our sons and daughters, who put themselves in harm’s way, deserve our support and our prayers wherever they may be asked to serve.
Sources: Navy photograph. Dave Williams shared this article with the U.S.S. Arizona Mall Memorial at the University of Arizona.