“I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
Those were Nathan Hale’s last words before he was hanged by the British without trial in 1776.
Throughout the Baylor University campus there are 145 small plaques attached to lamp posts. They honor Baylor alumni who made the ultimate sacrifice: they died in the service of their country. Theirs is a special echelon of honor, up there with such early heroes as 18th-century revolutionist Nathan Hale himself.
Each of these eye-catching plaques contains the name of the deceased, the degrees earned and years spent at Baylor, the branch of military service, the date and location of death and the names of the donors, who were usually family members.
Curious about these plaques as he strolled around the campus, Frank Jasek began to study them. He is a preservation specialist at Baylor University’s Moody Library, and it was only natural that he wondered about the stories behind the plaques.
The result was a daunting task that would occupy his interest for the next 12 years. He researched all Baylor attendees or graduates who died while in military service and published his 323-page book, “Soldiers of the Wooden Cross: Military Memorials of Baylor University.”
Over the years, the author made hundreds of phone calls, searching for family members who might contribute more information about the deceased. Most were pleased to help.
“When I asked the families for surviving letters, they were excited and pleased that I would help them remember their relative. I got all kinds of wonderful letters they wrote to me saying how appreciative they were that I wanted to remember their loved one.”
Jasek also received sheaves of photos, news clippings, diplomas, citations for bravery, original sketches and poetry. Some even shared that final, fearful government telegram relating the news of their loved one’s death, “We regret to inform you ...” In some cases, personal family remembrances are included in the book. The letters of one airman, Lt. Douglas Youngblood, killed in action in North Africa, were an invaluable source of information about the character and the war experience of the man because he had written home to his wife every single day before his death.
Most of these fallen heroes are from World War II, although the Civil War and World War I are both represented. World War II makes up the bulk of the book, with the rest ending with Korean, Vietnam and the Iraqi wars. Some heroes doggedly fought in more than one war such as Marine Capt. Joe Dan Bailes of Dimmit, who flew fighters in the South Pacific and then, home safely from the war, returned to duty in Korea, only to die there.
The pages covering those who served and died in World War II are rich with action photography of bombers, fighters, gliders, foxholes, jungle fighting, D-Day landing crafts, submarines, tanks, cargo ships, aircraft carriers and troop ships. World War I features mule-drawn ordnance, bi-planes, gas masks, bayonets and trench warfare.
Almost to a man, those featured were honored with medals for their bravery. The medals range from the Purple Heart (awarded for an injury) to the Medal of Honor (the only recipient in this book was Jack Lummus Jr. who died on Iwo Jima.) Several young women, most of them nurses, are included even though they did not die in battle. Most of them were killed in plane accidents while in uniform. The services represented are the U. S. Air Force, Merchant Marine, Army, Navy and the Marine Corps.
Eminently qualified as a researcher and with Baylor willing to help, Jasek first searched the Texas Collection, which divulged just enough information to get him started.
Filing a Freedom of Information request on all recipients, he began to delve into U.S. government documents. Sometimes, records would list family members who could be traced even further. The author’s goal was to “open up a window into each soldier’s life.”
Jasek was able to find photos for all but two of the deceased.
“If the Texas Collection didn’t have a photo and I couldn’t find any family members, I might find out what high school they attended and get the high school yearbook photo from the school,” he said. “Sometimes the high school wouldn’t have a photo, but they would send me to the local library in that town, and they might look them up for me and send me a scan of their photo.”
Catching the fever, several Baylor faculty members jumped in to help with the project. Virginia Green, graphic design professor in the art department, was happy to help shape the look of the book. She contributed her considerable skills to page design and layout.
Carol Schuetz, reference librarian in Jesse H. Jones Library, helped with bibliographies. Assistant professor of art Susan Mullally reshot pictures of the plaques and Dr. Michael Parrish, professor of history, wrote all the biographies of Civil War soldiers.
Jasek says his biggest supporter was his wife, Janet, who also works in the Moody Library within the interlibrary loans department.
The next big hurdle was covering the cost of publication. Using his experience as an amateur painter, Jasek created nine paintings illustrating the battles and training accidents that are related throughout the book.
Every publishing house turned down the project. Undaunted, he presented six of his aerial paintings to donors for the ROTC building on the Baylor campus, which covered some of the cost of printing. Two Waco companies — Wardlaw Claims Service and Central National Bank — provided major financial assistance.
The end result of “Soldiers of the Wooden Cross” must be very satisfying to Jasek. This labor of love is oversized and generously filled with art, photography and text, all thoughtfully arranged. The book sells for $50 and can be found on shelves at the Baylor campus bookstore as well as Amazon.com.
For more information on the book or to place an order, postage paid, visit soldierswoodencross.info or send a check to Frank Jasek, 859 N. Blue Cut Road, McGregor, TX 76657.
Exhibit at library
In a further tribute to our fallen heroes, the Waco-McLennan County Public Library, 1717 Austin Ave., is exhibiting Frank Jasek’s work.
This exhibit features his book, copies of the paintings and military artifacts. The reproduction paintings depict several types of military airplanes flown during World War II. The originals were sold to cover the printing costs of his book.
The exhibit, “Soldiers of the Wooden Cross” will be on display until the end of October.
A reader notified me that I was in error in my June “Portals to the Past” column. The large-bodied silver pieces that are displayed at Earle-Napier-Kinnard and the Fort House Museums are correctly called “hot water urns,” not “samovars.”
Historian Claire Masters has a passion for writing the stories of Waco’s past. She is also a supporter of many Waco organizations that seek to improve our fair city.