Friday, December 7, 2018

Flashback 1999: Dec. 7, "Everybody was in their own grief"

Marine Cpl. Stanley Stephen Swiontek

     This story stayed with me and 17 years later I followed it up, visiting with Rosemary's brother, Rick.

     Every Dec. 7 for the rest of her life, for years and years, after the war was over and most people turned to other matters, Rosemary Martinotti's mother took out her gold star, the star that meant you had lost a son in the war, and put it in the window.
     Then her mother passed away, and the responsibility for remembering fell to Rosemary. She keeps a picture of her brother, Marine Cpl. Stanley Stephen Swiontek, in her living room. She still has the little pillow, with fringes, and a poem about motherhood, and a picture of the U.S.S. Arizona, that Stanley brought home for Mother's Day, 1941, the last time she ever saw him.
     "What a great guy," remembers Martinotti, who is attending the city's ceremony today at Navy Pier remembering Pearl Harbor and honoring Swiontek and the six other Chicagoans who died aboard the Arizona. "We were thrilled whenever he would come home."
     Swiontek was 26 and a cook aboard the ship, but to the kids in Roseland, he was a big deal. His younger brothers and sisters adored him.
     "My brother Ted and I were the cabooses—the youngest of nine," she says. "We used to fight about who was going to polish the brass buttons on his uniform. We were just thrilled with this tall person. Ted would say, 'I'm going to polish his buttons,' and I would say, 'Then I'm going to polish his shoes.' "
     She was 12 years old when her brother took that last furlough.
     "You know what we loved doing? All the kids in the neighborhood?" she says. "We used to love sitting around in the backyard, and Stanley would tell us all these stories about being in the Marines, on the ship. We'd just sit there, going 'Wow!' We just ate it up."
     When the family heard that Pearl Harbor had been attacked, it was almost as if they knew something bad had happened to Stanley.
     "All of a sudden, a pall came over the house. Everybody was in their own grief," she says. "We didn't hear anything for days. Then we got the telegram."
     The Arizona had sunk in nine minutes—1,100 men were trapped inside and most are still there, entombed. Stanley's family never even found out the circumstances of his death, only that he had won the right to sleep in that day.
     "He would have been on land otherwise," Martinotti says.
     Nothing was ever the same for her mother.
     "Ted and I often wondered what Christmas was going to be like," she says. "Because every year she went through her son's death on Dec. 7. It was so traumatic. My mother would get physically ill. It was exhausting. She never got a chance to truly and honestly get over it because they showed it, over and over again, every Dec. 7, the Arizona sinking, and she could picture her son, her favorite son, inside of it. It just tore her apart.
     "You see, if a mother's going to have a favorite son, then Stanley was her favorite, simply because he was so gentle. He was so handsome. He was so kind. He was just great.
     Alone among her family, Martinotti has never gone to Hawaii to see his ship.
     "I just couldn't do it," she said. "I still cry."
     But she is making a point of being at the ceremony today.
     "Because he meant so much to me. I was so proud of him. I'd say, 'That's my brother in that uniform.' "
       —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 7, 1999


  1. Polish (Swiatek, Swiontek): nickname from swiety ‘holy’ or occupational name for a carver of icons, from swiatek ‘icon’, ‘holy image’.


  2. The photo I emailed you shows Marines at Hickam Field with the smoke from Battleship Row rising behind the barracks. My father is somewhere within that scene, probably on a roof, depending on the time. My hope for Cpl. Swiontek is that he died quickly from the massive magazine explosion, which probably killed a large majority of the Arizonas' crew. I can only imagine a mothers horror seeing the twisted wreckage of her sons' ship, not knowing how much he suffered.


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