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Tracking a fallen brother's memory across the globe

September 30, 2009|By ALICIA NOTARIANNI

HAGERSTOWN -- A sweater with holes. A broken camera with a spare lens. A damaged fountain pen and a letter that had not been sent.

That was all Chester Polasky had left of his brother, Edward.

The year was 1944, and the personal effects had arrived shortly after the telegram from the U.S. Army notifying his family that Ed had been killed in World War II.

"They never told us anything. All we got was the sweater box," Chester Polasky said. "We didn't know how he died. Was he in pain? Did he suffer long?"

And so began an undertaking that has come full circle after 65 years. Sitting at a table covered with photos and mementos, Polasky, 83, of Hagerstown, recounted his quest to learn the details of his brother's final years.

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As young men living in West Springfield, Mass., the two dreamed of becoming pilots. But Ed's poor vision and a hole in Chester's eardrum brought that to a halt. In 1942, at age 18, Ed enlisted in the U.S. Army -- not for pilot training, but with the 82nd Airborne's 508th Parachute Infantry.

"He said, 'If I can't fly (airplanes), I'll jump out of them,'" Polasky said.

Two years later, just after D-Day, the telegram arrived. Polasky and his mother were left with questions, grief and arrangement decisions.

"They wanted to know if we wanted to have him brought home to be interred," Polasky said. "I said, 'No. He is more with family there. The guys he was with, they depended on each other for their lives.'"

Ed was buried in the Normandy American Cemetery in Calvados, France. In the years that followed, Polasky began to research the parachute infantry, writing letters and talking to anyone he thought might be able to fill in the blanks.

While working at Bell Aerospace in Buffalo, N.Y., Polasky's co-worker mentioned he knew a man who had jumped into Normandy. Polasky contacted the man and discovered he had been in Ed's unit. With that connection established, Polasky attended a unit reunion in 1980. Ed's surviving comrades shared details of his courageous jump from the plane onto the Normandy coast.

"The pilot wanted to get out of there. When the guys jumped, the force of the air and the speed of the plane ripped off their supplies, and they landed without their rations and weapons," Polasky said he learned from the paratroopers.

He also learned the circumstances of his brother's death, and that Ed had been decorated with several medals for gallant and heroic actions.

"I never knew he'd been awarded Silver and Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart," Polasky said. "All we knew was that he'd been killed."

Polasky has attended 12 reunions and become an honorary member of the 508th Parachute Infantry.

"Every year, someone else at the reunions adds to the picture of my brother," he said.

In 2004, the picture began to come into focus in a way Polasky never imagined when he was told a lieutenant colonel from the French army wanted to contact him.

Lt. Col. M.P. Collet, a member of the French 11th Airborne, had grown up in the area of Sainte-Mere-Eglise, one of the first towns to be liberated in the D-Day invasion. Collet had collected memorabilia from the invasion throughout his life and opened a museum. Collet had come across a helmet that he believed belonged to Polasky's brother.

Polasky provided handwriting samples and other authenticating information to Collet, and learned it was his brother's helmet. Collet planned to send the helmet to Polasky.

"When he offered it to me, I said, 'No. What am I gonna do with it? Cut it in five pieces and give each of my kids a piece?'" Polasky said. "I told him, 'Keep it in your museum, and when people come, you can tell 'em about Ed.'"

On Oct. 19, Polasky and his son, David Polasky, are to set off on a 12-day trip to France. They will stay with Collet for part of the trip. They have planned a flag raising and lowering, and playing of taps at Ed's grave site. A minister will perform a simple ceremony.

"I guess you could say I'm so excited about how the Lord opened everything up. It's amazing," Polasky said, throwing his hands to his head as tears filled his eyes. "I'll be closing the book on my brother's life."

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