25 Mar Saving Lt. Plateck
History buffs and trivia experts will already know that the epic D-Day film “Saving Private Ryan” was loosely based on the story of Fritz Niland, a soldier in the fight for Normandy. Niland had, as loosely scripted in the movie, lost three brothers in a short span of time (only two had actually been killed in battle—the third was reported dead but later discovered to be in a Japanese POW camp). Niland was indeed pulled off of the front lines to spare more loss to his family, though not in as dramatic a fashion as the movie portrays.
For one D-Day veteran, the film brought to mind a similar, but more light-hearted episode in his wartime story. In 2002 Hershel “Hesh” Brohinsky sent to the D-Day Memorial a typewritten, two-page memoir inspired by the movie. His light-hearted, self-deprecating account is now part of our archive, along with a number of other artifacts from his days in the army.
Hesh served as a corporal in the 227th Field Artillery Battalion of the 29th Division, and was often assigned to dangerous FO (Forward Observer) teams. One day, soon after the 29th had taken St. Lo and while he was temporarily relieved from the front lines of the bocage, Hesh was summoned by his Captain and given an important job. One Lt. Plateck (Hesh consistently spelled it Platek) was out in the hedgerows somewhere. He was urgently needed at the command post to carry out a particular mission near Vire, south of St. Lo. Hesh, and a jeep driver named Ed Owens, were to go find the lieutenant and bring him in—a needle in a haystack of hedgerows.
To find their way, they were given a map—but not just any map. It was a large and cumbersome map, 3 by 4 feet, mounted on a board, and it listed all the current American positions in the area. As they trekked, they realized that the map would be priceless information to the Germans in the neighborhood if they were captured.
Nevertheless, they obediently headed for the frontlines, where they found little help. No one knew where Lt. Plateck was, nor why they should give any concern to the scruffy corporal who was looking for him. But orders are orders, so they kept going.
Down one road, or sunken path between hedgerows more accurately, they were stopped by an MP. He told them in no uncertain terms that the road ahead was dangerous and not to proceed further. Determined, Brohinsky and Owens ignored him and drove on.
After about 400 yards, Hesh recalled, “a burst of German machine gun made us sorry we hadn’t heeded the MP.” They made one of the most rapid U-turns in the history of Normandy.
Still resolved to find Lt. Plateck, Hesh left Owens with the jeep and proceeded on foot. Soon, he found himself near a skirmish and under mortar fire. He felt something like a rock hit his arm above the elbow, and suddenly “the futility of my mission became apparent.” As he beat a hasty retreat, Hesh glanced down at his arm expecting to see gushing blood. He saw none. Still, he soon saw two medics and asked them to examine his wound. What they found was little more than a bruise the size of a golf ball. “The aid-men didn’t exactly scoff,” reported Hesh, “but they sure did snicker.” Corp. Brohinsky would live to fight another day.
Eventually Hesh found the jeep and Owens lounging in the shade of a tree. Hesh showed him his “wound.” Owens, unimpressed and unsympathetic, offered to cut it open with his pocketknife so his comrade could earn a Purple Heart. Hesh thought less of any such plan. They decided to make their way back without achieving their objective.
“Our mini-odyssey, the search for Lt. Platek, was over,” Hesh concluded. Their efforts proved pointless anyway. Plateck soon returned to the command post on his own, and was sent off on his temporary assignment.
But in a closing sentence that reminds us that war is anything but lighthearted, Hesh ends his account with this sobering epilogue: “Unfortunately, unlike Private Ryan, Lt. Stephen Plateck never made it back” from the war. He was killed some months later in Holland and is buried in an American cemetery there.
Hesh Brohinsky died in 2014, but his wartime legacy lives on through the collection of the National D-Day Memorial.