MUSCATINE — The armistice signed 100 years ago Sunday between Allied forces and Germany was the day the nation celebrated the end of World War I with cheers and churches ringing bells. But for Anton Vanicek's mother and grandmother, an unexplained fearful feeling crept in as they watched their neighbors head into town to observe.
"They just knew something terrible had happened," he said.
What the women would find out a month later justified that feeling. On Nov. 11, 1918, their 26-year old brother and son, Otto Wosoba, was killed in action in Verdun, France. The Wosoba's were one of eight Gold Star families in Vanicek's hometown, Oxford Junction, Iowa, following the war. The small town of around 700 at the time had about 90 soldiers drafted, Vanicek estimated, and news was arriving nearly weekly of casualties.
He never met his uncle, but Vanicek heard stories occasionally growing up from his mother Elizabeth. He said she would tell him Wosoba was very bright and loved science, and as the oldest son, after his parents separated, the family farm that still survives in Oxford Junction went to him.
When Wosoba was drafted in September 1917, it put a strain on the women to run the farm. Wosoba completed boot camp at Camp Dodge near Des Moines, and was granted a short leave in the spring of 1918 to help remodel a barn for the horses and dairy cows. He returned to service in April to serve with Company D, 358th Infantry, American Expedition Forces landing in June in Liverpool, England, and sending his final letter in October to his mother. Vanicek said he would get chills when he heard his mother tell her story about that day in November.
"Obviously, it means a lot to me," he said. "I've written a lot about it."
The only communication the family received from the government, Vanicek said, was a notice in December that Wosoba was missing in action on Nov. 11 in France. They never heard anything from the government beyond that. Elizabeth "went berserk" trying to find out what happened to her brother, Vanicek said, sending letters to anyone that might have some answers. A priest from Chicago reached out to the family the following year to confirm that Wosoba died Nov. 11 and told them he was the army chaplain who was by his side while he was still alive. The priest wrote that Wosoba was unable to be moved to triage because of ongoing gunfire and had died on the battlefield, buried near where he was killed.
"Grandma could not stand the thought of her boy staying there," Vanicek said.
So, Josephine Wosoba requested her son's body be sent home. When his body arrived in 1921, Wosoba was reburied in Mayflower Cemetery in Oxford Junction near other fallen soldiers, one from the same company. Vanicek said a story in the local paper at the time reported "many, many cars" were a part of the military funeral processional, nearly a mile long.
“When the body came back, that was a big one, it was for Grandma, too,” he said of the closure his family felt after Wosoba's body was returned, but he said for military families, the hardest part is not knowing what happened to their loved ones. To this day, Vanicek isn't quite sure how his uncle was killed.
“Was he in the trenches? Did he stand up and get hit?," he said.
Vanicek said the death of his uncle and other soldiers from his hometown was a reminder that "freedom isn't free," and as a veteran himself, having served four years active duty with three of them aboard the U.S.S. Valley Forge aircraft carrier during the Korean Conflict, Vanicek knows the cost of war. He said his service was "a great experience" and one that he wouldn't trade for "a million dollars."
"I always wanted to be in the Navy," he said.
Vanicek has many stories to share about Iowa's soldiers involved in wars throughout history, and wrote about his uncle this month for The Oxford Junction Post, the community's newsletter, in honor of Veterans Day. Gathering stories and sharing them is a way he said he can preserve history for the next generation.
"I tried to write it for the rest of the family," he said.