Duckler: The soldier’s uniform spoke to the veteran, the ensuing photograph speaks to everyone

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  • Carl Lakowicz reads at the the memorial service for his father, U.S Army Ranger Michael Lakowicz at the New Hampshire Veterans Cemetery for the former POW on Thursday, October 7, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Concord’s Aaron Chase holds some of the medals received by former POW Michael Lakowicz during their 2018 meeting. Courtesy

  • The United States flag and flowers arrangement for U.S Army Ranger Michael Lakowicz at his memorial service at the New Hampshire Veterans Cemetery for the former POW on Thursday, October 7, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The United States flag and urn for U.S Army Ranger Michael Lakowicz brought in by a color guard at the New Hampshire Veterans Cemetery for the former POW on Thursday, October 7, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • A memorial service was held for U.S Army Ranger Michael Lakowicz at the New Hampshire Veterans Cemetery for the former POW on Wednesday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • This 2018 photo of former Army Ranger Michael Lakowicz saluting Concord’s Aaron Chase has taken on special meeting. Courtesy

  • The memorial service for U.S Army Ranger Michael Lakowicz at the New Hampshire Veterans Cemetery for the former POW on Thursday, October 7, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The urn for U.S Army Ranger Michael Lakowicz brought in by a color guard at the New Hampshire Veterans Cemetery for the former POW on Thursday, October 7, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Carl Lakowicz holds the flag he received at a service for his father, U.S. Army Ranger Michael Lakowicz, at the New Hampshire Veterans Cemetery in Boscawen on Oct. 7. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • The memorial service for U.S Army Ranger Michael Lakowicz at the New Hampshire Veterans Cemetery for the former POW on Thursday, October 7, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Chase and Lakowicz in 2018. Lakowicz died earlier this month. Chase is stationed in North Carolina. Courtesy

  • Michael Lakowicz, Jr. touches the urn at memorial service for his father, U.S Army Ranger Michael Lakowicz at the New Hampshire Veterans Cemetery for the former POW on Thursday, October 7, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor columnist
Published: 10/10/2020 1:26:55 PM

Something touched former Army Ranger Michael Lakowicz two years ago at his home, an assisted living facility in Penacook.

By then, at 94, the old war horse had trouble recalling names and recognizing faces. He certainly wasn’t familiar with the 23-year-old, fresh-faced recruit from Concord – a family friend’s son – who stopped by the facility in 2018, wondering if he, too, should join the Army Rangers.

Aaron Chase expected a handshake and perhaps some inspiration from the former POW, whom he’d never met. Then, a moment, caught by a cellphone. Chase, a full-blown Army Ranger these days, commanding 90 soldiers at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, walked into Lakowicz’s living room.

“This is an officer,” said Lakowicz, suddenly sharp, without skipping a beat.

He rose to his feet. Chase extended his hand.

And, in a matter of seconds, maybe a split second, after Lakowicz had noticed the familiar shades and shapes of Chase’s Army fatigues, after his sense of loyalty and loss, created 75 years ago while fighting the Nazis, had returned in clear light, his instincts kicked in.

“He gave him a proper salute,” Michael’s son, Carl Lakowicz of Chichester, told me by phone last week. “The photo just happened. It wasn’t posed.”

Check it out, the story it tells, shot by Carl in 2018. He had told me his dad, who lived in Pembroke, died last month at the age of 96 and would be buried with full military honors at the State Veterans Cemetery in Boscawen. The funeral was held last Wednesday and included an Honor Guard, an ear-splitting gun salute, taps and rain.

But there were stories within that story, and this one popped out: A suggestion by Carl that this chance meeting two years ago and the impact it had might be worth looking into.

He had the photo to prove it. Perhaps it could be part of the story. The Ranger-in-training who sought and found someone to bring to life the Rangers and their legendary reputation for toughness.

The photo is shown in front of framed family pictures, a license plate revealing that Michael earned a Purple Heart, and the POW/MIA flag, draped over the back of a chair.

It’s a personal Iwo Jima moment, on a smaller scale, of course, yet still creating a powerful vision of allegiance and sacrifice, much like Joe Rosenthal’s immortal shot of the flag raising by U.S. Marines on Iwo in 1945.

“This photo is symbolic to all of us as we find it to be a salute from the greatest generation to the next greatest generation,” Carl wrote in an email to me. “Several other photos were taken during their time together that day. My father was particularly pleased to learn that Lt. Chase was on his way to become a Ranger, too.”

Captured in Europe

Michael was a member of the elite 1st Battalion, called Darby’s Rangers, a fast-moving unit of commandos with training in the air, the ocean and the sky.

During the Italian Campaign of 1944, Michael and hundreds of other Rangers were captured and held by the Germans for 14 months. He later received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. Meanwhile, his days as a POW got lost. Michael wanted it that way.

He chose to keep his time as a POW hidden. A lot of these former POWs from that era did the same thing, only opening up as the years went past.

Then, in 1989, while looking through paperwork to apply for government benefits after his father’s retirement, Carl found dog tags with German writing on them. He grew curious.

“I said, ‘You were captured?’ ” Carl told me, “and he said no and he gave me that look. He shut me down, and that conversation ended.”

Dad was a strict disciplinarian, a Darby’s Ranger, after all. So even though Congress had created the POW Medal in the mid-1980s, the topic was dropped.

There had been signs in years past, though, that something left unsaid dwelled inside Michael. He left the room if his wife, Edith, who died in 2008, boiled potatoes, the smell pushing him back to imprisonment. He laughed a mean, stiff laugh when American POW’s made their German captors look foolish on the 1960s TV show “Hogan’s Heroes.”

“Everyone got quiet and we’d go someplace else and he’d watch and bust a gut,” Carl said. “We never knew why it was so important to him. He was watching these antics but he really did not laugh. This was haunting him.”

Give the man his due

Then, in 2006, 17 years after finding the POW tags, Carl changed his mind. He wanted to know what had happened to his dad, growing more concerned with his father getting the recognition he deserved than receiving one of those intimidating looks from him.

“I honored his wishes not to ask,” Carl said. “I let it sit, but I thought I had to resolve this. I thought he was too old to beat me up.”

Michael’s children – Carl has an identical twin named Michael Jr. – made sure their father got the recognition he deserved. They did the research, fact finding and paperwork needed to secure the medal. Former Monitor reporter Meg Heckman, now an assistant professor at Northeastern, covered the ceremony in 2007, honoring Michael as a former POW.

She discovered some of the cruel details, the unthinkable, that this POW had endured. She reported that the Rangers had come ashore under the cover of darkness, neck deep in water.

Wrote Heckman, “They marched, dripping wet, through rows of beach houses, abandoned so quickly by German soldiers that fresh food remained on the tables. . . When it became clear American reinforcements weren’t coming, hundreds of German troops emerged from hiding.”

She said Michael had existed on “watery potato soup and thin slices of brown bread.”

Home, retirement,memories of war

The Allies freed the Rangers in the spring of 1945. Michael came home, got married, had kids, worked odd jobs, in maintenance and small-engine repair.

Fast forward, and a Concord kid named Aaron Chase was in grade school when Michael got his POW Medal. He graduated from Concord High and was an honor student at the University of Maine.

He enrolled in the United States Army Officer Candidate School. He graduated, again with honors. As a second lieutenant, he chose a career in infantry/military intelligence.

He thought about the Rangers, too, however, and he was in luck. His father, Brian, was old buddies with Carl, going back to their days as Concord cops nearly 40 years ago.

“I spoke with Aaron about the amazing, and widely unknown, background of Carl’s dad,” Brian Chase said in an email. “We, as parents, never realized just how poignant that special meeting would be.”

At the time, Michael had slowed down. “Carl said his dad had been lethargic for days,” Brian said.

Carl picked Aaron up and the two went to see Michael. Carl worried that his father, this once vibrant Army Ranger, might not respond with any emotion, or enthusiasm, or some sort of signal saying he understood the magnitude of the meeting, that a young career officer was seeking advice about a career path.

It turns out, however, that Army fatigues, like photos, are worth a thousand words. At least in this case they were.

“Dad picked up on the uniform right away,” Carl said. “He stepped back into his old training days, in an instant, and presented that salute. I was like, ‘You have to be kidding me.’ ”

Added, Brian Chase, “Aaron will never forget that day, nor will he ever forget the thrill of meeting his hero.”

Aaron and Michael sat together for an hour. They talked about honor. They talked about sacrifice. They talked about what it takes – and means – to be an Army Ranger.

“He had not fully decided if that was the route he wished to pursue,” Brian said. “However, the meeting with Carl’s dad changed any doubt in Aaron’s mind.”

The story continued last week. Aaron, at Fort Bragg, was unavailable for comment. He sent an email to Carl shortly after Michael’s death that read:

“Tough news to hear about your dad. My heart and thoughts are with you. I am truly inspired that I could meet with a man with such an inspiring history and who has experienced true excellence in our profession.”

Respect for the man was on display at his funeral. Veterans, 12 in all, stood tall against 12 granite pillars. They wore leather jackets and vests, medals clearly visible on their chests.

A three-man Honor Guard escorted Michael’s urn to a table covered in red velvet and orange flowers. Carl spoke to the gathering of about 25 people. He read a poem and reflected on his dad’s 14-month ordeal at the hands of German POW-camp leaders, who forced him to march for miles as the Nazis fled the advancing Russians from the east.

The gunshots of respect rang out, taps played and the pitter-patter of rain drops grew louder against the tops of umbrellas.

Carl and his twin brother, Michael Jr., were given the tightly folded American flags. That story ended when cars filed through the entrance, onto Route 3.

Meanwhile, a photograph – this photograph – lives on, solid and stable like the granite base of the Iwo Jima Memorial.

Aaron’s face is partially covered by his saluting right hand, but his camouflage fatigues set a nice tone for the photo. So does the display in the background, of marriages and medals.

But the eyes have it, telling the plot in this story within a story like nothing else shown. The old wardog, near the end of his life, a time when his memory had faded, standing, straightening, saluting, knowing.

“He didn’t know him from a hole in the wall,” Carl said. “But he recognized him as an officer, as one of his own, and Aaron was going to shake his hand. My father stepped back, then saluted.”

Everything clicked that day.

Including a camera.




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