More than 650 men and women from the Yoakum area posed in front of cameras in their respective military uniforms during World War II. Their expressions were joyful, serious or thoughtful, and their body language was relaxed, stiff or elegant. They all shared a youthful glow, and they all looked like their whole lives were ahead of them.
These black-and-white photographs, both large and small, comprise an exhibit, “A Beautiful Salute to Yoakum’s Own WWII Military Heroes,” which the Yoakum Heritage Museum will display through the end of July. The museum also will host a closing reception featuring a concert pianist playing patriotic music on a restored 1920s piano, singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and dining on light hors d’oeuvres from 1 to 4 p.m. July 28.
World War II U.S. Army Air Corps 2nd Lt. Navigator John Quast, 96, of Yoakum, visited the museum Monday.
“It makes people think of what the military did for this country, especially in this area,” Quast said. “A lot of men were in the service.”
Quast was born in Yoakum, moved to Houston at age 7 and moved back in 1980 with Marguerite Quast to whom he has been married for 74 years.
He joined the war effort “to beat them to it” because the draft was in effect and he always wanted to fly airplanes. He trained to become a navigator and a radio operator, and a week before he was scheduled to fly overseas with his crew, the Corps made him an instructor at Langley Field in Virginia. Navigating involved a lot of math, so he attributed his assignment to his strong math skills. He served for three years and spent two of those years training at least five cadets daily to navigate four-engined B-24 bombers.
“The exhibit encourages others to join the service to help our country, to fly to war if we have to go again,” Quast said. “We don’t have the draft anymore, so we have to depend on guys to join, and nowadays they get money for college.”
Quast lost friends during the war and said he was “blessed not to be sent overseas.”
“I learned a lot of discipline in the service – if the boss said something, you got to do it because it keeps you in line with what’s going on,” Quast said. “I’m glad I’m alive.”
Quast joked that he and his wife have “helped the population go on” with four daughters and 50 immediate family members, including grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
The exhibit was made possible by William Browning who owned W.T. Browning and Co., a men’s clothing store in Yoakum, during World War II. He sent letters to the local servicemen and servicewomen whose addresses he knew and many care packages. He asked their families to send photographs of them for a display in his store, which opened in 1912. When the store closed in 1954, the large glass cases featuring 800 photographs were moved to the American Legion, then to the library and finally to the museum, now located in what was once the Browning home. In the 1980s, Mary Bell Browning deeded the historic home built in the early 1900s to the Yoakum Heritage Museum after her husband’s death.
Museum volunteers Rosemary and Dennis Havlik undertook the task of salvaging the photographs from shards of broken glass and what remained of the old wooden cases. They individually bagged all of the photographs, alphabetized them and placed them in three legal boxes. When Laura Henson, executive director of the museum, discovered the boxes, the idea for the exhibit was born.
“We decided to have the exhibit because this is such a treasure trove of pictures, and just such a fabulous find,” Henson said. “The official information done by the Browning Store – there is no way we could later have been able to get all of that information on that many people in the service, so it’s an amazing thing, and there were quite a few women, nurses, in the war effort, too.”
At the museum, more than 650 of the collection of 800 photographs are mounted with T-pins to 18 insulation screens covered in royal blue paper. About 35 volunteers who are familiar with the community culled through the images to find the men and women originally from Yoakum because there was not enough space in the museum to display them all. Many of those not featured are from surrounding areas. The images are mounted on red and gray cardstock, and the names, ranks and other specifics about the soldiers are included under each of them.
Henson noted the special connection between the images and the Browning house, now the museum, where the exhibit is on display: “They were the retailers who asked for the photographs, and they were so involved in the war effort.”
“Visitors from Poland came down the stairs with tears in their eyes,” Henson said. “They didn’t know anyone from our community, but we have a wealth of unbelievable pictures.”
Larry Jirkovsky, 62, was born and lived in Yoakum until 1987, when he moved to Sweet Home. He attended the exhibit and said some of the faces he saw were his coaches, his neighbors and other familiar members of the community from his youth. He did not realize that many of them had served in World War II because they never talked about it. Some even fought on D-Day at Normandy.
Lt. Col. Joseph Jarmon, his backyard neighbor, served in the Army; Sgt. Geharde Baros lived across the street and served as a medic in the Army; and B.F. “Buck” Okruhlik, who lived on the corner, worked the grave detail on Omaha Beach. John Byrnes, also across the street, served in the Marines. Jirkovsky’s boss, Louis John Grubert, was a tank driver in the Army who lost three tanks on D-Day.
“After I saw some of their pictures up there, it made perfect sense ... you go out ... and only one or two come back out of 10 or 12,” Jirkovsky said. “The exhibit put into perspective their personalities, the way they were, and reinforced how great that generation was.”