RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas –
A missing-man flyover of Praha, Texas, by T-38 Talons from Team Randolph's 560th Flying Training Squadron Sunday during Veterans Day ceremonies holds special significance.
That's because the town, with a population of about 24, is considered a shrine among south central Texas veterans who live in the largely Czech - and German-settled rolling farm and ranch country between Houston and San Antonio.
Huffington Post writer Jim Moore said Praha, three miles southeast of Flatonia, which lies about an hour east of San Antonio on IH-10, is largely a ghost town now.
It's dominated by the Church of St. Mary's Assumption, which is flanked by a church hall, some houses and a pristinely-kept cemetery, in which nine of its young men who perished in World War II lie. It's a town whose population never exceeded 100 people any time during the 20th Century.
"Praha provides old soldiers a measurement of sorts for concepts like the price of freedom," Moore wrote in 2005.
So much so that a local veterans association sponsors a yearly memorial on Veterans Day or on the Sunday preceding it. It's one of the largest events in Texas commemorating Veterans Day and is held adjacent to Praha's church and cemetery. About 1,000 people attended Sunday's observance.
The memorial ceremonies honor both living veterans, many who came now grown gray-haired with age, and those who stayed forever young because they died defending freedom.
That freedom is protected by air warriors like the pilots from the 560th FTS who passed over the cemetery at 11 a.m. Lt. Cols. Darryl Parkinson, Mark Arnold, James Egbert and spare pilot Dan Ferris were flying aircraft numbered one through three and number five --- and Maj. Paul Songy and Lt.Col. James Joyce flew number four .
Lt. Col. Stacey Knutzen, who attended the ceremony with his young son Jackson, served as the ground forward air controller in Praha.
Colonel Parkinson, 560th FTS deputy for operations, said when he heard the tasking for the flyover was on its way to him to organize, he didn't know much about Praha and the town's World War II history, so he searched the Web for information. He soon found the article by Moore, which explained how the boys from Praha, who then numbered around a tenth of the town's population, perished starting in 1944.
Pfc. Robert Bohuslav," Moore's article said, "died Feb. 3, 1944, after Patton's and Rommel's tanks had already driven deep into North Africa, and the worst of the combat had passed. Three more sons of Praha went down in France, beginning the week after D-Day. The War Department sent notices of death to the families of Pfc. Rudolph L. Barta, June 16; 1944; Pfc. George D. Pavlicek, July 7, 1944; and Pfc. Jerry B. Vaculik, July 23, 1944. In Italy, Pfc. Adolph E. Rab became a casualty of war two days after Christmas 1944. Pvt. Joseph Lev, shot in the stomach during the attack of Luzon Island, died July 24, 1944. Pfc. Anton Kresta Jr.'s life ended in that same tropical theater on Feb. 12, 1945. On Sept. 7, 1944, Pvt. Eddie Sbrusch was lost at sea in the Pacific. Nineteen days later, Pfc. Edward J. Marek died in battle at Pelelieu Island."
"All their lives were lost, ironically, as an Allied victory appeared inevitable," Moore
Colonel Parkinson, who began planning the flyover after reading Moore's article to get a feel for the ceremony said that the extra history cited in Moore's article made the flyover "extra special" for him.
"I sent the story down to the rest of the team," the colonel said, referring to his fellow squadron mates in the missing-man formation. "I said, 'You need to read this article.'"
Colonel Parkinson flew a jet Nov. 6 over Praha to make a pre-flyover reconnaissance. It took 12 minutes to get there, he said. He also put together an "approval package" he forwarded up his chain of command so they could look at the plan of execution for the flyover, which happened at 1,000 feet above the cemetery.
"One of these takes a lot of coordination," he said.
Sunday morning came with perfect flying weather. Parkinson's team executed a planned 10:20 a.m. take off, got into a holding pattern over nearby Smithville, and precisely at 11 a.m., streaked through blue skies over Praha.
"Look, here they come now," said retired Air Force Brig. Gen. James Freytag of the Praha All Veterans Memorial Day Association, who introduced the flyover.
As the crowd of veterans, high school band members, families, children and dignitaries on the stand in their VFW, American Legion, Marine Corps League and Vietnam Veterans of America uniforms looked up, one T-38 peeled away above the church's steeple, signifying the nine men lost forever whose remains lay in the nearby flag-lined cemetery adjacent to a World War II memorial with pictures of the nine on it.
The living veterans in Praha appreciated the flyover.
Bernard Svatek of Flatonia and American Legion Post 94, a Vietnam-era veteran, said the flyover was a great thing.
"Having the Air Force flyover is altogether different from the prop planes of the Commemorative Air Force flying over," Mr. Svatek said. "It's a beautiful sight -- on a beautiful day."
The flyover and celebration was significant to Daniel Jasek of Moulton and American Legion Post 392 who served with the 1st Armored Division in the Korean War.
"I think it's wonderful," Mr. Jasek said, who added that when America calls upon its citizens to do so, it's their duty to defend freedom.
"Life as an American isn't all about fun," he said.
He was looking toward the cemetery, where he'd blown "Taps" many time over the graves of the nine servicemen who lay there, as he said it.
"It's one of the peaking events of my career," Colonel Parkinson said of the flyover. "We're always honored and privileged to do this. And I've got to say, doing this is one of the best things about this job."