Highest honor for a ‘hero’
WWII vet to receive medals on Veterans Day for service in Europe
By Heather McDonald
Stanley Mijal stood guard, eyes peeled. Germans slithered all around, seeming to emerge from everywhere.
“I hollered at them and they wouldn’t stop, so I took my machine gun out and I mowed everything down,” Mijal said, his voice breaking in anguish, tears building behind his glasses as he remembered.
“But at that time, you were scared and did everything you could to stay alive,” he said.
It was 1944, Mijal was in a small village in France, barely older than a teen, fighting in World War II.
“I don’t know why I got home myself,” he said. “Every day, we put our lives on the line.”
Mijal previously received some recognition – a Purple Heart after sustaining a head injury Nov. 12, 1945; the Good Conduct Medal; overseas service bars.
On Saturday, Nov. 11, Veterans Day, he will be presented with others, including the Victory Medal and European-Africa- Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with one silver battle star. The French Consulat has also issued a certificate for the National Order of the Legion of Honour, the highest medal bestowed from the French government, for excellent military conduct. A ceremony to formally award that medal is expected by year’s end.
When asked what the honors mean to him, Mijal hesitated, silent in a lounge chair at his home in Stevens Point. Then he slowly lifted his hands up and out to his sides as if to shrug. One syllable escaped his mouth – “Eh” – and then the emotions took hold.
He seemingly was back in France, a 22-year-old farm boy driving a U.S. tank on a road scattered with mines – unbeknownst to him and his five-man crew – feeling the mine blow up under him on the tracking, the men climbing out “were sitting ducks,” he said, running to find cover as German bullets flew past their heads and limbs.
Mijal, 95, never wanted to join the U.S. Army. He grew up in Ringle, graduated the eighth-grade and went to work on the family farm (which still stands), caring for 30 cows and two horses on 80 acres of land; the family rented and worked another 80 acres.
He had three other brothers serving by 1943, and two younger ones at home who later served in the Korean War, when the propaganda finally lured him in.
“I was afraid to serve because it’s dangerous,” he said, “but at that time, they all advertised you gotta help save this country.”
He enlisted in September 1943, four years after France declared war on Germany. In those four years, there had been partial surrenders to Germany, several back-and-forth battles usually resulting in French retreats. In August 1942, allied forces set a date to land in the port city of Dieppe in occupied France. Operation Jubilee took place and within five and a half hours, half the tanks were lost in action.
Still, Mijal entered the 749th Tank Battalion and served as a tank driver with Company C. He landed on Omaha Beach ahead of the infantry, charged with clearing the way for them. He recalled the steep cliffs, the difficulty in climbing them while at the same time hearing mortars explode all around.
Every day, he said, it was the same.
“The Germans had a bullet (anti-tank gun, the German 88 mm) that would go right through our tanks, and it killed a few I knew,” he said. “They had machine gun fire at us all around, so we had to be careful. What can I say? It was scary.”
They made their way through France and Belgium, and crossed the Rhine River in Germany on pontoons.
“They tried to drown us,” Mijal said, recalling the mortars exploding in the water.
Ultimately, Mijal and his company ended up in Berlin. He recalls – still has the newspaper clipping – when Japan surrendered Aug. 14, 1945. “Everybody was happy,” he said. And he remembers coming home, riding on a Cavalry horse.
Over the years, Mijal kept in touch with his tank mates; one even became Mayor of Fairport, New York, a village of perhaps 4,800 at the war’s end, located southeast of Rochester.
Discharged in January 1946, Mijal took a job at Nash Motors in Chicago, and later worked for a Chevrolet dealer doing body work. “I decided ‘hey, if I can do this for someone else, I can do it for myself,’” he said.
In 1958, he set up shop in Stevens Point, and owned and operated Stan’s Body Shop on Highway 51 (now I-39), a business known by the little red Crosley car situated atop the building. He retired in 1984.
For two of Mijal’s children, Sharon Omernick and Mike Mijal, both of Stevens Point, the ceremony Saturday will be one that couldn’t happen to a more deserving person.
“It’s nice that he’s finally getting recognized for his service,” said Mike Mijal, who was in the Army Reserves in 1970. “I’m proud of him. He was in a precarious position being inside a tank … but he made it through. He did what he had to do.”
Omernick, who now is keeper of all Stan Mijal’s historical paperwork, agrees.
“I feel very proud of him, that he was there for the people. I think it’s a great honor to have a dad that did that,” she said.
Though he “has a soft heart,” his children say, Stan Mijal puts his old uniform on one arm at a time. Though it doesn’t quite button, he still straightens it, rises tall, head facing forward. The tears collect, but Mijal remains steady, stoic in his sentiments.
“You do the job that needs to be done,” he said. “I did my job.”
For France, and perhaps many more closer to home, Mijal did more than that.
“Seventy-three years ago, you gave your youth to France and the French people. Many of your fellow soldiers did not return, but they remain in our hearts,” Vincent Floreani, Consulat General of France in Chicago, says in a letter to Mijal. “Thanks to your courage and to our American Friends and allies, France and Europe have been living in peace for the past seven decades.
“You saved us,” he continues. “We will never forget. For us, the French people, you are a hero.”