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Remember the war mothers -- and The Greatest Generation

Updated: Jun 1, 2023

Mrs. Esther McCabe, War Mother of the Year, 11 sons in service

On this Memorial Day, do not forget the anguish of the mothers — and the humility of the WWII generation … Martha Strank, Michael Strank, Esther McCabe, Leo (Rusty) McCabe

Memorial Day was intended to honor the military personnel who gave their lives in fighting for our country. However, it is also intended to call attention to the pain and devastation that is felt by the families of those who have had members serving during war time and suffered tremendous loss and hurt.

For instance, take the cases of two women during World War II. One woman was the mother of 11 different sons who served in the war. The other was the mother of a marine who became famous during the war but lost his life in the conflict.

People forget about the anxiety and stress felt by mothers who send their children off to war.

And then there is humility of the veterans themselves. Those who fought in World War II have been memorialized in a variety of publications, particularly Tom Brokaw’s “The Greatest Generation.” The most compelling trait of these people is their humility, which today is so precious.

Here is a short piece about those two mothers and their son or sons based upon magazine stories that I had written about them over the past decade+.

Martha Strank

She eventually became known as a Gold Star Mother, but it was a terrible yoke that she carried throughout the last few decades of her life. Martha Strank immigrated to the United States from Czechoslovakia with her 2-year-old son Michael after her husband, Vasil, had sent money back to have them join him there.

Vasil had arrived in America in 1919, an immigrant from Eastern Europe who heard about the wonderful opportunities in America. He had no skills but possessed a work ethic and desire to succeed. His uncle, Alex Yarina, had sponsored Vasil and had found a job for him in the coal mines of Western Pa.

Michael was the eldest child, and he accompanied his mother more than two years later.

The Stranks eventually had three more children in America as Vasil saved his money from his hard labor in the coal mines and was able to buy a house at 121 Pine Street in Franklin Borough in Cambria County.

It was in this home that Martha Strank heard the most devastating news of her life.

Michael Strank

Today, Michael Strank is remembered for being the leader of a group of Marines who raised the flag on Mount Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima. That iconic image that was captured by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal was used for the sculpture of the U.S. Marines memorial in Washington, D.C., and it pleased the American public in 1945 because it indicated that perhaps the war in the Pacific was ending.

The battle for Iwo Jima started in Feb. 1945 as 70,000 American troops, many of them marines, landed so that they could take away the air strip that the Japanese were using to attack American troops.

The casualties were horrific as 26,000 Americans lost their lives, 6,800 of them in the 36-day battle to win the island. More than 20,000 Japanese fighters were also killed.

Raising the flag

The iconic photo of the six men raising the flag over Mount Sirabachi was taken on Feb. 23, 1945. The carnage finally ended on March 26.

The photo energized the spirits of Americans, but the fighting in the Pacific did not end until after the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in April. Instead, President Harry S. Truman ended the conflict by forcing the Japanese to surrender in August after dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August.

Death of Sgt. Michael Strank

On March 1, Mike Strank was killed while planning an escape from the Japanese. Shortly after that, the U.S. military informed Martha Strank of the death of her eldest child, the one who came across the Atlantic with her more than 25 years earlier.

In an interview with Strank’s sister, Mary Strank Pero, in her Davidsville home a number of years ago, she explained the heartbreak that her parents, particularly her mother, suffered after learning of his death. "At that time, you got a telegram, and the Western Union brought a telegram," she said. "Everybody on the street had boys in the service. When they saw this telegram man coming, they were all shaking in their shoes. 'Where's he going to stop?' That was terrible. So, when the man came to our house, and my mother saw him with the telegram, she just started shaking all over. She said, 'Mister, would you please open that? I think it's about my son.' He told her that he was not allowed to open it, but if she would open it, then he would read it. She passed out when she heard (about Mike's death)."

The sad part of this is that at the time of the notification, the family did not realize that Mike was one of the six Marines in that photo that had been sent back to the states and appeared in papers nationwide just a few weeks earlier. They did not know that until they received a call from a local newspaper informing them of that fact.


Martha Strank never fully recovered from the death of Michael, but in time, she was able to cope with life a little better. "They really never got over it. Things would be quiet, and then there would be something else come up,” Mary Pero said about her parents. “Since they were older, it made them nervous to go to (public ceremonies), but they went. It was nerve-wracking for them."

The parents were asked to participate in bond drives that helped support the war effort. The U.S. Treasury Department was tasked with taking advantage of the popularity of that photograph to raise more money for the effort.

While they did travel to these events, it was a spiritual event that helped Martha cope with the devastation of losing her son. “"My mother cried a lot," Mary recalled. "She told me this story. She said that she had this dream about Mike coming back to her, and he said, 'Mom, you're crying too much, and I don't have peace.' After she had that dream, somehow she was not crying as much."


Vasil Strank, then 65, passed away in 1964, but Martha lived until 1976, dying at the age of 75. They were members of the Holy Trinity Greek Catholic Church in Conemaugh.

Ironically, Sgt. Michael Strank was not recognized as an American citizen when he heroically fought for the United States. In 2008, the U.S. government presented citizenship papers, posthumously, to Mary Pero at the Iwo Jima Memorial.

Technically, he became a U.S. citizen when his father was naturalized in 1935. However, he never received those citizenship papers, yet he was allowed to enter the Marines without them as the U.S. prepared for WWII.

Esther McCabe

While Esther McCabe never became a Gold Star Mother, she nevertheless went to bed each night worrying about her sons serving in World War II — and later saw the devastation wrought by war in two of her sons.

Esther was the mother of 12 children, 11 of them boys. All 11 served in the U.S. military during World War II. Eight served in the U.S. Army, two in the navy, and one in the merchant marines. While they all returned to their hometown of Lilly, Pa., two of them suffered debilitating injuries, called shell-shock or battle fatigue. Shell shock is defined by Merriam-Webster as a “psychological disturbance caused by prolonged exposure to active warfare, especially being under bombardment.” Today, it would have probably been diagnosed as a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). One was a teacher before, but he could never return to the work force.

The sons lived with Mrs. McCabe after the war, so they were a daily reminder of the terrible toll that war wracks on people.

As a result of her 11 sons serving, Esther was named the Nation’s Number 1 Mother by an organization called the War Mothers in the United States. This was a group founded in 1917 during World War I. Its purpose was “to nurture and develop the spirit of world service and to engage in patriotic work, including assisting the men and women who served and were wounded in United State conflicts,” according to Social Networks and Archival Context.

Esther also received an award as Pennsylvania’s “Number 1 War Mother” from the Pa. Newspaper Publisher’s Association.

[I wrote a story about Mrs. McCabe for a national magazine 11 years ago. The URL is below.]

Esther McCabe was a courageous woman

In 1889, Thomas and Alice Scanlan welcomed their daughter Esther. They lived south of Lilly in an area of Washington Township called Scanlan’s Hill. She earned her teacher’s certification from what is now Indiana University of Pa., then called Indiana Normal School, as did two of her sisters, Ruth Scanlan and Margaret Scanlan McGivney.

However, after she and her husband, Emmett, had their first child in 1909, she became a full-time mother. In 1933, her husband was killed when he was hit by a train. Since he was a United Mine Workers (UMW) organizer, some had theorized that he had been killed in that accident under suspicious means. Some believed that he was thrown into the path of the train. After that, Esther had to raise her children alone.

As a result, Esther moved back home to Scanlan Hill. “They used to get a couple acres plowed every year. They would bring in a horse and plow to get the land ready. They had a real big garden and called it ‘The Farm,’ “ Jim McCabe of Glendale Heights, Ill., who was the only serving child, said in a 2007 interview. “She was a very good Catholic. I thought a lot of her. She was evidently pretty smart to be able to raise all of us. She was a great woman.”

Jim became a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Navy.

Humility of WWII vets: Leo (Rusty) McCabe

One of the most heart-warming aspects of the Esther McCabe story outside her own challenges was that of a man whom I knew in my formative years. He was one of those 11 sons, and Leo (Rusty) rose to the rank of corporal in the U.S. Army. During 1944 and ’45, he fought in Europe, including the Battle of Normandy, D-Day, on June 6, 1944. He served with an anti-aircraft artillery battalion in Northern France, the Rhineland, the Ardennes, and Central Europe.

However, when he returned home from the war, he declined to discuss his exploits. Even his family did not realize how much of a contribution he had made to the victory in Europe. “Never once did her bring it up. That is why we were so shocked when we found out about it,” Leo’s eldest daughter, Linda, said about her father’s awards.

Linda discovered them after cleaning out his belongings after he passed away in 2007.

Tucked away were five Bronze Stars, the European-African-Middle Eastern Theater Service Medal, and the Distinguished Unit Badge. I interviewed Leo, whom we all called Rusty, in 2004 for a column about his mother. He never mentioned any of those awards at that time, either. “We all got home from the war in one piece,” he said about himself and his ten brothers. “When we got home, we never talked about the war much. We just considered ourselves lucky to make it home alive.”

That is called humility, never bragging, even to your children, about your accomplishments. That is why they are called The Greatest Generation.

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