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RIP Mary (Strank) Pero, sister of Sgt. Michael Strank, who taught me about a mother’s grief in WWII

Sgt. Michael Strank, in the rear, was killed in action just weeks after

this photo was taken.

Approximately 11 years ago, I wrote a magazine story about Marine Sgt. Michael Strank, a native of Franklin, Pa., in suburban Johnstown. Sgt. Strank was the leader of a unit that captured Mount Suribachi and then raised the flag over the area in an iconic image that was captured by an AP photographer and sent across the world.

The photo elevated the spirits of Americans who were desperately hoping that their sons would return home to America and enjoy the post-war country with their families. The unfortunate part of this story is that Strank never returned, and the shock of that was devastating to his family, particularly to his mother.

I was seeking some family members to talk about him, and the editor of Johnstown Magazine at the time, Katrina Petrosky, provided me with the name of his sister, Mary (Strank) Pero. I called her and asked if she would be willing to talk about Mike and the family. She readily agreed, and I embarked upon a trip to Davidsville, where she was living.

The youngest in the family

Mary was the baby sister, about 13 years younger than Mike, whom she came to idolize. She was only six-years-old when he entered the U.S. Marine Corps in 1939. In just six years, Mike had demonstrated his leadership skills and became a sergeant, one beloved by his men at Iwo Jima.

Last week, Mary passed away in Davidsville at the age of 89, and I will never forget her kindness — and frankness — in talking to me about her brother and her family. This was obviously very emotional for her, and she was bout 78 at the time, although I thought that she was younger.

According to reports, Mike was the valedictorian of his class in high school at Franklin High School (now part of the Conemaugh Valley School District). He was the son of Vasil and Martha Strank and has immigrated to the U.S. with his mother when he was 2. Vasil had come earlier to find a job and save money for the trip for his wife and child.

However, young people ain the 1930s and 40s did not have access to financial aid, and Mary recalled that Mike had few opportunities to further his education,

Even my kids have asked me why I didn't go to college. I wanted to be a nurse, but those scholarships and (loans and financial aid) were not there like they are today.

Interview with Mary Pero, 2011

RIP Mary (Strank) Pero, (1933-1922)

Mike’s break came with one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s alphabet programs, the CCC [Civilian Conservation Corps]. That program permitted men between the ages of 18 and 25 who could not find a job to take one in a public works program.

That ultimately led him to the Marines.

Grief of the mothers

What I am so grateful for with Mary Pero was that she related how difficult life was for the Stranks after their son’s death in the war. They were proud when the photo became so popular in February, but they did not realize at the time that Sgt. Michael Strank was one of those six men.

The six Marines who raised the flag were part of the 28th Regiment, Second Battalion, Fifth Division. They were known as “Easy Company,” which consisted of approximately 250 men who were preparing for the invasion of Iwo Jima.

However, on March 1, Mike was killed allegedly by friendly fire while planning an escape from the Japanese. After that, Mary explained how the families were informed about the dreadful news,

At that time, you got a telegram, and the Western Union brought a telegram. 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)."

Interview with Mary Pero, 2011

Mary did not see this happen with her mother,

I was in school, and when I came home, the kitchen was full of our neighbors. I just sat there. Nobody comforted me or anything. They were comforting my mother and dad because they felt bad that one of the boys was killed.

When I came in, someone said, 'Your brother was killed.' I just sat in the corner and was nervous, too. (Everyone else) was comforting my mother and dad. The house was full of neighbors.

Interview with Mary Pero, 2011

Mary was 12-years-old at the time, but she had to deal with her grief in a solitary, personal way. She did not explain it that way, but she was emotional remembering how she felt at the time.

The pain felt by his parents

Mary explained what she saw with her parents after Mike’s death,

This was all so hard on my parents. They really never got over it. Things would be quiet, and then there would be something else come up. Since they were older, it made them nervous to go to (public ceremonies), but they went. It was nerve-wracking for them.

My mother cried a lot. 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.

Interview with Mary Pero, 2011

Martha Strank helped with the bond drives that the U.S. Treasury Department had conducted to pay for the war.


The time that Mary particularly treasured came about because of an illness that Mike suffered in 1943 after a bloody battle in 1943. He returned home for a month to recuperate, and Mary, then 10, remembered that time very well,

That is what I have my memories of. (Most of) what I know now is from what my other brothers and my mother telling me.

Interview with Mary (Strank) Pero, 2011


This is another story for another time. Michael Strank was never a U.S. citizen until 2008, and Mary accepted his papers,

For more than 60 years the Marine Corps has proudly told the story of Sgt. Michael Strank and the five other warriors who raised the flag at Iwo Jima.

Turns out they were telling part of the story all wrong.

A 73-year oversight was rectified Tuesday when immigration authorities posthumously presented citizenship papers to a relative of Strank, the oldest of the six flag raisers and the first to be killed in combat as the Iwo Jima battle raged on.

The ceremony set the record straight on the citizenship of Strank, a native of Jarabenia, Czechoslovakia, who came to the United States in 1922 at age 3 …

What's more, the Marines' official biography of Strank mistakenly described him as a born U.S. citizen. The error will be corrected, officials said.

During a ceremony Tuesday at the Iwo Jima Memorial, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services director Jonathan Scharfen presented citizenship papers to Strank's younger sister, Mary Pero.

Matthew Barakat, “Iwo Jima flag raiser gets citizenship papers,”

Associated Press, July 29, 2008

How did he enter the Marines without papers? They apparently believed that he was a natural=born citizen.

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