History in Focus: The first Craig man to die in WWII
November 11, 2015
The life of John Levkulich was a series of "firsts." He was the first-born American son of Czech immigrants. This immigrant son was the first of his family to return to Europe and the first man from Moffat County to die during World War II.
Levkulich's parents met and married in Pennsylvania in 1917, and quickly thereafter John was born in 1918. With dogged tenacity the young couple followed the coal fields and industrial jobs of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio. By 1926 and with four kids, the Levkulich's were lured to the west by plentiful cheap land and work in the western mines. They arrived in Craig and settled in Breeze Basin. Alternating between the coal mines of Superior, Wyoming and farming in Craig the family carved out a life and hung on to their 160 acres during the depression.
Well out of high school and in a family of seven children, John entered the military in August of 1941. He was assigned to the 91st Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, a small unit of roughly 1,000 men.
Shipped to North Africa in December of 1942, Levkulich took part in Operation Torch. His small squadron was used in a fluid manner across the front. Attached to any variety of units, many times split up and sent to different areas, the 91st was the "eyes and ears" of the larger combat units by always maintaining contact with the enemy. Because of this, it is maddeningly difficult to determine exactly where John was at any given moment.
Various accounts reveal that parts of the 91st were in continuous contact with the Nazi Afrikorps for 27 days straight, many times assuming combat infantry roles. We can only imagine the uncertainty, the ebb and flow, and lack of clarity along the extreme front edge of battle. Levkulich's small squadron was literally and constantly reaching out to touch, tap and probe the enemy; always knowing its whereabouts, its strength and its dark unknown intentions.
Once the Allies pushed the Axis powers out of North Africa, the invasion of Sicily was on the horizon. Operation Husky again put Levkulich and his squadron in a variety of locations. Frustrating as it was, and with a bit of a mystery, there are precious few details of his death. I was not able to pinpoint his location, the exact circumstances, or nature of his death on July 24, 1943. Even the Craig Empire Courier of Sept. 8, 1943 could only say Levkulich "is believed to have been killed in the Sicilian campaign." Such is the death of one man in the immensity and confusion of World War II.
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But for John's mother, Mary, news of the death or her firstborn, and that her other son, Bill, had been seriously wounded was hard to take. "Those were very sad days; but somehow we had to go on working," she stated in her 1982 autobiography. War and life leave little time to mourn.
John's death brought the war to Craig and the newspaper searched for meaning: "Sgt. John Levkulich is the first man whose home is in Moffat County to make the supreme sacrifice on the battlefront that the world may be free of the cruel and barbarous tyranny of brute force."
Today, with brute force always threatening democracy and the rule of law the new WWII Memorial commissioned by the Museum of Northwest Colorado provides a proud reminder that during the uncertainty of Nazism and Fascism, Moffat County did its part by struggling through the loss of their own precious sons like John Levkulich.
James Neton teaches History at Moffat County High School. His column "History in Focus" run once a month in the Craig Daily Press.