In full flight from the advancing Russian army, Nazi legions pour into Kamien-Koszyrski, Poland, in November 1943. The Nazi troops invade the town in a frenzy, routing townspeople from their homes and loading them onto horse-drawn wagons – the first step in what will become a nightmare journey to a German labor camp.
Ten-year-old Tadeusz Gaweda, his parents, and seven brothers and sisters pile into a wagon with blankets, the clothes on their backs, and a few personal items. Fierce Ukrainian partisans twice ambush the convoy, killing indiscriminately.
The Gaweda family and other survivors are jammed into unheated railroad boxcars for the final leg of their hellish trip. At the work camp, Tadeusz and his little sister survive yet another attempt on their lives. They only pretend to swallow the “medicine” handed out by guards – little red pills that are actually poison.
Tadeusz and his family are rescued by advancing American GIs who liberated the camp. The soldier saviors become Tadeusz’s heroes, and by the time he emigrates to the United States in 1949, his dream is to join the United States Army.
He tries to enlist but is turned away because of his age. After working in Polish bakeries in Brooklyn and Chicago, he realizes his dream in 1953 and embarks on a thirty-five-year career in the United States Army – four tours in Korea, two in Vietnam, and combat in the Dominican Republic and Grenada.
As he rises rapidly in rank, medals, citations, badges, and other decorations cover the front of his uniform. In 1984 Gaweda reaches the pinnacle of his career when he becomes command sergeant major of the XVIII Airborne Corps, the top enlisted man among 84,000 soldiers.
This also is a continuing love story. Gaweda’s wife, Edith, whose family was forced to leave Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland after the end of World War II, met her future husband after fleeing from communist East Germany through the Berlin subway system.