TRAER — Two of John Kvidera’s older brothers enlisted in the U.S. Navy in the 1940s, and Kvidera wanted to follow in their footsteps.
Not so fast, said his father.
The family was still reeling from the death of eldest son William, presumed dead when the USS Oklahoma was bombed at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and James — who enlisted in 1944 — was somewhere in the Pacific Ocean on a troop and personnel carrier.
“I wanted to enlist,” Kvidera told the Courier. “But my dad didn’t want me to because (James) was there.”
So Kvidera and his younger brothers, Charles and Ralph, waited, helping their parents farm in the meantime. But the boys were destined for the military anyway: Kvidera was the first to be drafted into the Army in 1950, followed by Charles in 1951.
Deciding he didn’t want to await his fate any longer, Ralph enlisted in the Navy in 1952. By then, the Korean War was in full swing. Charles was shipped to Korea, while Ralph was on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific.
John Kvidera was sent in the other direction: To radio operator’s school in Wurzburg, Germany, where he learned to translate Morse code.
Kvidera said he felt “lucky” to have not gone to a war zone.
“Instead of going to wherever they were taking guys to Korea, he called my name and said, ‘Do you want to go to Germany?’ That was a surprise. I said, ‘Sure,’” Kvidera recalled in a video interview for the Grout Museum.
Once in Wurzburg, Kvidera was surprised to see several places still rebuilding from WWII-era bombing. He said he enjoyed his time there.
“I liked it there,” he said. “They were nice to us, I thought anyway.”
He and his fellow radio operator trainees stayed in concrete, two-story barracks once used by German SS troops. They’d receive messages in code from different military bases around Germany, decode them, then give them to their commanders.
“It would come in groups of five letters,” Kvidera said. “Then we’d have to decode it. Then it would make sense, tell us what the message was.”
He used a special decoder to help figure out the messages, he said.
Occasionally, they’d hear chatter from “Russians trying to break in” to the radio frequencies. Kvidera, who speaks Czech, would try diffusing the situation.
“I’d get on the mic, tell them something in Czech to keep quiet,” he said. “At that time, we weren’t very friendly with Russia. We were afraid we’d be in war with them.”
Kvidera said he never felt his life was in danger in Wurzburg, and even was able to take vacations around Europe.
“There were four of us who went to Paris, London,” Kvidera said, noting he went to several museums and Churchill Downs for horse races.
Another friend of his from Minnesota couldn’t find anyone to accompany him on a trip to Norway, so Kvidera volunteered for that one.
“That was really nice,” he said. “They were so nice to us — they saw we were Americans, they came to us and showed us around. It was really something. ... I wished I’d have stayed in contact with them.”
After 17 months, Kvidera returned home and was discharged. He married and continued farming with his family.
His brother Charles, who was in field artillery, was wounded in Korea. A cousin, Louie, was captured by the North Koreans and held as a prisoner of war for 33 months.
For Kvidera, it was a very different experience.
“I don’t know if (the military) changed me any, I just knew I had to do the job, but I just didn’t think about it any,” he said. “I tried not to miss home or anything like that.”