Bernard John Zawila was born on 24 August 1921, in LaSalle, Illinois, to Sophia (Swobodzinski) Zawila. At the time of his birth, Bernard’s mother was a widow having lost her husband, Paul Zawila, six months earlier. When Bernard’s father died, the family had been living in Chicago where his father had been working for the McCormick Reaper Works as a laborer. In late February 1921 when Sophia was pregnant with Bernard, Bernard’s father became sick with pneumonia. Within two days he had died from the illness.
After her husband’s death, Sophia must have moved the family which included two sons and a daughter back to her hometown of LaSalle. There she gave birth in August to Bernard and faced the daunting task of raising her four small children alone. Sophia had at least nine siblings of her own. Also, both of her parents were alive at the time so perhaps her family was able to help. At some point Sophia moved her family to 1564 Fourth street in the east end of LaSalle. However, tragedy struck the family again when Bernard’s sister, Helen, passed away in 1924 from tonsillitis at the age of five.
After all of this, Sophia eventually married again becoming the wife of Joseph Swierkosz, a local man who worked at the Matthiessen & Hegeler Zinc Company. In 1926, the newly married couple welcomed Bernard’s younger brother, Aloysius “Stoney” Swierkosz. The following year, on 11 September 1927, Bernard gained a new sister, Virginia. And in September 1930, Sophia gave birth to another son, Francis. Finally, in October 1932, when Bernard was 11 years old, his mother Sophia gave birth to her youngest child, Leona. The family lived for some time at 1228 Eleventh street in LaSalle, then relocated back to the east end of LaSalle in a home at 1430 Fifth Street. Now in her 30s, Sophia concentrated on raising her seven children.
But tragically, Sophia and her children would again experience deep loss when her husband, Joseph, passed away from cancer the day after Christmas in 1933. Bernard was 12 years old when he lost his step-father—the only man he would have ever known as a father. At this age, Bernard would have been more aware as he watched his mother, Sophia, at age 36 again facing the challenge of raising small children alone. To add to their burden, the country had been plunged into a great depression. All of Sophia’s older children appear to have attended school through the 8th grade, most likely foregoing attending high school to work and help support the family.
By 1940, Sophia had again moved her family into a rented home on the same street, but a couple blocks west. All seven of her children including Bernard, sometimes known as “Ben,” were living with their mother. Sophia reported on the 1940 census she was earning income herself. Many women during this time took in laundry or sewing to make ends meet so perhaps Sophia had also done this. Possibly to help out his family by having one less mouth to feed, Bernard’s brother Paul Zawila Jr. enlisted in the U.S. Army in February of 1940.
It was within the year after Paul Jr. left for the Army that the family heard of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. And as the family watched tensions escalate across the world, they may have realized the other young men in the family may be following Paul. It would be just over a year after the bombing that Bernard registered for the draft, just two weeks after his brother Stanley enlisted in the Army. Twenty years old at the time, Bernard was 5 feet 10 ½ inches tall, weighed 155 pounds, and had blue eyes and brown hair. He was working for the Illinois Zinc Company in Peru, Illinois.
By January 1943, Bernard was in the Marines and serving as a private in Training Squadron Four, Marine Aviation Detachment, NAS in Jacksonville, Florida. By April 1943, he was in the Aviation Radio School in Florida and had been promoted to Private First Class. In July 1943, Ben was stationed at the U.S. Naval Air Station in San Diego, California, with Headquarters Squadron, Marine Fleet Air, West Coast. He held the rank of Corporal and was shown in records as having served in Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands—an area of significant conflict in the Pacific Theater.
On 4 August 1943, 20 days before his 22nd birthday, Bernard was flying aboard an aircraft in a training exercise five miles off the shore of Goleta Point in Goleta, California. The plane, piloted by 2nd Lieutenant Thomas F. Boulware, Jr., crashed. An extensive search was launched, but Bernard’s body was never recovered. At the time of his death, he was serving in HQ Squadron, Marine Aircraft Group 12, First Marine Aircraft Wing, Fleet Marine Force. Corporal Bernard Zawila would have been posthumously awarded the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, the American Campaign Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal. With his death, his mother Sophia would face the loss of yet another loved one.
Bernard’s brother Paul Zawila, Jr. did not register for the draft until 1 June 1945, possibly because he was serving in the U.S. Army when the draft was first imposed. Bernard’s other brother, Stanley, was discharged on 3 January 1946. Bernard’s half-brother, Al Swierkosz, also served in the Army in the South Pacific and later became the police chief in LaSalle, serving in the position for 8 years of his 24-year career with the department. Bernard’s mother lived out the rest of her days on Fifth street in LaSalle and passed away in 1961 at age 63.
Despite the immense challenges and losses faced by the Zawila-Swierkosz family, Bernard’s memory lives on as a testament to their resilience and sacrifice. His service and the sacrifice he made for his country will always be remembered and honored, a reminder of the countless individuals who gave their all during World War II.
This story is part of the Stories Behind the Stars project (see www.storiesbehindthestars.org). This is a national effort of volunteers to write the stories of all 421,000+ of the US WWII fallen saved on Together We Served and Fold3. Can you help write these stories? These stories will be accessible via smartphone app at any war memorial or cemetery.
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- SBTS Historian: Pam Broviak
- 1920 U.S. Census, Paul Zawilla, Ancestry.
- 1940 U.S. Census, Sophia Swierkoz, Ancestry.
- New York, U.S., Arriving Passenger and Crew Lists (including Castle Garden and Ellis Island), 1820-1957, SS Amerika, 16 November 1912, Pawel Zawila, line 5, Ancestry.
- Death Certificate, State of Illinois, Helen Zawilla, 1926, FamilySearch.
- Death Certificate, State of Illinois, Paul Zawilla, 1921, FamilySearch.
- Death Certificate, State of Illinois, Joseph Swierkosz, 1933, FamilySearch.
- U.S., City Directories, 1822-1995, LaSalle, 1926, Sophia Zawila, p. 245, Ancestry.
- U.S., City Directories, 1822-1995, LaSalle, 1960, Sophia Zawila, p. 268, Ancestry.
- U.S., City Directories, 1822-1995, LaSalle, 1926, Jos Swirkosz, p. 250, Ancestry.
- U.S., City Directories, 1822-1995, LaSalle, 1945, Bernard Zawila, p. 226, Ancestry.
- WWII Army Enlistment Records, Paul J. Zawila, Fold3.
- U.S., World War II Army Enlistment Records, 1938-1946, Stanley S. Zawila, Ancestry.
- U.S., Department of Veterans Affairs BIRLS Death File, 1850-2010, Stanley S. Zawila, Ancestry.
- U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007, Virginiai Ann Swierkosz, Ancestry.
- U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007, Francis John Swierkosz, Ancestry.
- Illinois Statewide Death Index, 1916-1950, John Swobodzinski, Cert No 0011433, Secretary of State Website.
- Illinois Statewide Death Index, 1916-1950, Marcella Swobodzinski, Cert No 0015886, Secretary of State Website.
- U.S., Marine Corps Muster Rolls, 1798-1958, Training Squadron Six, Marine Aviation Detachment, NAS., Jacksonville, Fla., 1 October to 30 October 1942, No. 314, Bernard J. Zawila, Ancestry.
- U.S., Marine Corps Muster Rolls, 1798-1958, Training Squadron Four, Marine Aviation Detachment, NAS., Jacksonville, Fla., 1 January to 31 January 1943, No. 351, Bernard J. Zawila, Ancestry.
- U.S., Marine Corps Muster Rolls, 1798-1958, Training Squadron Nine, Marine Aviation Detachment, N.A.T.T. Cen., Jacksonville, Fla., 1 April to 30 April 1943, No. 146, Bernard J. Zawila, Ancestry.
- U.S., Marine Corps Muster Rolls, 1798-1958, Headquarters Squadron, Marine Fleet Air, West Coast, U.S. Naval Air Station, San Diego, Calif., 1 July to 31 July 1943, No. 30, Bernard J. Zawila, Ancestry.
- U.S., Marine Corps Muster Rolls, 1798-1958, VMTB-134, (Forming), MBDAG–42, (Forming) MFA, WC, MCAS, Santa Barbara, Calif., 1 July to 31 July 1943, No. 46, Bernard J. Zawila, Ancestry.
- U.S., Marine Corps Muster Rolls, 1798-1958, VMTB-134, (Forming), MBDAG–42, (Forming) MFA, WC, MCAS, Santa Barbara, Calif., 1 August to 31 August 1943, No. 46, Bernard J. Zawila, Ancestry.
- “Search Fails to Find Fliers Fallen in Sea,” Arizona Republic, 7 August 1943, p. 9, Newspapers.com.
- “Aloysius Swierkosz,” obituary, The Times, Streator, Illinois, 30 November 2005, Newspapers.com.
- “IH: McCormick Reaper Works, Revisited.”