When he was just a young boy, Patrick Dewane often wondered about his grandfather who served for many years overseas as a Lieutenant Colonel during World War II. Described as a gruff, old Czech-American who often kept to himself, Matt Konop also kept to himself the secrets of his time at war. Not one to relive his haunting past, Konop never relinquished his heavy burden to any family members. However, 20 years after his death, a poignantly detailed, unpublished memoir recounting his journey through Europe happened to surface. For Dewane, this was just the first of many serendipitous discoveries that took him on a journey from a small town in rural Wisconsin through the streets of Europe, chasing the ghost of his heroic grandfather and for material for his one-man play, The Accidental Hero.
Timing is everything
Twenty-five miles east of the bustling city of Green Bay, Wis., sits the one-intersection village of Stangelville. A Catholic church and a meat market sit at the corner of County Roads Ab and J, and the atmosphere of Czechoslovakia still lingers. In the early 1900s, Matt Konop, born Matěj, Czech for Mathias, lived among a traditional Czech farming enclave and didn’t learn the English language until he was 6 years old.
“It was as if someone cut out a chunk out of Czechoslovakia, airlifted it across the ocean, and planted it in eastern Wisconsin,” Dewane said. “He was raised according to the same Czech customs, religion, farming practices, and heard all of the old stories.”
A second-generation American, Konop worked on a lesser farm, wore lesser clothing, and lived within minimal means. Plagued with the embarrassment of his Czech background, he grew up with the shameful stigma of being poor. Desperate to shake his heritage and assimilate into American culture, Konop worked under a branch of the federal government replanting the northern Wisconsin woods. Many years and three children later, Konop, at age 40, received a letter insisting that he enlist in the Army.
“The letter basically said that he had better enlist or he would lose his job,” Dewane said. “He enlisted almost exactly a year before Pearl Harbor was attacked. Timing was never his strong suit.”
The one-year enlistment sent Konop, his wife, and three small children to the warmth of San Antonio, Texas, but it didn’t take long for him to realize that the Army wasn’t for him. However, just days before he was set to return to civilian life in rural Wisconsin, his leave was cancelled.
In the peaceful, early hours of December 7, 1941, a swarm of Japanese fighter planes invaded the Hawaiian island of Oahu, destroying 21 United States naval ships, 188 aircraft, and killing more than 2,400 Americans. With the United States officially at war, Konop was shipped off to Europe to help in the fight against the Axis powers.
“For him, I think the war was about defeating Germany, fighting for that American dream, and shedding the negative stigma of being from Czech decent,” Dewane said.
As he bid farewell to his family and looked ahead to the trials of war, little did Konop know that World War II wouldn’t be about simply preserving his future in the country he loved; but it would soon become a personal war that forced him to face his true identity.
Combat, casualties and coincidences
The year was 1945. It was spring time in eastern Germany and Konop, now four years into his deployment, was an experienced soldier with many important battles under his belt.
Instead of spending the previous Christmas with family and friends, Konop was engaged in dangerous combat in the bitterly cold Ardennes mountain region of Wallonia, Belgium. The winter was called one of the worst in the 20th century, and had Konop and his men pursuing the Nazi regime throughout the dense forest.
During a risky stakeout behind enemy lines, Konop was once again in the wrong place at the wrong time and found himself in quite a bind.
“He was captured by his own men,” Dewane chuckled. “In fact, he was captured twice during the Battle of the Bulge. His Czech accent sounded almost German and even though he was wearing an American uniform, his comrades thought he was a spy.”
Earlier in 1944, Konop was aboard an assault-style landing craft bound for the German-occupied shores of northern France. As part of an allied mission, Konop and more than 44,000 United States infantrymen assaulted Omaha Beach in Normandy. The invasion, known widely as D-Day, was an important military strike that is considered by many to be the real turning point in favor of the allied forces.
“He was there to see the Germans sinking their own ships in the harbor so Americans couldn’t use them as deep water ports,” Dewane said. “He fought alongside young men and saw bitter casualties. He saw hundreds of thousands maimed and killed.”
Springtime in 1945 was a welcome relief from the horrendously cold winter, and an 11-month stretch of what Dewane said was constant combat. Word soon came through the ranks that the allies were close to winning the war. However, Konop’s commander had one more mission in mind, a mission that would ultimately force Konop to face his past and embrace an opportunity for heroism.
Matěj, the liberator
While most children across the United States celebrated the light-hearted traditions of May Day in 1945, those still left in rural villages of what remained of German-controlled Czechoslovakia were in hiding. There was no candy exchanged, no ringing of door bells, only a secret town hall-style meeting in a remote village just west of Domažlice.
“My grandfather was celebrating the fact that the war was nearly over and he began packing his bags,” Dewane said. Konop and his camp were in southeastern Germany, just west of the Czech border. “However, much like the circumstances in 1941 when he was prepared to leave San Antonio, his time was extended yet again in the war. His commander, knowing that my grandfather was part of such a successful unit, asked him to help on one more mission. Everyone began assembling maps of the area but no one could seem to find a translator. That’s when another officer squealed on my grandfather. Very few people knew he spoke and read fluent Czech. He was then made commander of the advanced party, and they set out for Czechoslovakia.”
Still struggling to accept his Czech heritage, Konop recounts being nervous about visiting his homeland for fear that it “may be a dump,” Dewane said. “He went in fearing the worst.”
On May 3, 1945, Konop and his 500 men entered the village, and not a single person walked the streets, except for a man guarding the door to a small town hall. The man, hesitant because he noticed Konop in an American military uniform, stood on guard.
“My grandfather approached him and asked, in fluent Czech, what he was doing,” Dewane said. “He wrote that the man was in complete shock. The guard blurted out that the men inside the town hall were having a secret meeting and that they were a local resistance group.”
Suddenly, Konop was thrust into the meeting and explained that he and his troops were here to liberate their village, and the nearby town of Domažlice.
“The men just started hugging and kissing my grandfather,” Dewane said. “This was the first country seized by [Adolf] Hitler, and they had been under his rule for nearly six years. They couldn’t believe that one of their own had come back to save them.”
Several days later, Konop and his men, now joined by their entire squad, entered Domažlice. Konop wrote that Domažlice, alive with people, looked almost like that of a movie scene. Banners with his name hung from the windowsills, people were dancing in the main square, and throngs of people gathered to get a glimpse of Matěj, the liberator, as he entered the town.
“Homemade banners had his name on it and in Czech, people wrote ‘Liberated by one of our own’,” Dewane said. “It was in that moment that my grandfather was finally free of that shame nonsense that he had been carrying around. It was then that he realized that his people actually liberated him.”
When the war ended a few weeks later, Konop and his unit stayed behind until July 1945 to help residents of Domažlice pick up the pieces of their once shattered lives. When he returned to Wisconsin, Konop had four more children and fervently held on to his new passion, embracing his heritage.
The ‘Accidental Hero’
Fast forward to 2007, Dewane, a St. Mary’s University graduate with a degree in arts management, was quite settled into life in New York City. Having pondered the future of his grandfather’s unpublished account of World War II for several years, Dewane finally decided what he needed to do.
“I’ve spent my whole career in the arts industry and everyone who has heard this story was asking where the movie was,” Dewane explained. Thus, the “Accidental Hero” was born.
Dewane would travel back to Spangelville, Wis., to begin the story exactly where it started. He researched the historical context of the war, talked with many people who knew his grandfather, and made two important and eye-opening trips to what is now the Czech Republic to literally walk in the footsteps of his grandfather.
However, there was one thing that remained a tantalizing legend for much of Dewane’s life: the rumor of the existence of an old black and grayscale photo of Lt. Col. Matt Konop being hoisted on the shoulders of those he liberated in 1945.
“I was told it was in an old Czech book that was published in 1947,” Dewane said. “But, after it was published, Communism became the new order of the land and people were told that the Americans didn’t liberate them, and burned all evidence of the liberation. But, my uncle said there was a reprint inside a book that was floating around somewhere on a shelf of a bookstore.”
When Dewane was in Prague in 2007 researching the script, he, his mother, and uncle walked into a quaint bookstore. As if by some kind of divine intervention, Dewane explained, he was pulled toward a bookshelf that held the 2001 reprint of the Czech book.
“We had been searching and searching for this book and, sure enough, there it was in Prague,” Dewane said. Flipping through the pages of the book that seemed to be the missing link connecting his grandfather’s stories of tragedy and triumph, Dewane found the photo on the very last page.
Entranced by the photo, Dewane said he all of a sudden noticed what appeared to be scribbles on a corner of the photo. The scribble was his grandfather’s signature and the date September 22, 1979.
“After chasing his ghost for more than two weeks, we finally found this photo,” Dewane said. “This was his last visit to his homeland. That was him saying that he was here. Just when you don’t expect any more coincidences, he surprised us again. He’s my hero.”