Who was Matt Konop, the WWII ‘Accidental Hero’?
“I think of the hero as someone who understands the degree of responsibility that comes with his freedom.”
Two Rivers, Wisconsin is a small town on Lake Michigan. The population is around 12,000 and the only reason you may have heard of it is that it claims to be the birthplace of the ice cream sundae. On July 1st, 2017 a plaque was unveiled at its city hall. This plaque is an exact copy of one on the J. Hruska building in Domažlice, Czech Republic. In May of that year, they had become sister cities in honor of a citizen of both of them: a hero and the face of liberation in southern Czechoslovakia during WWII. Matt Konop, or as his grandson Patrick Dewane refers to him in his one-man play, “The Accidental Hero.”
Konop’s grandparents had immigrated from the Chodsko region of Bohemia in the 1860s moving to Wisconsin. At that time the growing farm industry had brought over Czech, German and Irish immigrants to that area. Matt grew up on his family farm where Czech was the only language spoken. He did not learn English until he started school. As is the case with children, he was picked on and bullied for his Czech heritage and he made every concerted effort to fully become an American and move away from his roots.
He married and took a job in the Army Reserves during the Great Depression. His grandson would later say Matt felt he was “marrying up” since his wife was American. Working for the military helped him to ensure his wife and three children were comfortable. Good work was hard to find and he was grateful for the opportunity. In 1940 he was informed he could join the regular Army and that his reservist job may be removed. He felt that, since the army helped him during a bad time, he would join. He moved his family from Wisconsin to Texas and was promoted to Captain of the 2nd Infantry Division. On the day his commission was over and he was to return to Wisconsin, Pearl Harbor was bombed. He reenlisted and the 2nd Division was sent to war in Europe.
He would be in the forces that landed on Omaha Beach the day after D-Day. His unit would help clear out the remaining Nazi forces. He showed his leadership and bravery during the Battle of the Bulge. In the book, Battle: The Story of the Bulge, author John Toland tells of the situation that would lead the US military to give Matt Konop the distinguished Bronze Star award. Matt was stationed in the village of Wirtzfield when he received a call from his commander to “…alert all units and organize a last-ditch defense…”, he was to “take every available gun and defend to the last man.” Konop informed his superior that “…all I have left are cooks, clerks and KP’s”. His orders were “Put them all on the line!” The defenses held due to their heroic efforts.
April 30, 1945, General Patton’s 3rd Army would oversee the 2nd Division moving to liberate Czechoslovakia. Konop’s direct superior knew he spoke Czech and appointed him to enter the country and find the resistance movement. He led 500 men 200 miles behind enemy lines. Since there was still Nazi military in the general area this was not a very safe job. To add to his discomfort, he had wanted to separate himself from his Czech history. He had always heard how bad things were and he really expected to walk into dirty, ugly cities. He was so concerned that the day before they were to enter a little village, he and his driver drove into the town. This place was Klenčí, where his mother’s family was from. He easily located a meeting of the local resistance and, in their own language, he informed them that the military was there to free them. He was overwhelmed by their welcome. They felt they were freed by “one of their own”. He also began to see the beautiful country and the attractive towns and villages. This was nothing like he was expecting. He helped the town organize a temporary government and to quote his grandson Dewane, “By the time he had bedded down that night, he was a local folk hero.”
The next stop was Domažlice. When he entered, he was greeted by hand-made Czechoslovakian and American flags and signs saying “Matt Konop – we are liberated by one of our own.” He was lifted up on Czech shoulders and paraded through the town while the Czech national anthem played. Ironically its title is “Where is My Homeland?” This would be a time of change for him. He would later state that “… the architecture was as beautiful as Paris, and so were the women”. This was not the place he imagined at all. Domažlice was officially liberated on May 5, and the area celebrated. The unit’s final destination was Plzeň. On May 6, the city was secured and the next day General Robertson, Konop’s commander, threw a party in Plzeň. Since Konop spoke Czech he would be the Master of Ceremonies. At midnight he would also be the one to announce that the war was over through the city loudspeakers. The heritage that he was bullied over when he was young brought him glory. The place he felt ashamed of, transformed for him. He became a true “Accidental Hero.”
He returned to the US, left the Army, and became an insurance salesman. He and his wife would have seven children and he would return to Czechoslovakia twice to visit. Sadly, he died in 1983, before he could see the country free from the Soviet regime. In some ways his story ends there, but not really. His grandson would bring him out of the obscurity of history.
In Czechoslovakia, the communist government had removed any mention of him or thousands of other westerners who were part of the history. Back home he, like many veterans, would never speak about the war. His grandson Patrick Dewane stated that when his grandfather died, his stories died with him. It would be another 20 years before his stories surfaced. Konop’s sister found a box of his writing, videos he took with his Kodak video camera, and photos of his time at war. She gave copies as gifts to the family for Christmas. Patrick would take this gift and spend three years perfecting a one-man show about his grandfather’s life.
This show has traveled all over the world. He usually has shows in Plzeň, Domažlice, and Klatovy, at the same time as the annual celebration of their liberation. On those days people will pull out old US jeeps, flags, and dress up in old uniforms to celebrate. On May 5, 2015, the plaque to memorialize him was mounted on the J. Hruska building. It shows him lifted on men’s shoulders as he was paraded through town. Interestingly, you can see his trusted Kodak video camera in his left hand. It is located where Konop parked his jeep when he first arrived.
On May 5, 2016 Matt Konop was made a citizen of Domažlice. The Prodigal Son welcomed home.
May 5, 2021