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The WWII Love Story That Could Not Be: An American GI and A Message in a Bottle

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Frank With Big Aspirin Bottle

Frank Hayostek, stuffing a note into an Aspirin bottle, like he did on Christmas night, 1945.

Frank Hayostek and Breda O’Sullivan captured the hearts of millions in the somber but celebratory days after World War II.

Frank was an American soldier. In pictures from the 1940s, he often wears a suit, his dark hair slicked back, and the most earnest smile you can imagine. Sadly, he found himself stuck on a ship at sea for Christmas of 1945, en route back to the US from France, and that’s how the whole thing started.

When World War II ended, President Truman hoped to bring home the three million overseas service men and women by Christmas 1945—a sort of Christmas gift to the nation who had given so many of its sons and daughters to the war effort.

Truman Lights Christmas Tree 1945

President Truman pressing the button to light the National Community Christmas Tree for Christmas of 1945–the first year it had been lit since 1941, before America entered the war.

Harry Truman Christmas 1945 Gifts for Staff of Speech

President Truman bearing Christmas gifts. In 1945, he gave White House staff members a copy of his speech declaring the victory of Allied forces.

According to Matthew Litt, author of the book Christmas 1945, this was the largest military movement in world history, and it simply clogged all available modes of transportation. Air, rail, and ship capacities, combined, were not enough to get everyone home for the holiday. Litt estimates 200,000 service people were stranded at east and west coast ports combined. Worse still, terrible storms caused many to remain stuck at sea.

Frank Hayostek was one of the unlucky sailors, stuck at sea on a “liberty ship,” avoiding dangerous conditions and waiting out the storms.

Liberty Ship in San Francisco Bay

A “Liberty Ship,” one of hundreds that brought American service men and women home after World War II.

As Christmas day unfolded, Frank–a strong Catholic–thought of his loved ones at home, and realized it was his third Christmas away.

That stormy Christmas evening, Frank committed his thoughts and his loneliness to a letter, put it in an aspirin bottle, and tossed it out into the vast, dark sea.

Frank eventually made it safely ashore—and so did his bottle, almost exactly 8 months later, on the other side of the Atlantic.

On August 23rd, 1946, Breda O’Sullivan’s dog, Oscar, a border collie, discovered Frank’s lonesome note washed ashore in County Kerry, Ireland, and she was plunged into Frank’s loneliness aboard that Liberty Ship on Christmas night, almost a year before.

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Inch Beach near Dingle, not far from where Breda found Frank’s message in a bottle washed ashore. Photo: Pandotrip.com / Shutterstock

The following transcription of Frank’s letter comes from a reading of the note on Peter Mulryan’s RTE documentary, Message in a Bottle–but first, let me just say that if you listen to one podcast this day, this week, this month, let it be Mulryan’s podcast linked above. It’s just so good.

Christmas day, 1945.

Dear finder,

Probably this bottle, or note, shall never be found, but I’ll just send it out anyhow. Just in case, by some coincidence, someone finds this, I would appreciate it if the finder drops me a line. I got this idea from a fairy tale when I was just a little boy. Today I am twenty-one years old, but my conscience has guided me to do this. Anyway, I think it would be nice to have a correspondence through this new system. At this time, I am aboard the SS Jane Ford Rhodes. It is a Liberty Ship. We had gone to Le Havre, France, to bring soldiers home that helped to fight our World War II. We were to have them home for this day—which is Christmas—we ran into three days of bad weather, so that is why we are now spending Christmas on the Atlantic ocean. I have no reward to offer the finder of this bottle, as I am just a plain American, with just enough to appreciate life and happiness. However, friendship is the only reward I can guarantee you. God bless whoever should find this letter. Frank Hayostek.

Here is Breda’s reply, as read on Mulryan’s documentary:

Kenard West, Lispole, County Kerry

24th of August, 1946

Dear Mr. Hayostek,

I have found your bottle and note. I’ll just tell you the whole story. I live on a farm at the above address. As you can see on the southwest coast of Ireland. On Friday 23rd morning, I drove the cows into the fields beside the sea, and then went for a walk on the strand called Baille. It’s an inlet of Dingle bay. Well, my dog was running before me, and I saw him stop and sniff something lying on the sand, and then he went off in pursuit of a seagull. I found the object was a brown bottle, and I saw there was a paper in it. The cork of the bottle crumbled in my fingers. How the note kept dry, nobody can understand. So, I sat there on the beach, and I read it. I thought at first I was dreaming. Well, imagine a bottle has been on the sea for 8 months next Sunday, August the 25th. Who knows where it’s been since? The hand of Providence must surely have guided it. Well, a few words about myself: I’m an Irish colleen, 18 on the 11th of November. I’m tall, slim, and dark haired with dark blue Irish eyes. I’m Irish to the backbone, as they say. You mentioned offering no reward to the finder of the bottle. Well, I ask for no reward, as it was a very pleasant surprise. Wishing you ever good luck, your loving friend, Breda.

Well, as you can imagine, they struck up a friendship, and a running correspondence.

Frank’s letters to Breda seem to be lost, though he kept every one of hers. Breda’s notes are sweet, thoughtful, funny, charming. Although they only ever declared friendship in these letters, it’s no wonder Frank fell in love with her. Here are some excerpts from Mulryan’s RTE Radio documentary, shared by Frank’s son, Terry:

October 12th, 1946

Dear Frank,

Well, I’m enclosing my photo. It’s not a very good one. Of course, I’m not a film star. But I think I could do better than that (she means: she could take a better photo than the one she enclosed).

 

May 20th, 1947

Dear Frank,

I am enclosing a birthday card, and another from mother. I would love to send you something for your birthday, but we’re not allowed to send packages out of this old country.

 

June 15th, 1947

Dear Frank,

You mentioned trying for a job overseas. Well, why not come to Ireland? Gee, that’d be grand! Would it not?

 

February 15th, 1952

Dear Frank,

I got your lovely Valentine card. It was really very nice of you to send it. I had my teeth out on January the 26th! Of course, I felt very funny with them out at first, but I daresay I’ll get used to it, until I get my false set, which will be about June. I wonder what is the news you’re having for me? I’ll guess: it’s about coming to Ireland! Am I right? So write soon. I’m hoping to hear that news.

Breda was right about Frank coming to Ireland. Actually, sometime in the early days of their correspondence, Frank began saving money, hoping to visit Breda. Six years after Breda found his note, the two made plans to meet in Ireland in August 1952.

But, like the doomed hero of a tragedy, Frank made a few unwitting mistakes that lead to his downfall before he ever had a chance to meet Breda in person.

First, he gave a simple interview to a small local paper in his hometown of Johnstown, Pennsylvania in May of 1952 about his message in a bottle friendship. Perhaps a few paper-reading locals enjoyed the story, but that was about it–the story faded into obscurity.

May turned into June, June turned into July. But then, toward the end of July, just before his trip to Ireland, the story somehow resurfaced, and it exploded. It went viral. The whole world heard this story. We’re talking serious media coverage; Time magazine even ran a feature story on Frank and Breda.

Before Frank even arrived, reporters tracked down Breda and began to hound her about the whole thing, hoping, it seems, to kindle romance between them. Well, it had the opposite effect, and Breda grew annoyed with the reporters–and she didn’t like being photographed. You can feel her discomfort in photos from the time. In this shot, taken by a photographer who must have been squatting or lying on the ground, Breda sits at table, looking like she’s trying to avoid the camera’s gaze, but glances at it just once–long enough for a photo to be snapped.

Breda O'Sullivan at Home in Kerry

Breda looking a bit annoyed by photographers. Photo: rte.ie

Meanwhile, newspapers and magazines throughout America and Europe obsessed over the story of the homesick GI whose lonesome message in a bottle from Christmas 1945 was found by a pretty, young, Irish milkmaid. It seemed unbelievable, but there it was: Frank the GI was about to embark on a transatlantic journey to his bonnie Irish colleen. And then—?

Well, the journalists kept trying to nudge the friendship into romance.

This attention, unwanted by Breda, fueled Frank’s tragic fall. The pebble that Frank had kicked down the mountain by giving that first interview to the Johnstown Democrat had tumbled and nudged other stones along the way.

By the time Frank arrived in Ireland on August 5th, 1952, he and Breda were buried under the avalanche of reporters and public attention that stemmed from Frank’s first innocent interview.

Frank Hayostek and Oscar Breda O'Sullivan's Dog

Frank with Breda’s dog, Oscar, who actually sniffed out the message in a bottle and called Breda’s attention to it. Photo: RTE Radio 1.

When Frank wasn’t with Breda, he got to know the locals, and it seems as though he was well liked by just about everyone. He spent time with Breda’s cousin, Tom Fitzgerald, too, who later remembered the visit fondly.

Frank Hayostek and Tom Fitzgerald

Frank Hayostek and Breda’s cousin, Tom Fitzgerald, during Frank’s 1952 visit to Ireland. Photo: rte.ie

They were never alone. The press followed them everywhere, and the demands of milkmaid life turned out to be more consuming than Frank had guessed. Breda may have been hosting the visitor of a lifetime, but the cows still had to be walked to the field, they had to be milked, the farm cared for. It didn’t leave much time for canoodling. What little time they had together they spent under the prying eyes of reporters.

Frank and Breda Together

Frank and Breda looking perhaps more affectionate than they really were… Photo: rte.ie

After two weeks of this constant frustration, the time came for Frank to leave. By now, Breda had had quite enough of the press’s attention, and did not accompany him to the bus station to see him off.

Frank returned home, still a bachelor. According to The Courier-Mail, as soon as he arrived home, “Frank went down to the coast and optimistically threw another aspirin bottle into the sea”.

Frank and Breda continued to write letters to each other for years after Frank’s visit. In 1959, their correspondence ended more or less the way it started: friendly, and unexpectedly. Breda wrote to Frank about selling something on her behalf, and Frank wrote back—but he never heard from Breda again. She didn’t tell him off or ask to be left alone—she simply disappeared from his life as suddenly as his message had appeared in hers.

How could something like that simply end?

The explanation folks have come to accept is that Breda married a man in 1959 about the time she stopped writing, and it is because she married that she stopped writing. But, well, if that’s true—doesn’t it tell the real story? Why on earth should a married woman feel as though she could not write to someone who is “just a friend” on another continent? Whatever Frank and Breda shared, though it may not have been romance, it was very special.

*    *    *

Frank never got over Breda—not really. But, in 1959—the same year Breda married—Frank married a woman he loved who loved him back. Her name was Helen. They had a son—Terry. Tragically, Helen died just six years later in 1965.

In 2009 while researching for his RTE documentary, producer Peter Mulryan visited Frank’s son, Terry, and discovered a small, forgotten parcel of letters from both Breda and Frank in Frank’s scrapbook that had been written during his visit to Ireland.

Pile of Letters From Breda

Breda’s letters to Frank. Photo: RTE Radio 1.

A letter from Frank reveals that, while there, he had told Breda he was once married and had had it annulled. In Breda’s reply, she attacks Frank for this, explaining a good Catholic girl like her could never marry someone like Frank, who, in her eyes, had tried to trick her by neglecting to tell her about his previous marriage before his visit. This was the critical moment that it became clear there would never be romance between them–and then Frank left Ireland.

Intriguingly, the two continued to write letters to each other for years after Frank’s, until they both married in 1959, but they never met again, and the warmth of those early letters never returned.

The Kerryman interviewed Frank in 2004, reporting that he still thought of Breda “every day”. Even so, his 1952 pilgrimage to Ireland and subsequent years of reflection seem to have shown him how doomed the romance was from the beginning.

Frank At His Letterbox

Frank in later years at his Mail Slot. Photo: RTE Radio 1.

He told The Kerryman that “She loved Ireland and she would have never left her mother, who had no intention of coming to the United States”. In the end, Frank and Breda walked separate paths. I believe each held a special place in the other’s heart forever.

Frank died on November 15th, 2009, and Breda died just about a year later. Frank’s tombstone bears a final testament to the power of his time with Breda and the message in a bottle they shared:

Frank L Hayostek, June 11, 1924 – November 15, 2009: Frank Hayostek met in Tralee, Ireland, with Breda O’Sullivan who found a message-laden bottle he had tossed from a Liberty ship seven years before.

*     *     *

So that’s it. The greatest love story that never was.

Quite apart from the controversy over Frank’s previous marriage, lots of folks who knew them and witnessed them together have weighed in over the years, and pretty much everyone says the same thing–there just wasn’t the right chemistry for romance to blossom. However kind and sweet they both were, something was just missing.

And yet, it’s a heartbreaking story because we can’t help rooting for them. The magic of that message in a bottle, and the timing of it, right after WWII when everyone was looking for healing and love… We can’t help it as readers–of course we want them to fall in love!

I have thought a lot about Frank and Breda over the years, and I have never figured out how to feel about it. Frank and his wife Helen went on to have a son; Breda went on to have ten children. They both lived lives that were more or less fulfilled. And yet I can’t help wondering what if?

So I guess it just comes back to the magic power of messages in bottles to connect total strangers, to open the door between two people’s worlds. With messages in bottles, there’s just no telling what can happen–it can be love, it can be heartbreak, and it can be everything in between and beyond.

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Message in a Bottle Found: Seeking 10-Year-Old Tegan

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Karien Trengrove and her partner Darren Rodgers were on holiday, walking Shelly Beach, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. They were the only ones on the beach–there was no one around as far as the eye could see–and, under a bit of fog, the flat brown shore stretched off into the distance before and behind them.

And then, just like that, there it was.

Karien Trengrove MIB on Beach

Photo: Karien Trengrove

A beautiful, well-sealed message in a glass bottle–yay for not being plastic!.

Luckily, the message was legible. Here is what Karien and Darren found inside:

Karien Trengrove Message Paper

Photo: Karien Trengrove

My name is Tegan. I live on a farm and I am ten years old. My birthday is on the 28th of September. I have two dogs and a friend. Her name is Kimberly. The year is 2017.

“Wish there was a way to let 10 year old Tegan know that she made my day,” Karien wrote on her Facebook post sharing the images of the message.

Karien with Tornado Horse

Karien and Tornado after crossing the Namib desert together. Photo: Karien Trengrove.

“As a kid I thought [of] doing the same thing but never did it,” Karien told South Africa’s Times Live. “It is a romantic idea. It was a fun and unreal moment and a highlight of my day finding it. Imagine how happy she would be to know somebody found her cute message.”

Folks, this is where you and I come in. Our job is to share Karien’s story until word reaches Tegan of the discovery! We’ve done it before, and we can do it again.

My guess is that Tegan is either from South Africa, a bit north of Shelly Beach, or was visiting the area when she sent her message in a bottle. It also could have come from a cruise ship off the coast–or possibly she sent it from the west coast of Madagascar. My reason for thinking of these possibilities is that the Agulhas current runs southward along the east coast of South Africa, like so (the balloon marks Shelly Beach where Karien found Tegan’s message):

South Africa and Agulhas Current 2.png

Let’s find Tegan! 🙂

Message in a Bottle Mystery SOLVED! Arkansas Senders of 2007 Message Found!

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Wooooohooooooo!!!!

We did it, everyone! Thanks to your interest and the tireless efforts of Victoria Price at Arkansas’ Fox 16 News, my family has connected with Larry and Janie Sigler of Little Rock, who sent this message in a bottle in 2007 that my mom found years later!

Mom's Message in a Bottle from Arkansas_Credit

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Amelia Earhart Search Leads to Messages in Bottles and Chance Friendships

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This is the story of how the search for Amelia Earhart led one man to discover a decades-old message in a bottle, and how, inspired by the find, his colleague sent a message of his own, and received a response. Did you catch all that? There will be a quiz 🙂

Here’s the story straight from the TIGHAR’s mouth, so to speak. Kenton Spading, Amelia Earhart researcher, wrote me to explain how this all happened:

“I have been researching the mystery surrounding the July 1937 disappearance of Amelia Earhart since 1992 through my membership in The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR). TIGHAR approaches the Earhart/Noonan mystery through the application of the scientific method. In that light TIGHAR’s Nikumaroro (Niku) Hypothesis proposes that Earhart/Noonan landed on Gardner Island (now Niku).

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Nikumaroro is a tiny island waaaay out in the Pacific Ocean.

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1988 Message in a Bottle From South Carolina Woman, Found on Georgia Coast, Sparks Friendship

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They went looking for trash. What they found was pure treasure.

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David Humphries cleaning Nanny Goat Beach. Photo: Linda Humprhies.

Linda and David Humphries were cleaning up Nanny Goat Beach–which obviously has the best beach name ever–in the wake of Hurricane Irma on October 14th, 2017, when David stumbled upon a piece of paper in a bottle. Continue reading

Message in a Bottle from 2007 Found: Where Are the Arkansas Authors?

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***UPDATE! This message has been solved, and we found the senders! Below is the back story. Click here to see the rest of the story.***

On May 30th, 2007, a couple from Little Rock, Arkansas were on a cruise when they decided to send a message in a bottle. Their message was sweet and simple. A few years later, my mom found this message in a bottle while she was beachcombing with my dad. We all marveled at the note and loved it for its good-spirited message:

moms-message-in-a-bottle-from-arkansas_credit Continue reading

Message in a Bottle Found! “A Truly Magical Experience”

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I recently heard from Alison, a woman who found a message in a bottle and immediately felt the same surprise and awe at that experience that keeps me addicted 🙂

“I have been an avid beachcomber all my life with a recent passion for sea glass hunting,” she said.

“I was walking alone at Nauset Beach in March [2017], it was in the mid-30s, overcast, windy and raw. Sometimes my sea glass hunts turn into beach cleanup, but when I went to pick up what I thought was a piece of trash, I was astounded to see a message in the bottle! I started shaking and I think my heart skipped a couple beats!”

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French Message in a Bottle Found in Mexico: “I Love You, Little Worm”

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Sometimes, people send messages in bottles not to find love, or friendship, or to express regret, or to say goodbye. Sometimes, a message in a bottle is sent simply as an expression of love. I was touched by a story submitted to me by Massiel Tunnell, who stumbled upon a message in a bottle just last weekend on the beach in front of her property while out walking with her family.

Here she is!

Masiel Tunnell

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Launching Into The Wide World of Messages in Bottles

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I don’t know much about the world, but a lot of what I know has come from messages in bottles.

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Some Friends I’ve Yet to Meet, Some I Know Already.

I always wanted to find a message in a bottle when I was young. This was before the Nicholas Sparks book, and before I had ever heard Sting’s song. I loved reading, and I loved writing, and man, I really wanted a penpal. I loved the ocean, too, so a message in a bottle seemed like the perfect fit. Continue reading

The Sea Captain’s Letter in a Bottle

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A lot of days, I feel like the luckiest person in the world. Thanks to my strange hobby, people send me stories about their own message in a bottle experiences that are downright delightful and heartening.

Not long ago, Norah Brown-Davis wrote from Northern Ireland to share her family’s fascinating and heartwarming story. It’s such a Continue reading