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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
You mentioned trying for a job overseas. Well, why not come to Ireland? Gee, that’d be grand! Would it not?
February 15th, 1952
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.