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Brian Pohanka photo by Jim Wassel  

A Memorial Tribute to
Brian C. Pohanka
(March 20, 1955 - June 15, 2005)

The Soul of an Idealistic, Noble Soldier


Brian's memorial tribute continues from Page 3: Psychology, Fine Arts, Travels, and Nature


Personal Struggles and Triumphs

The Zouaves and 9/11

Brian regarded his comrades in the 5th New York Duryée Zouaves living history organization as brethren. They marched in parades on the East Coast, participated in local history events and Civil War re-enactments, and traveled to France. Together they revered the soldiers of the "Old Fifth" who fought in the Civil War and honored them on occasions such as Memorial Day and Remembrance Day.

After the tragic event on September 11, 2001, the Zouaves launched a fundraising event to assist the families of the firemen that suffered personal losses. They were struck by their group's historical connection with the Fire Department of the City of New York, as the 5th New York had a contingent of firemen in its ranks. They saw the comparison between the trials of the firemen-soldiers of the 5th who lost their lives in the Battle of Second Manassas, and the modern day firemen who sacrified their all in the hellish inferno at the World Trade Center. And they felt deeply for the families and friends these soldiers/firemen left behind.

In a memo that was posted at "The Wild Geese Today: The Epic History and Heritage of the Irish" Web site—as well as at this Web site—Brian wrote:

Among the 124 members of the Duryée Zouaves who perished on that 30th of August 1862, were former firemen Robert Amos (Hook & Ladder Co. 9), Jonas A. Bryant (Hose Co. 46), William M. McDowell, Jr. (Hook & Ladder Co. 9), John Milligan (Engine Co. 11) and Robert R. Whigam (Hook & Ladder Co. 9).

The men of the New York Fire Department went to their work on September 11 with no idea that for so many it would be their last day in this life. They kissed their loved ones goodbye, and they were gone. They were heroes who gave their lives trying to save lives. Their selfless devotion has touched many hearts, and their families deserve whatever we can do to assist and to honor the memories of those whose bravery defies description.

When the members of the 5th New York present our contribution to the Widows and Childrens Fund, we will also present a reproduction Firemen’s Belt, as worn by the red-shirted Volunteers of the 1860s. David Dellacato of Dell’s Leatherworks crafted this belt to represent the one worn by members of Hook & Ladder Company Number 3. This is appropriate for a number of reasons.

A native of Roscrea, Tipperary, Daniel J. Meagher enlisted at the age of 17 in Company H, 5th New York. He was a good soldier, and served through all the campaigns and battles of the Duryée Zouaves. Following the organization of the paid Fire Department in 1865, Daniel Meagher became Foreman of Ladder Company 3. He was awarded the James Gordon Bennett Medal for Valor in tribute to his bravery fighting a fire on May 2, 1878. When a woman was trapped on the upper floors of a burning tenement on 14th Street, Meagher had his truck’s ladder extended vertically, and climbed to its upper rung. The woman jumped, and Meagher caught her and lowered her to the fireman below him.

Ladder Company 3 was one of the hardest hit in the recent disaster. The belt we present is in honor of the members of that company and of all their brothers in the Department who gave their lives at the World Trade Center. The motto of the old Hook & Ladder 3 was “Phoenix” and the word appears on the front of the belt. Like that mythical bird, the great city of New York and the indomitable spirit of its people will rise from the ashes of this tragedy, with undying admiration for those heroes of the Fire Department.

Keeping up the Good Fight

When Brian first told me the news about the diagnosis of his cancer, he wrote about his condition with grace and dignity. That chivalrous tone about this topic never ceased until his final days. On January 28, 1999 he expressed these unwavering, spiritual thoughts, as he regarded his heroes such as Joshua Chamberlain and their suffering in combat:

...I draw great strength from my lifelong study of, and indeed communion with those gallant souls, like [Joshua] Chamberlain, who suffered so much for their ideals -- for transcendent things greater than mere self. Their spiritual example will be with me as I go through this [surgery]. And, with God's grace, I shall be back on my feet quickly.

Right now this is scheduled for Monday, in New York, and I will be back home the next day.

I wanted you to know, in case I am a tad tardy in my email correspondence, and also as I say, since I value your kindness and shared devotion to that nobility of arms -- to those eternal heroes.

On August 28, 2003, Brian had unfortunate news to deliver. The cancer that had been removed in 1999 had not been completely eradicated. Still, he was hopeful for the best in this situation but asked that I would not tell anyone about his condition, as he did not want people to worry about him too much. He continually drew strength from those spiritual comrades in arms who went before him:

...I also need to let you know in the last month they found some more what they think is cancer from the old eye problem, though not entirely sure....

...It as I say does not appear as bad as I was prepared and I do not feel sick or anything.

With my interests and those I admire I think you well know when I think of all those heroes of mine who went into the face of death and battle -- think of WWI for instance -- they went out with bravery and knowing in many cases that life was virtually gone into that but went bravely and with fortitude, and I can do no worse.

I will let you know as things sort out but I am really trying to cut back on lectures and other things to concentrate on some more of those books I need to get done, which I have been getting done. And of course to spend quality time with [my wife] Cricket who has been a great blessing in this challenge.

Brian felt little self-pity about his condition and sometimes regard his situation from a detached viewpoint. He was satisfied with his life and his accomplishments, and wrote confidently on August 29, 2003:

...I am hopeful from what I am informed that I will be back mending before too long and that there is no iminent threat of my premature demise -- but even if there was, of course I have not only accomplished a good deal, but have the strength of my convictions and ideals, based upon all those I have admired and drawn inspiration from. If nothing else ought to be an interesting experience -- and have certainly taken the time to get all manner of legal and other things in order.... [Despite all she has had to endure,] Cricket is doing superbly.

Brian successfully made it through his procedures at the hospital, and commented on September 14, 2003:

...I am a little tired and the pills I take to prevent infection, swelling, etc. make me feel a little "off," but all in all I am OK and working on my 5th NY Regimental History.

One of his main goals before he died was to complete his book on the regimental history of the 5th New York Volunteers Infantry. This was a project that was long in the making. Meanwhile, though he had dramatically cut back on the number of appearances he made as a guest speaker nationwide, Brian continued to occasionally make appearances for the sake of battlefield preservation. On June 6, 2004, he wrote:

...We [Cricket and I] are planning to go to Montana [to the Little Bighorn battlefield on the occasion of the anniversary of the battle]. It is always a good thing to be out there. Even though my health is not 100% I still think I will enjoy it as always. Yes, I did get that Carrington Williams award. They told me about it and...I was not planning to attend the conference when they said that I had to go. To thank the CWPT [Civil War Preservation Trust] but also to speak to the audience about how important it is we keep up the good fight.

On November 2, 2004, Brian's condition seemed to have worsened, though he still remained in good spirits. This would be the last detailed message I received from him:

...I wanted to let you know that although I am feeling pretty good that my health situation is rather precarious. I don't want to dwell on that, it is stressful as well as time consuming to have to wrestle with that -- but thought you ought to be aware of it. I am not planning on "crossing the river" anytime soon, but when and if that does happen, please know I've appreciated all your fine work on those events and especially those human beings -- souls -- we both cherish and honor.

Very best wishes,

Brian

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Closing Thoughts

I am grateful to have known Brian and to have had him as a friend. He was an inspiration to me on many different levels and had contributed so much to this Web site. He worked very hard for what he believed in, and was a devoted and loyal individual. With his positive attitude, he was able to put aside his own personal suffering and accomplished many of his goals in his lifetime that benefitted the general public. Brian is greatly missed.

In closing, I would like to share an email message dated April 12, 1999, in which Brian contributed the first of many fine quotations and materials to this site. In this message, Brian summarized his thoughts about the soldiers of the Civil War as he composed this Memorial Day tribute featured in the Veterans page at this site. In retrospect, these haunting words about the soldiers of that era seemed to echo his very own existence:

Theirs was a sublime amalgam of patriotism, duty, devotion, acceptance of self-sacrifice, and idealism -- above all, idealism. They were the least apathetic people in our Nation's history. And while doubtless many rallied to the colors because they, like their neighbors and friends, were electrified by the summons of the fife and drum, those who found themselves locked in that terrible four-year ordeal persisted to the finish, or to their deaths, out of a sense of idealism -- devotion to ideals they cherished more than life itself. Their devotion was a Transcendence of Self. I bless and revere them -- North and South alike -- heroes to me forever. As the poet wrote, 'Love and tears for the Blue; Tears and love for the Gray.'

May their gallant souls rest in peace, and be honored and glorified, to the last pulse of this country's existence!

-- Brian Pohanka

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