Pen pals for 64 years, World War II ‘minemen’ meet for the first time in Evanston

Myron Petrakis and Marvin Elfman have known each other for 64 years but had never met in person.

That changed Thursday when Petrakis, 101, greeted his longtime pen pal, Marvin Elfman, 97, at an Evanston nursing home.

The World War II veterans were assigned to ships charged with clearing minefields. They found each other years after the war ended through a mutual group of “sweepers” who stay connected by writing fellow service members around the country.

The meetup between the “minemen” — another term for those who shared the dangerous job — became possible after Elfman moved from Maryland to Evanston to be closer to family after his wife died in September. Petrakis lived in Norridge for decades before moving to Carol Stream.

Elfman said Petrakis was his “hero” for helping connect him with other service members.

“I love him,” Elfman said of Petrakis. “He writes beautiful letters … [and] I’m not as handsome as him.”

Elfman had served on the USS Minivet, sent to remove mines in the Korea Strait and the last ship to sink as a result of the war, when it hit a mine four months after the war officially ended.

The mine, Elfman explained, hit the ship’s port-side munitions bay. But Elfman survived, he explained, because he had gone to the front of the ship for a cup of coffee after finishing his duty shift. Petrakis’ close friend from boot camp, John Pate, was serving on the Minivet and was among the 31 who died that day.

Petrakis has said the alphabet saved his life; his buddy Pate’s name came before his, so Petrakis just missed being assigned to the USS Minivet.

Elfman said he still lights candles every December for the shipmates he lost nearly 80 years ago.

“This gathering is a happy one, in that I met my friend Marvin, [but] it’s a sad one because it brings back memories of our loss,” Petrakis said. “He’s a connection to the shipmates we lost.”

Petrakis has dedicated himself to honoring veterans and sharing their stories through meetups, Memorial and Veterans day events and other ways since his wife died in 2021.

Recently he has worked to get repairs made to a Vietnam veterans memorial at Ridgewood High School in Norridge.

Mary Conner, one of Petrakis’ children, said her father feels strongly that the stories of lost loved ones in the service must be remembered. That work, she added, has become his life’s purpose.

“It’s important for the young generation to know what was paid so we can do what we do,” Conner said. “It’s important [to share these stories] so that we don’t repeat history in the wrong way.”

Elfman said Petrakis’ work now is as honorable as his WWII service.

“To be this age and still want to do it, it’s terrific,” Elfman said. “I envy him. My little thing wasn’t as bad as what he goes through trying to get leaders to talk and people to carry this on.”

The veterans’ families talked about making the meetup an annual tradition for Petrakis’ birthday — he’ll be 102 the first week of April — especially now that Elfman lives nearby.

“Should we call it quits?” Petrakis asked his friend as Thursday’s get-together drew to a close.

“I’ve got a few years left in me,” Elfman replied.

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