Perhaps my family has been fortunate in the fact that the cost of war has not touched us deeply in several generations. The last member we lost on the battlefield was my great-grandpa’s brother during WWII. Now, I grew up right next door to my great-grandparents, and fell asleep to the twisted fairy tales my grandpa would create, so his generation was no mystery to me. But now that I am an adult, I regret that I didn’t ask him more questions about his life, his time in the war, and the brother he lost overseas.
We tend to look at our family history through the prism of distance. While we may share DNA, there is an otherness about the past that can be difficult to overcome. Truthfully, I never really put much thought into what life may have been like for my ancestors. I know where we emigrated from, but I can only guess as to why. I know what we did when we got here, but I don’t know if that was a part of the dream, or something we settled for. Where they happy accepting the farming life once again after crossing that vast ocean to get to the land of promise and plenty? Did they carry other dreams that were or were not fulfilled?
Recently I was searching through old military records and came across some files on my great-grandpa’s brother. He had been a tail-gunner in WWII, shot down over the Philippines. The plane he went down in was never recovered, and he was presumed dead for the remainder of the war. The internet tells me that his name is listed on a memorial they created on the island, but I’ve never seen it. These were all facts that I already knew, tales passed down through family lore. But it wasn’t until I came across a copy of his enlistment card that it all truly sank in. He was one of my own.
I stared at the handwriting that chicken scratched the same last name I’ve copied over onto a million papers. I couldn’t help but notice how the style looked so similar to my own, and I wondered if maybe he had been left-handed too. The enlistment form shows that he was tall like the rest of us, with the same red hair that was passed down to my sister. He had a scar on his left knee, and I desperately wish I knew the story behind it. He was still a teenager when he joined, and from what I know of my family, he probably spent most of his life on a farm, though this is purely conjecture. It’s these tiny, seemingly insignificant details that take the idea of a person and cement them into reality.
He was 22 years old when he, his pilot, and his plane disappeared over their target late in the day on February 12th in 1945. The war would be over in about 6 months, but he wouldn’t see the end of it. The military report indicates that the element leader flew back to the scene in search of the missing men or spot a debris field, but they didn’t find anything noteworthy before the setting sun forced them back to base. It was unknown exactly what happened to the two men on board. All troops on the island were put on alert, in hopes that the men would be found on the ground; and additional planes were sent out the next morning, but no one ever found a trace of them. They were gone, just like that, without any indication of what their final moments may have been like. Only 22 years old, and that was it.
As a writer, I take a particular interest in the inner workings of people. And I can’t help but feel a twinge of pain at the idea that this is all I will ever really know about a soldier who shared my name. Looking back now, I wish I had asked my great-grandpa more questions about his life and the brother he lost. I wish I knew how he responded when he heard the news. Did he ever secretly hope that his brother lived on somewhere? Did he ever struggle with the thought that he didn’t truly know how things had ended?
I remember my great-grandpa as the tough man who liked to poke at people until they snapped back. He got such a kick out of it, and respected anyone who held their ground against him. He was the same man who would greet us with “Well don’t you look all purdied up” every time we came over, even if we had ripped jeans and dirt on our faced. He’s the same man who would tell us a bedtime story of his own creation every time we stayed the night. My personal favorite was his own version of Jack and the Beanstalk, ending with the giant falling from the stalk and breaking his leg, forcing him to be kind to all of the tiny people who helped him get better. It never occurred to me as a child that there was more to his own story. I never thought to ask more questions.
So this Memorial Day, I take the time to remember the stories I know and think of the ones I was never told. I remember to ask more questions so these histories don’t die after the last breath is taken. This is the importance of stories; these truths and histories that we must be sure to carry with us into the next generation. Because the lives we live, the ones that came before us, and the ones that will follow: they matter. Even the tinies of details matters- like how a boy got a scar on his knee before he joined the war once upon a time.