Leave No Stone Unturned

[NB: check the byline, thanks. /~Rayne]

Memorial Day as a kid meant traveling long hours in the car with my family – over the years three, and then four siblings swimming around for more than eight hours in the back of the land whale known as the Chrysler 300 station wagon.

We’d crawl out of that avocado-colored earthbound leviathan like so many chewed-up Jonahs, reeking of tuna fish sandwiches, exhausted but ready for fresh air and sunshine, hot dogs and flag waving, candy thrown from the local firetruck along the day’s celebratory parade route.

Nobody was ready for my uncle, though, not ever. Let’s call him Ralph since he has always reminded me a bit of the hard right conservative character in the 1970s cartoon, Wait Till Your Father Gets Home. Meld Ralph with Norman Lear’s Archie Bunker and you’d have a pretty good bead on my uncle’s persona.

Uncle Ralph — my great-uncle, being my grandfather’s younger brother — would’ve been among the other local veterans marching in the parade from the township hall to the cemetery at the opposite end of town. He’d have dusted off his dress uniform for the occasion though it had become a bit snug around the middle. I avoided getting too close to the man to see if his green wool serge had any moth holes as I suspected it might.

The man was a hard ass, no doubt about it. He was a dick to everyone around him. I don’t know what his long-suffering wife saw in the man or how she managed to stick it out with him for his lifetime apart from their intense Catholicism and their five kids. Nor was he less difficult with other family outside of his wife and kids; he’d screwed several family members with real estate deals he cooked up. Don’t get my mom started about him, yeesh – you’ll draw back with a bloody stump where your ear once was.

But on Memorial Day every year, on arrival at the cemetery, that snapping turtle of a man softened like ice cream on a summer’s day. Watching him stand at attention as the trumpeter played Taps and the flag was raised, you could see in his face something wordless and deep. It remained with him as he visited the veterans’ headstones in the cemetery, fussing with the flags and flowers on each burial plot.

I never saw this timeworn anguish in his face when he dealt with his quadriplegic son, or with his other son who’d tried to commit suicide. His hardness only cracked in the cemetery where his cohort was buried.

Whatever happened during his service in World War II molded him, made him that aggressive man who hid a fathomless sorrow beneath his rigidity. I wish I’d been brave enough as a kid to ask him right then, in the cemetery, what he was thinking about during the ceremony and afterward among the graves.

I don’t think his own brothers with whom he was very close even knew what Ralph had buried so long ago. They only talked about him with their spouses and the rest of the family as that mean son-of-a-bitch.

It’s a story which will never be revealed now that all of his generation in my family have passed on.

I’m thinking of you Uncle Ralph, our family’s anti-fascist, on this Memorial Day. I’m glad your burden has been laid down with you, and you didn’t live long enough to become compromised by today’s right-wing ideology.

~ ~ ~

My uncle came to mind when I read this article about a Black Civil War veteran Hiram White who lived in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and only now has a headstone thanks to the efforts and generosity of another Yooper.

He wasn’t the only Black Civil War veteran in the U.P.; Samuel Cary lived in Negaunee for 30-plus years after the Civil War. Both White and Cary shared a profession, though – they were barbers in their respective parts of the U.P., separated by 60 miles or so.

I can’t help wonder what Uncle Ralph would have made of the new headstone for White’s previously unmarked grave, or that of the other Black Civil War veterans who have more recently received long-overdue headstones.

My uncle was racist, to be frank and blunt; I don’t know if he would have been generous about these Black veterans. Ralph’s the one member of my mom’s extended family I can recall using the n-word, which is saying something since there were more than 120 people in the family. He was never openly so toward my dad or my siblings though there were never any warm fuzzies between Ralph and my dad. Ralph respected my dad’s military service even if he might not have been welcoming toward the one brown-skinned person in the family, but dad wasn’t Black but Asian-Pacific Islander.

It’s this one character flaw which makes me think Uncle Ralph would have been susceptible to Trump-y fascism antithetical to his military service. His racism could have been played to crack his anti-fascist history.

I’m glad time and entropy kept Ralph from becoming more bigoted than he was.

~ ~ ~

Two geopolitical challenges might have limited Uncle Ralph’s slide into fascism had he lived long enough. While Nixon as a GOP president might have been able to go to China, Ralph wouldn’t have felt comfortable with the relationship the U.S. has had with China.

Part of this would have been borne of his racism, I’m sure. But part of it would have been Ralph’s staunch pro-defense pro-democracy politics. He would have been deeply concerned about importing any defense products from China. In this I think his skepticism would have been like that of Sen. John McCain.

I doubt my uncle would ever have been comfortable as a GOP voter with supporting Russian aggression, either.

I can hear Uncle Ralph even now, sunburned to a lobster-red crisp, peeling the ring top open on his umpteenth Schlitz next to a blazing bonfire, barking at the top of his lungs about “those goddamned commies” while talking with my other uncles and male cousins about world events during beach-side family reunions.

At the time he would have been fulminating about North Vietnam; I know I avoided these particular family discussions because even as early as age seven I did not believe military action in Vietnam was good.

Today he would have been chomping at the bit to do more to stem Putin’s overreach, and I can’t say that I’d disagree though I wouldn’t advocate anything more than increasing support for Ukraine.

Again, I wish I’d been brave enough to ask him what he thought then about global politics; he might have illuminated my understanding of their evolution and right-wing positioning since Nixon. But when we’re kids we’re rarely encouraged to engage our curiosity and interview older family; we weren’t often offered safe situations in which queries were permitted and entertained respectfully by adults.

Adults, for that matter even now, aren’t reminded there are histories to be shared and life lessons to pass on, ones which might shape the future. There’s no general curriculum of adulthood which tells them to make sure they teach the children well how to avoid the errors of the past.

Because of Uncle Ralph and the other members of my family whose histories weren’t recorded and shared, I’m going to make an effort this month to document another oldster’s personal story. My father-in-law was born 10 years after Ralph was, missed World War II, but he still has so much to share about the 1930s-1970s that my kids and me and even my spouse don’t know about.

Everything I was afraid to ask Uncle Ralph about his military service I will ask my FIL, documenting it to share with my kids and grandkids to come. Doing so is my duty to the future, a fight requiring no weapons to prepare my kin and others for what’s ahead.

This Memorial Day I’m thinking of my great-uncle and I’m grateful for what he taught me even as the old hard ass frightened the bejabbers out of me as a kid.

He’s taught me Memorial Day is about memories. Capture them now while you can, because they are history.

~ ~ ~

Let it make no difference to thee whether thou art cold or warm, if
thou art doing thy duty; and whether thou art drowsy or satisfied
with sleep; and whether ill-spoken of or praised; and whether dying
or doing something else. For it is one of the acts of life, this act
by which we die: it is sufficient then in this act also to do well
what we have in hand.

Look within. Let neither the peculiar quality of anything nor its
value escape thee.

All existing things soon change, and they will either be reduced to
vapor, if indeed all substance is one, or they will be dispersed.

— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 6

51 replies
    • Valerie Klyman-Clark says:

      Thank you, Rayne. Truly. That Marcus Aurelius did me in. “Allah, if it will keep my heart soft, break it every day.”

    • JimmyAnderson says:

      Thank you for this link Rayne.
      Questions to put to my Dad.
      An evacuee from London during the early part of the war – which I know he found frightening, by how little he talks about it.

      • Rayne says:

        The Blitz must have been horrifying; this interactive map tells the story in a way which quickly brings home the trauma. It’s no wonder your father has said little.

        Having read about the London Blitz, I realized there was so much we didn’t know from our own family about that period in time. What did they make of it so removed from the nightly bombings? My FIL would have been a tweenager then; I may be able to use this time period as an entry point toward his post-WWII military service.

  1. posuane says:

    Thank you, Rayne. Lost my veteran brother just two days ago. (Vietnam era). Such a shock — completely unexpected. He looked handsome in his dress US Marine uniform. We were the two oldest — Irish twins. He will be buried in MD Veterans Cemetery with my mom and dad.

  2. Badger Robert says:

    Relationships come and go. Family disperses and moves to distant cities. Living as if every moment is a gift from Providence is the secret. It creates patience with the transitory nature of existence.

  3. Peterr says:

    I’ve learned a lot over the years of families and family dynamics such as those you describe here, Rayne. One trick that has helped me is to ask those “naive but difficult” questions of someone like your Uncle Ralph outside the earshot of others. It’s hard enough for someone like him to open up to anyone about some of the stories he has tucked away, but to do so in the presence of a group of folks is even harder.

    • Rayne says:

      Thanks, Peterr. I’ve been planning on this interview for some time now since I learned I was going to “babysit” the old man for a week while his spouse goes on a girls’ vacation with her daughters. It’ll be just me and him, nobody else for him to feel anxious in front of while sharing. I’m going to indulge him at cocktail hour each evening with what he has always referred to as his “red pop” — a Southern Comfort Manhattan — or his other favorite, a double Beefeaters martini extra dry, extra olives. Get either of those under his belt and he gets loquacious. More so when his other soft spot is tapped; if I explain this is going into a book I’ve been working on for his kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids, I think he’ll be cooperative.

      Not going to deny that I’m going to use some guilt as well. He’s in his mid-90s, we just don’t have a lot of time left. His first wife (my spouse’s mother) left a huge hole when she lost her ability to speak and then faded away due to progressive supranuclear palsy. I wish so much now I’d asked her more questions but between having young kids demanding my time and her illness misdiagnosed, we didn’t know we didn’t have time. He’s helped fill in some blanks for her; now we’ll have to work on his.

      • Peterr says:

        One more suggestion, given what you’ve laid out. The morning after the first of these conversations, maybe over mid-morning coffee, bring up some innocuous part of the previous evening’s discussion. “You know, I was thinking about what we talked about yesterday, and could you tell me more about XXX?” Encourage his memory in the morning, so that he spends some of his own time revisiting those old days, and he’ll likely be better and sharper at your next cocktail hour conversation.

        I’m headed to a family funeral this weekend, and will be having (and filing away) a bunch of conversations about old history myself.

        • Ginevra diBenci says:

          Peterr, I’m jumping on your excellent coaching here. Rayne, your post is amazing. You express the whole picture that contains such contradictory multitudes (as Whitman put it), and you write with such luminous, beautiful prose. It is like reading poetry with the propulsive property of a story. In other words, perfect.

          My Korea-vet father died three years ago of Covid, a few months shy of 90. My relationship with him was profoundly difficult; I didn’t speak to him for years. During the final decades of his life I realized I wanted to know him, partly to know myself but mainly to understand what happened to our family.

          I have found that tangible objects–news clippings, pieces of clothing and jewelry, songs (music is tangible)–trigger memories and make people less reluctant to talk. My dad never talked about his combat experience, until I found his army records–including all the letters he wrote home–and could ask specific questions. That opened the door–much farther than I expected. (I took notes. I couldn’t keep track of all the details about artillery and aircraft otherwise.)


        • Rayne says:

          I am giggling right now because I wasn’t planning on launching into anything over coffee but when he’s in need of distraction during treatments he has to have during the day several times a week. He’s bored out of his skull then, a captive audience.

          (The coffee is a no-go. Let me just say he loves a cuppa every day but it has a laxative effect…you can figure out the rest. LOL)

          • Peterr says:

            Better to giggle at the thought of it than grimace at the reality of it.

            (I shudder at the thought that this might happen to me at some later point in life. Having to go without my morning cuppa is just . . . wrong.)

  4. -mamake- says:

    I had an uncle I was very close to – in a silent, emotionally deep, way – we just tuned in to each other. Yet, he was the epitome of stoic, never, ever talking about the war or other serious losses in his life.

    Until I had a young child. We brought a board game called “Life Stories” to one of our visits. Very simple questions prompting players to recall and share events from their lives. Most questions were unprovocative. Yet in the telling and in our responses around the table – everyone was interested in things we’d never heard before – it seemed to gently nudge the release of stories that were more painful for my uncle, beyond the game. It surprised me especially since it did not work on another relative who, normally quite chatty, refused to even sit at the table with us.

    Thanks for the post & the resource, Rayne. Questions look great, quite extensive. It’s important to differentiate all the feelings and thoughts associated w/ family memories, known and unknown.

  5. Konny_2022 says:

    Thank you, Rayne, for sharing your memories and thoughts about your great-uncle! I understand your regret that you didn’t ask him some questions when he was still alive, but I know from my own experience that back then it was near impossible for children to ask the elders about their thoughts, let alone their feelings.

    As to your plan of talking with your father-in-law, I wish you all the best. However, I’d like to let you know that it may turn out not the way you hope. I once tried to ask friends of my parents’ who could escape Nazi Germany already in 1933 about their memories, assuming they as anti-fascists had nothing to hide. But I had to learn that my questioning was taken as an offense because the memories were too painful, so that I apologized and stopped asking. (As I learned later it was the feeling of guilt that they could escape whereas many of their family could not and were murdered in the concentration camps.)

    Whatsoever, talking with relatives about history and personal experiences in the past is important because so much is omitted from the history books, but it is not easy. So again: all the best for your endeavor!

  6. blueedredcounty says:

    Thank you for this post, Rayne.

    I suspect the only people with whom your uncle might have shared any info or history of the war would only be other veterans. My father served in the infantry in WWII, and he never shared any military stories with my sisters or myself. There was a story about him being knocked out and robbed after he won a large poker pot on the trip over to Europe. And I knew he’d been as far as Salzburg, he and his buddy from bootcamp had ended up as POW guards, and when they were re-called the two of them were ordered to march with over 30 prisoners (and no supplies). As they marched overnight, the people gradually disappeared to make their way back home.

    After he died in 2010, his buddy contacted me and told me the story about how a group of Russian soldiers had stumbled across them and attached themselves to the US group. Dad spoke Polish at home until he was 5 years old (1st generation) because my grandparents wanted him to learn how to speak good English from the nuns. Tommy told me he hadn’t even known Dad spoke another language, but it was close enough to Russian he was able to communicate and defuse the situation.

    Now that I’m sixty, I only found out a few months ago about how he got his Bronze star. One of my sisters saw a letter that accompanied the medal when it arrived at home (would have been the 50’s). When he was marching somewhere in France, the soldier in front of him had been killed, and my dad (a sharpshooter) was ordered to go around and to the back of the sniper’s nest and take it out. And I know from my other sister he carried that guilt until he died over sixty years later.

    I have no idea who it was, but it seems appropriate to be thinking about that fallen soldier and all the others on this Memorial Day.
    Good luck with your history collection, Rayne!

  7. pablointhegazebo says:

    Several years ago it was that I was invited to talk my piece at a local art center as part of a larger group. The subject was war remembrances. As we speakers sat in a circle the fellow next to me was nervous as his turn approached. His story was “Gum Wrappers”.

    His father had passed away not long ago and he was tasked with taking an inventory of his dad’s library. His father was a WWII veteran who seldom spoke of the war in any regard, and also a very frugal man. As he told the story he recounted that he found notes tucked away in some of the books. Keeping the cost at a minimum his dad would write critiques of passages in history books of the war on gum wrappers and leave them in the pages. He would sometimes refute a passage and sometimes correct it, or sometimes submit his own opinion. These were the only glimpses my new friend had of his father’s wartime experience.

    I inquired afterward through our moderator if I could get a copy of his prepared text. I was told that the author was a learned and private man, a physics professor, and that he did not want to have his story repeated. I suppose that is how his father would have wanted it, and appreciated better how the professor was nervous and correct in telling the story only once.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      A common trait among the Greatest Generation, not talking about their war. I had an older friend who talked about it only two or three times. His name was Joe, really. About twenty-one when he finished training, from a small Midwestern town, he turned his head whenever a local called his name. It’s what they called every G.I. He knew it, but couldn’t stop turning to see if it was someone he knew.

      After several months, he was shot down and fought with the local partisans before getting out. Taken to a village, he was feted for being the tip of the American spear that would liberate them. They asked him what he wanted. Hungry and homesick, he said a steak. That was the end of the village cow. He never afterwards let anyone buy him a dinner.

  8. P J Evans says:

    Our department manager told us, not long before he retired, about his father, who had been a prisoner of the Japanese, and didn’t talk about it until he was approaching death.

  9. Eschscholzia says:

    I highly recommend talking with your father in law, perhaps after dinner and over dessert and a drink.

    One of the coolest things my cousin David did was invite my mom & me over for several dinners, where he set up a good microphone and recorded a couple of hours of oral history each time, then transcribed it. Mom’s memory was already slipping (early 90s at the time), but we got a lot of stories about our moms’ growing up, moving from Chicago to outside Albuquerque as kids (the day before Chicago was going to stick grandpa in a sanitorium for the TB he caught in WWI), their move to San Diego in 1940, their jobs getting in on the ground floor of radar identification and undersea sound for the Navy, even their dating. And, lots of information I never knew about various black sheep and outcasts in that side of our family because that was kept from us as kids. Making it a nice social dinner in mom’s honor, then “story time” over dessert and wine, made it much less formal and guarded. David had a list of a few topic questions, but most of the conversation was follow-ons to a given thread, which could wander as different topics connected (or my mom’s attention wandered with a bit too much wine). His questions also started with some more enjoyable aspects of her life, rather than leading with the painful parts, but we got to them. And, at least in my sample size of 1, it worked better by being led by her nephew not by me, as she didn’t sanitize or withhold nearly as much as she would have with me.

    Peterr, -mamake-, Konny_2022, and I seem to all be talking about ways to make it non-threatening, informal, and an enjoyable conversation with your FIL, not an interrogation. I hope the encouragement and our experiences help.

  10. Ed Walker says:

    I’ve read a little history over the years, and it seems like it’s always the stories of the rich and powerful, never the stories of regular people, and their lives. And yet, that would be the most interesting kind of history, I think, to see how people lived their everyday lives at different times. As an example, Iris Origo wrote The Merchant Of Prato, based on letters that somehow survived from the 14th C. There must be others.

    The twin days, Veterans Day and Memorial Day make me wonder how people living their lives get sucked into the wars created by the rich and powerful. We get lost to history. General Pershing and William Randolf Hearst are remembered.

    • Epicurus says:

      Resistance by Halik Kochanski is a book about European resistance in WWII. It is a wonderful book centered on many, many people no one ever heard of (and never will unless they read the book) even though rich and powerful make necessary appearances.

    • Ken Muldrew says:

      Only literate people could write letters in the 14th century, so most of humanity left no records of their lives.

      • Peterr says:

        The record is there, as long as you don’t limit “record” to written historical documents. The Harvard University Press has a five volume “History of Private Lives” that uses all kinds of data to illuminate life beyond the public view of the elites of the era. The series runs from “Pagan Rome” to the 20th Century.

    • Rayne says:

      Even minutiae from family’s personal histories tells us so much, like birth and death records, bills of sale, contracts. I wish now I’d located the business records from my grandfather’s gas station he owned and operated during WWII because it would have told stories the graves can’t. My mom still grumbles about a family which owed my grandfather thousands at the time of his death on which she would never attempt to collect; why did he not insist on payment? Does the indebtedness sync with the dates on headstones? My gut says yes but the books are long gone and mom is too resentful to discuss it.

      And the rich dudes who owned vacation places just up the road — like Evinrude, Ford, Hammer — will have nothing squirreled away to say or share about this at all.

  11. Georgia Girl says:

    Thank you for your memories, Rayne, and for the memories everyone here shared. But don’t forget the women who serve. My mother and father were both veterans of WW II. Mom, a U.S. Army nurse, spent 6 months in London under daily attack from V-1 and V-2 rocket bombs while assisting at surgery on the wounded evacuated from Normandy. Then she spent 4 months at a field hospital following the troops into Germany, and another 7 months setting up an army hospital in Wiesbaden and treating people who came out of the camps. There were no parades when she got home. She worked nights for years, so we wouldn’t know about her nightmares.

    My Dad was a rare bird. He arrived in Okinawa to set up a prisoner of war camp carrying grenade fragments in his legs from the Battle of the Bulge. Then he fought in Korea and Vietnam. He believed Vietnam was unwinnable and his experience in the 1968 Tet Offensive proved it. He had planned to serve thirty years but put in for retirement his last week in country.

    My family is “white.” My parents were born and grew up poor in Alabama, but you never ever heard the N-word (or any ethnic slur) or any sentiment associated with using the N-word in their house. Nor was there ever any expression of prejudice against the Germans, Japanese, Koreans, or Vietnamese. War doesn’t make racists. At least, it doesn’t have to.

    However, war experience can destroy belief in a reliable moral order, and that can lead to the kind of callousness, prejudice, and dishonesty that Rayne’s uncle displayed, especially when there’s hardship and loss after the war, such as having a quadriplegic son. There was no reward for Rayne’s uncle’s service and no happily ever after for him. The only people with whom he could really share his memories were probably drinking at the VFW or in the graves that he fussed over so tenderly.

    In the words of the poet Walt Whitman, who nursed wounded Union troops in the American Civil War, “The real war will never get into the books.” It’s not easy to get veterans to open up. First, they want to protect their relationships with their families. Second, they can’t trust the motives of people who say they want to listen. There is listening to understand, and there is listening as voyeurism and listening to condemn. So, those of you planning to ask your relatives to talk about hard things, ask yourself if you are prepared to be really uncomfortable and to have your view of the world challenged by ugly realities you haven’t yourself experienced directly. If you aren’t prepared, leave your combat veteran relatives alone.

    • pablointhegazebo says:

      Thank you Georgia Girl.
      I would add that one should also be prepared for what the consequences of opening up old wounds would be to the veteran. These things weren’t put away for nothing, and sometimes taking them back out can hurt.

      • Georgia Girl says:

        Thank you, Pablo. That is so true. For many the wounds look closed, but all it takes to tear them open again is a sound, a smell, or a question that is poorly phrased but kindly meant.

  12. Wayne_16DEC2020_1134h says:

    Several years before my father’s passing, I interviewed him for the Library of Congress’ Veteran’s History Project.

    Starter questions are easily available and once you get started, they all kinda work out.

    Dad was a WW II vet, neither rich nor famous. It was the only time I remember him speaking of the war.

    [Welcome back to emptywheel. Please choose and use a unique username with a minimum of 8 letters. We are moving to a new minimum standard to support community security. Because your username is far too common it will be temporarily changed to match the date/time of your first known comment as “Wayne” until you have a new compliant username. Thanks. /~Rayne] Thanks. /~Rayne]

  13. PeteT0323 says:

    That you Rayne.

    My father did not serve in WWII or even in the military due to severe physical limitations. I do not know about my mother’s father. That side was racist, but I think the uncles were only that way to appease the father. But again I do not know.

    And that’s the point. I do a lot of Ancestral research for my own extended family and others on a voluntary basis.

    The singe biggest regret people have – and me as well – is that we did not take the time to just talk with our parents, grandparents and, if lucky, the Greats too – and their siblings.

    So much is lost. One may be lucky to come across a Bible annotating past generations, but even if you have that you may not have the gift of just talking, remembering, and passing along stories from those who have passed – or will.


    I have maybe hundreds of family pictures from my paternal aunt’s collection. She is long gone. Not ONE of those pics has the names of the people written on the pic. The time to have gone through them was a when she was alive. She knew who they were. Every darn one of them. I’m sure of that.

    • Rayne says:

      Not ONE of those pics has the names of the people written on the pic.

      I feel that, all of it. After my MIL died my FIL handed me his wedding album which I am supposed to safeguard for his nine grandkids and their children, and not one photo had a name or explanation with it. I asked him to do so, just scribble down what he knew on sticky notes on each page of photos. It resolved about 2/3rds of the photos but not all. And he’s not able to help me whatsoever with the photos from her side of the family before they were married.

      The Bible annotations I’ve gotten, thanks to his second wife who has been understanding and supportive. Those have told a story I don’t even know if MIL knew. I may have to write a novel about that family some day though it may be like reading another Barkskins by Annie Proulx.

  14. aduckisaduck says:

    Rayne—Thank you for the story of your great uncle and your family’s reactions to him. It clearly resonated with many of the people who responded with their own experiences with vets. I will add my own experience with WWII vets, including my father but also almost all of his age-mates. (I lived in a city with a strong military presence and lots of vets.) As a kid I watched all the war movies and their unrealistic daring-do. But the vast majority of the men didn’t talk about exploits, either at home or at more public get-togethers. And when I eagerly listened in when they were talking with each other, I was rather disappointed. The stories they told were sideline banter: the cooks who gave the whole troop ship food poisoning; the cringe-worthy contretemps that resulted from trying to communicate in foreign languages; the fury and despair when the company still got bombed (they fixed it quickly), etc. It was only long after my father’s death that my mother gave me a packet of his letters from the Pacific. They were carefully framed, but they were from a man I did not recognize. Despite some superficial, reassuring tropes, they were from a deeply emotional man who was troubled by the things that we did to win “the Great War.” Though in careful terms, he went on at substantial length; the man I knew was as silent as a tomb. He wrote that the hardest part of his job was censoring the letters the men of his company wrote home.

    • Georgia Girl says:

      Aduckisaduck, If your family can bear to part with them, please consider giving your father’s WWII letters to an archive where they will be preserved.

      You could explore submitting the letters to your state university’s library where they can be digitized and returned to you. Then they can available to your whole family and to historians through the library’s digital archives site. I’ve worked on a project with the Digital Library of Georgia. Their digital librarians are fiercely dedicated to making the documentary history of all Georgians as widely available as possible. They work hard at making the process easy to navigate. You are likely to find that university librarians in your area are doing the same.

      • Rayne says:

        Thanks for the suggestion, Georgia Girl. I’ve learned so much from the UK’s National Archives collection of letters, like these from WWI as just one example. I could pick up a text about WWI but the immediacy and details in letters is invaluable and too often diluted by historians by the necessity for brevity.

      • aduckisaduck says:

        Georgia Girl–Thanks for the suggestion. It’s definitely something I would consider (“the family” involved is by now pretty much me). I will have to research which institutions have what kinds of collections. Some years ago another vet (the father of a friend) decided he wanted his stories recorded and preserved (this was near the beginning of “living history” projects). So his kid and I did some online scouting. Even then there were numerous divisional or regimental archives, and some for local historical societies. It seems to me I’d have to try to unearth my father’s Army record to connect to those sorts of collections. I’m sure there is a wider variety of collections now. Maybe your suggestion of checking academic institutions that have set up collections as a resource for scholars and citizens would be a good place to start. Thanks for the nudge.

        • Georgia Girl says:

          Aduckisaduck, I recommend academic institutions because they are likely to have the biggest, most varied collections of veterans’ histories alongside collections related to various communities that can help you make cross-connections. Also, digitized collections are available 24/7 from just about anywhere in the world if you have the bandwidth.

          It can be expensive and frustrating to travel for hours to a state or private archive, wait to receive materials, and then have a limited time to study them. You can spend a lot of time just trying to figure out how a particular collection is organized before you can reach what you need.

  15. I Never Lie and am Always Right says:

    Thanks for this thread, Rayne, and thanks to everyone who has commented. One of my uncles who fought in WWII is still alive. He’s told plenty of stories about his combat experiences and even wrote a book. But there are some things about which he has never spoken and about which he never will speak. He’s conservative but is otherwise the antithesis of the “Ralphs” of the world. Very warm and outgoing and beloved by everyone who knows him. We have been so fortunate to have him in our family.

    Another member of our extended family was, until recently, a historian employed by a large organization. He literally spent his career interviewing people and documenting their stories. Shortly after my dad (who applied for the OSS during WWII but was turned down) was diagnosed with terminal cancer, my historian relative spent 3 days interviewing my dad. I have the bound transcript of those interviews – one of my most prized possessions.

  16. theartistvvv says:

    My father’s best friend – whom I called, “uncle” – fought at Anzio, and then throughout Italy. He only ever told funny stories about the war, declining even to explain how (I learned later) his thumb was shot off in battle. When he passed, I inherited his books, including a half dozen or so about WWII, and a second edition of *The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich*. That book came out at a time when Nazism was a different thing than today, and its symbols had different, more historical meaning: the black dust jacket has a white swastika on it, which has more than once resulted in questions from guests who have seen it on my shelves. I treasure it for him.

    My own father fought as a battlefield-promoted sergeant in a reconnaissance unit – he was an artillery spotter of sorts. He finally did talk about the war towards the end of his life. In particular I remember his stories about being sent behind the lines to spot targets, accompanied by two GI’s with rifles. He had a fully loaded .45, their rifles were unloaded, and he carried the ammo – sometimes he would give them a couple cartridges to carry in their pockets. (I flew about a week after 9/11, and encountered Nat’l Guard in an airport in Columbus, OH and got to talking to the captain in charge who advised that none of the troops had ammo – he even showed my companion and I the boxed ammo behind the help desk.) The other story he told was about US snipers firing .50 rifles into North Korean concrete bunkers, killing the adversary by ricochet.

    I thought long and hard about their reticence and discretion in telling *real* war stories, glad I learned early not to press them.

  17. Notyouraveragenormal says:

    My father would sometimes speak of his father’s service in WWII, as a tank commander in the British Army. At one point, he spent six weeks retreating through Burma all the way to India while being chased by the Japanese army through the jungle. Armaments had to be left behind and dysentery was rife. Another period of his war was spent fighting (again, mostly retreating from) Rommel in North Africa, which can’t have been fun. Outside of the war, he was a tenant farmer and became one of the first marriage counselors in Britain. He died too young of a stroke while pumping a tractor tire, well before I came along, sadly. We cannot know his experience fully – particularly as my father was never a “details” guy – but my father adored him and it feels important to honor his father along with all the other individuals who did their best within the confines of the horrific collective history that is WWII. No generation has it all figured out and we never will, but we can conspire to learn from our hardships and failures and it’s the individual stories, including in this thread, that hit home the hardest.

  18. klynn says:

    Thank you for this post Rayne. So many of us grew up with, “…war stories inferred, never heard, but silently reflected.” The sad yet proud eyes during a 4th of July parade. The silent head bow and eyes closing at a evening news report of soldiers lost in combat. The catching of breath to finish singing the national anthem without choking up. Behind that wall of composure is the truth I wished to be shared but sensed boundaries that I opted to respect without questioning. Still, I often wished I had asked.

  19. Oldtulsadude says:

    My sister-in-law and I had to bury my only brother this January in Arlington; a Colonel, Chaplain, U.S. Army, retired. I salute you, brother, and I still regret not having told you how proud I was of you.

  20. JohnK-NOLA says:

    My father was a B-17 ball turret gunner in WWII. Like quite a few of the soldiers mentioned here, he almost never spoke about his war experiences. I came to understand that his way of coping was to joke and laugh. He was a funny guy with a lot of friends, even if he was the only Democrat in a sea of Republicans. (When my brother asked him about how he met our mom, he said, “my buddy and I went to a dance at Dominican College hoping to meet some rich girls. Just my luck, I ended up with the one on scholarship.) I didn’t realize the extent of his trauma until he was close to the end of his life.
    In 2004, New Orleans was under evacuation orders for Hurricane Ivan (which eventually detoured to the Florida panhandle). We both decided to stay, alone, at our respective houses. My mom left for Houston and my girlfriend and her daughters left for Mississippi. During the chaos of the evacuation, my dad got in a minor accident but it was enough to activate the airbags. My mother called and asked me to go check on him. After fighting through evacuation traffic, I finally got there and found him sitting on the sofa, staring at a television that wasn’t turned on, burns on his face from the airbag. “Daddy, are you alright? He turned slowly toward me and answered, “I got sixty bonus years.”
    Three weeks later, he had a stroke which began a decline into dementia that culminated with his death in 2010. In the interim, because I had a job that enabled me to spend time with him and help care for him, I became a sounding board and the stories began to leak out. His battalion (it was the Army Air Corps) suffered an 87% casualty rate. He flew 21 missions into Germany and their plane was not only shot at, but hit multiple times, on every one of those missions. He had at least one of his friends killed inside the plane. Airmen were somewhat reluctant to make friends because so many of them would leave on a mission and never be seen again. On their last mission over Germany, three of their engines were shot out and the fourth was damaged. The pilot very heroically managed to get the plane over the water and into Sweden, where they crash landed.
    He had never parachuted before and was scared shitless. He landed in a field on a farm and ‘the most beautiful woman he had ever seen’ came running out to meet him. She was as excited to see him as he was to get his feet on solid ground. She loved the silk material of his parachute, so he gave it to her, something he later got in trouble for. He spent the last eight months of the war as a POW in Sweden, not a bad gig at all. Their only real restriction in that neutral country was a curfew.
    The fog of dementia must certainly bear similarities to the fog of war. One particularly poignant moment he recalled while looking through both types of fog. He told me that a German fighter plane once got close enough for him to clearly see the face of his enemy, a handsome young pilot who seemed just as afraid as he was. He looked at me in absolute bewilderment and said, “Why am I trying to kill this beautiful young man and why is he trying to kill me?” I had no answer.

    • RipNoLonger says:

      These are all beautiful stories. I just wanted to tag along on yours which was so moving. Thank you, and your father.

  21. Lawnboy says:

    When I started my career I had the good fortune to meet a POW from the battle of Hong Kong ( 6 days of running and being shot at). They had no chance at all and on Christmas Day all those still breathing met up on top of a hill, started a huge fire, bent the rifles and surrendered. They had previously demo’d the air strip.

    The next 2 years, they rebuilt that same landing runway and their thanks…..a hellish boat ride to Nagasaki!!!!The remainder of the war they all worked in a coal mine with only one day off per year, the big guys bday. Arthur lied about his age (15) and when they were saved , by one American paratrooper, he was not 20. He was there so long he could speak and read the language. He was told by one of the better guards there had been a huge explosion in town , that the war was over.

    He was gifted pastel drawings of the camp life by a very talented American artist, seeing them made the hair on my arms stand up, it was as if I was transported back to that time. Back in Vancouver, Art was told he would not make 27 and was pensioned.

    I am thankful that he was able to talk about his ordeal and because of that I can share it with you. This year I found his story in the archives and learned there were Nuremburg styled trials because of the actions of the guards and conditions. His was one of the worst camps ,for example the Red Cross packages were 2 years old when opened. ( and there is so much I have not said, but the pictures tell it all).

    I will never forget Arthur B.

  22. Georgia Girl says:

    As the daughter and sister of combat veterans, I tend to dread Memorial Day and Veterans Day because where I live the celebrations are run by right-wing chicken hawks who worship the machine powers of war without valuing the people who serve. This Memorial Day was different for me, thanks to Rayne and to those who responded to Rayne’s stories about her uncle. Most of the stories are painful, but to know that everyone who posted here felt a desire and responsibility to learn, share, and preserve those stories lifted my spirits. Thank you all.

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