Originally posted to Blogger on 5/28/12
During World War II my grandparents had between them 7 brothers serving in different branches of the armed forces. Of those 7, one was a POW for a time, who barely escaped with his life. Only one brother did not return home, but that was one too many.
What a time of great stress and tension this must have been for my grandparents, as they would sit around the radio to hear the “war news”, wait for a V-mail letter to arrive or the few and far between POW postcards with Hitler’s likeness on the stamp.
My grandparents were originally from southern Indiana but Grandpa came north for work. Grandpa himself had served as a cook in the army during peace time between WWI and WWII. One of my favorite photos of him is in his uniform. He was a very handsome man even till the day he died.
A few of my Grandma’s brothers came to live with my grandparents from time to time for work in the 1940’s. Her brother Dareld brought 14-year-old brother Harold to live with big sister Ida when their Dad remarried and during the war younger brother Norman, while having enlisted in Indiana came to Illinois to live with my grandparents, working till it was time for him to leave. He left for basic training from my grandparents’ home. I wonder if my Grandma ever thought this would be the last time she would see her brother.
Norman sent a small suitcase of the very few personal belongings he had, back to my Grandma when he finished his basic training and was being shipped out. A few years ago while Grandma and I were looking for something in her closet we came across that old suitcase of a young man long gone. Although there wasn’t much in it and I hadn’t of course met my great-uncle Norman, there was still so much sadness thinking a few pieces of clothing, a handful of pictures and letters was all that was left of him, other than the memories my grandma had locked in her head. I brought home an old blue striped hat he used to wear and his old blue and white worn out handkerchief, worthless to everyone else, but priceless to a great-niece. I wonder if he wiped away his tears with it as he said goodbye to his big sister Ida that day he left, or did he stand there hugging her goodbye with pride going off to war? Both the hat and handkerchief hang in my entryway and there’s not a day that I don’t look to them and think of my great-uncle who lost his life at war for our country and his family.
Norman became friends with another soldier named Percy Sims while they were in basic and served overseas together. Norman asked his big sister Ida if she would write to Percy too, because his family didn’t write to him like Ida wrote to Norman. It was Percy who got the first word to Ida that her brother Norman had been killed. Ida’s father had received an official notice from the war department that Norman was missing in action, but Percy knew first hand that Norman was dead. It is my belief that Percy witnessed Norman’s death, killed in action somewhere in the North African area on 14 Sept. 1944.
Percy’s letter stated that Norman “was resting forever”. Service letters were censored; he couldn’t say “killed”. Somehow these words “resting forever” made it through the censors.
It was 1944, my mother was just 4 years old, yet she remembered this day vividly. A memory of the first time she remembers her mother crying, a memory of her mother laying her head down on the Library table crying for her brother, and his death.
Ida knew before her own father that his young son was dead, just short of his 20th birthday, but she could not bring herself to tell her father. I wonder if she was trying to spare him from this anguish just as long as possible or if she herself was hoping it was not true.
The government notified her Dad about two weeks later by official notice that Norman had been “killed in action in the North African area”. What little comfort could those words bring? Did my Grandma even know Norman was in the North African area or where that was even located? My grandma locked most of her memories down, either she didn’t want to share the deeper emotions with me or maybe I didn’t want to press her hard to bring the sadness into the room, back to her heart and into mine, too painful for both of us maybe. I’ve read Percy Sims’ letter and the pain felt so raw to me then.
Grandma’s brother Dareld was able to visit Norman’s grave in Italy, during his service. When the “powers that be” found out Dareld had a brother killed in action they sent Dareld back to the States to finish his enlistment. According to my grandma, “They were afraid he might go off and kill anybody he saw”, because of Norman’s death. Wasn’t that what they were all there for, to fight a war?
Norman’s body remained buried in Italy for four years before he was shipped home. I cannot imagine how that must have felt for the family. Norman so far from home, I wonder if they could almost pretend he wasn’t dead, but he was gone and when the casket was finally brought back home to Indiana, his casket lay in his father’s home. Ida hung his picture on the drape behind the casket. They had a little service there before burying him at Pleasant Hill Cemetery on a cold December day. The 5th of December, 1948. Four years later, as if to live his death all over again.
My Grandma never had the opportunity to meet Norman’s friend, Percy, she was saddened to lose contact with him some time after Norman’s death, Percy had told her he would be sure to come and meet her and my Grandpa. Years later she made contact with Percy’s mother. Percy’s mother told Grandma that Percy had a nervous breakdown after Norman’s death. One can only imagine what he had seen during his tour of duty and wonder if he hadn’t himself witnessed his best friend Norman’s death.
When the war ended my Grandma remembers being elated, but grieving. Norman would not be one of the ones celebrating this victory of the end of WWII. Norman would most likely have returned to Ida’s to live after his time in the service and maybe I would have had the chance to know him, to listen while he played his guitar, to hear his stories, remember his laugh and to love him. My great Uncle Norman served exactly one year to the day he died. He was 19 years old the day he died in the Northern area of Africa, just two months shy of his 20th birthday.