My Life-Long Quest for my World War II Airman Father

The title "Carrying Fire" is taken from Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, in which Sheriff Ed Tom Bell talks about his own father. “I had two dreams about him after he died. I don’t remember the first one all that well. But the second one it was like we was both back in older times and I was on horseback goin through the mountains of a night. Goin through this pass in the mountains. It was cold and there was snow on the ground and he rode past me and kept on goin. Never said nothing. He just rode on past and he had this blanket wrapped around him and he had his head down and when he rode past I seen that he was carryin fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. About the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin on ahead and that he was fixin to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there.”

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Posthumous Medals, 1951

Color Guard At Medal Ceremony 

In June, 1947, shortly after receiving word that Don’s body had been found and moved to St. Avold Cemetery in France but was still unidentified, my mother got a letter informing her that she would shortly receive his Purple Heart posthumously. In part the letter read: “It is sent to you as a tangible expression of the country’s gratitude for his gallantry and devotion. The loss of a loved one is beyond man’s repairing. And the medal is of slight value; not so, however, the message it carries. Have all been comrades in arms in the battle for our country, and those who have gone are not, and never will be forgotten by those of us who remain. I hope you will accept the medal in evidence of such remembrance.”

I was almost five years old and ready to start school that September, and I remember my mother showing me the medal and telling me it would be mine when I got older, but that she would keep it safely in the meantime.

In January of 1950, she received word that his body had been identified and the Army was awaiting disposition instruction as to what to do with the remains. As I explained in the last chapter, because Jocile had just remarried the month before, that right of disposition passed to Don’s mother who elected to have him returned to California. Actually, I was the next-of-kin, but because I was a minor I was not consulted.

Then in January 1951, when I was eight years old, we got word that as next-of-kin I would be receiving my father's Air Medal at a ceremony on January 26, at the Douglas Aircraft plant in Long Beach, which had produced B-17s as well as other aircraft during the war. We had driven past that location several times since it was on Lakewood Blvd. which ran down to the beach and the amusement park known as “The Pike.” 

Douglas Aircraft, Long Beach, California

Women At Work on B-17

On the morning of the ceremony, my mother made sure I was dressed appropriately as if we were going to church. I was quite anxious and nervous in anticipation of what the day would bring. My mother and step-father Rulon and my five-year-old brother Steve drove down to Long Beach on a gray, gloomy morning. The grayness only added to my anxiety.

When we arrived the area was already crowded with airmen in uniform with their families and several photographers and reporters. Apparently many WWII airmen were also receiving medals and commendations that day. When the time came for assembly I stood in father’s place in the front row of the ranks among uniformed men who all looked huge next to an eight-year-old boy. While standing there I was almost sure there had been some mistake, that my father was not dead and would appear and would pick me up and tell me everything was alright. Perhaps he had been wounded and was on crutches but that was still okay.

I had just seen a movie called “Three Came Home,” with Claudette Colbert about a family in the Philippines separated by war. The mother and son and other women and children were kept in one camp while all the men were taken somewhere else. Near the end the war the Japanese captors fled before the advancing American forces and all the women and children gathered on the road to greet their returning husbands and fathers. The men began coming over the hill and rushing down to greet their families, but there is no sign of Claudette’s husband. Just as she and the son were about to turn away in sorrow the husband finally appears over the crest of the hill on crutches barely able to walk. He rushes toward his family but falls in the dusty road. The mother and son rush to help him, and the family is together once more.

I am not sure that particular film was on my mind that morning, but I was hoping for a similar ending.

As the ceremony began a ranking officer came down the line presenting medals and ribbons to the assembled airmen and exchanging salutes with each one. It was a rather somber event with serious looks on all faces. When he came to me he had to bend down to pin the Air Medal on me, then he stood and saluted and I didn’t know what to do except salute back, then he smiled and shook my hand. I noticed that the airmen on either side of me were smiling too.

When the ceremony was completed and before all the men were dismissed they called me forward for a photograph and my brother Steve joined me. Even today the looks on the faces of those little boys speak volumes and my heart goes out to them over all the years. 

My father had not appeared as I had hoped and I had to finally accept that he was not coming back, though it was a bitter pill to swallow. I don’t think that Steve had the same conflicted emotions since he was born after our father was killed and he had no memories of him. Rulon was the only father he had known and fully accepted. It took me a while longer to shift allegiances but in time I came to love Rulon Neilson for the fine, decent and kind man that he was. From the beginning he called us “his boys” and we called him Dad. He shared his love of the outdoors with us, taught us to shoot and took us camping and hunting and fishing. I also learned how to work on cars and other machinery from him: skills that have served me well through the years.

Sometime after that June morning, my mother approached me asked me since I now had two medals, the Air Medal and the Purple Heart, if I would like to share one with my brother. Since the Air Medal had been ceremoniously presented to me I chose it and let Steve have the Purple Heart. From an eight-year-old boy’s perspective the Air Medal with its sunburst design and with a diving eagle with lightning bolts in its talons was more romantic, plus at that age I did not appreciate the value of the Purple Heart. To this day we are each proud keepers of these medals of our father’s valor.

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