(For my non-American readers, this post is in honor of the American holiday of Memorial Day)
My parents, Mae and Bert, were members of the “Greatest Generation,” that group of Americans who stepped up, despite a strong isolationist trend, to defend freedom across the globe during the second world war. But their story is not complete without mentioning my “step-father.”
I put that in quotes because there is no legal designation for Jim, my mother’s first husband, They had no children and were only married a short time. As we don’t have clear records, any dates are guess work except for the dates that everyone knows, like December 7, 1941.
On that Sunday, my mother was hanging curtains in her apartment in Philadelphia when the news broke in with the announcement of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The nation’s thin veil of isolationism was ripped off and within days, we were at war with all three of the major aggressors: Japan, Germany and Italy.
Very soon after my mother’s husband Jim enlisted in the Army Air Corps and they were off to basic training in the mid-west. After basic, Jim was trained to be the radio operator and flexible gunner on the B-17 (think: Memphis Belle). His first tour took him overseas to the European Theater. There, his squadron was assigned a bombing mission that took him into northern Italy/Austria. While on that first mission, his bomber was attacked and strafed by Luftwaffe Messerschmitts and Jim Ferguson died instantly.
My mother joined the ranks of a Gold Star wife. I can not imagine what she went through. But I do know that she was strong, stronger than I ever gave her credit for being. She did not wallow in her grief. She took action.
Before long, my mom was graduating from basic training at Parris Island, South Carolina – a Marine! She went to work in Washington, D. C. as a typist. She spent the rest of the war typing copies of correspondences sent through the War Department, no doubt she copied many ‘condolences’ letters. This whole time, my actual father was an active airman in the Royal Canadian Air Force.
He spent his early years as a crew member on the Vickers-Wellington, a bomber nicknamed “The Whimpie,” flying out of English airbases to bomb industrial sites in northern Germany. He was a wireless air gunner, the same assignment that Jim had on the B-17. After his European tour, he was assigned crew duties on the west coast of Canada until he finished his enlistment. Upon his discharge from the RCAF, he moved to Philadelphia, PA, USA to take advantage of new opportunities in the exploding post-war economy of America.
They met (in a bar), got married, had three sons, moved around (a lot), finally settling in South Carolina. My father, having been a life-long smoker, died from Emphysema and that is where the story doubles back.
My mother never pursued anything about her first husband. She had their marriage license, his Purple Heart, and his death notice, but that was it. It wasn’t until she became a widow for the second time that her sister (HT: Oprah) became aware of a pension for the widows of WWII soldiers killed in action. If she had the needed documentation, then the government had some money for her. She did, and my mother soon began receiving a monthly pension that allowed her to live comfortably until her death in 2003.
One interesting piece of memorabilia that my mom kept was a handwritten letter from Jim’s C. O. describing the circumstances around Jim’s death. The officer wrote in prose that was respectful and dignified. He was tender toward my mother, although they had never met. That Commanding Officer’s name was Norman Lear. All the years of watching All In The Family, and this was never mentioned until we read the letter that she had kept.
So, the man she first married, her high school sweetheart, ended up caring for her in her later years, even though my father could not. All three of them did what they could for their country and the fight for freedom, one, Jim Ferguson, “gave the last full measure of devotion.” For that, I will always be thankful.
One time, when mom was alone and still independent, I called her on Memorial Day with the joyful greeting: “Happy Memorial Day!” Her response? “What’s ‘happy’ about it?” I never truly understood the meaning of this day until that moment. She had lost a husband, she had seen her world turned upside down, then righted again by brave men and women whose ranks she joined. She understood the cost, the sacrifice, and the long-term scars that never truly heal.
May we, at least once a year, take time to consider all that has been done for us by those who have passed on. May you have a prayerful, respectful, and thankful Memorial Day.