My grandfather was an Army Air Corps pilot. He flew a B-24 “liberator” in World War II. He was part of the 445th Bomb Group, stationed at Tibenham, England. Today is the 67th anniversary of his death.
When I married a military pilot, my grandmother lost her ability to speak to me for a while. The first time she fully tried to grasp what, exactly, this man I was going to marry did in the Marine Corps, she clarified a couple times – “He’s a pilot?” “I mean, he flies planes into combat?” I saw dark shadows pass across her eyes as I confirmed that yes, this man I loved had the same job as a man that she loved many years ago – the man she could no longer talk about or even acknowledge aloud.
I learned about my grandfather from my mom and from her grandmother. That was my great-grandma. I have fond memories of her, though I always suspected that she liked my brother more than she cared for me. How could I know, as a child, that when she looked at my brother she probably saw shadows of her lost son? My brother looked just like my grandfather as a boy. That woman, my great-grandma, lost two boys to World War II. A third, “Uncle Bill,” was kept from “joining up” as a result. I cannot imagine what she went through during those times. I often look at my boys and hope that they don’t think they should follow their dad’s footsteps.
Today I shared the smallest glimpse of what my grandmother might have endured, in reading the journal my grandfather kept during flight training, and in reading the letters sent home by the men who flew with him. There was a picture of her in black at a memorial parade held soon after his death. I stared at it for a long time, trying to read her face. Part of me marveled that she had participated in this (there were four widows at the front of the procession), as I cannot recall her ever acknowledging my mom’s father, but she’d probably gotten to her silence gradually.
My mother was born two weeks exactly before her father was killed by the flak that entered the cockpit during a bombing mission over France. As she was beginning to see those who loved her for the first time, I imagine many of their faces were torn with conflict — joy at this new life, and grief for the father she’d never have the opportunity to know.
The strangest part of reading the documents and looking at the photos was realizing the date. It was a complete coincidence that I was going through these things today of all days – the anniversary of his death.
I can’t pretend to know what it is like to lose your spouse to war. I can only hope that my ignorance will continue. Given The Major’s current career path, the odds are good that he won’t deploy again, so my ignorance is likely to continue.