For many, the highlight of their Memorial Day weekend was a social activity–gathering with friends for a barbecue or going to the beach with family members. For me, the highlight of the Memorial Day weekend was time travel. I opened two boxes sent to me by my cousin Jim containing personal effects of 1st Lt. Joseph A. Doyle, Jr. These items took me back to the 1940’s when my Uncle Joe went overseas to serve his country in World War II and never returned.
My uncle, a bomber pilot in the U.S. Army Air Force, gave the ultimate sacrifice for his country on April 28, 1945 when the plane he was piloting crashed. He was buried in a U.S. military cemetery in Italy. While Uncle Joe never returned home, his personal belongings did; they were sent to his parents back in South Carolina. My grandparents and all but one of Uncle Joe’s siblings have now died, and the family home is being prepared for sale. I offered to take my uncle’s things my cousin found in that that process for safekeeping.
Two boxes, one large and one small, containing the only tangible things left of a life cut short by war were sent to me.. Although I was eager to learn more about my uncle, a man I had never met, I was not sure how I would react to what I found. Moreover, I felt a huge responsibility possessing the boxes; a hero’s legacy was now in my hands.
The first box I opened, the smaller of the two boxes, contained a box wrapped in plastic. This was the “death box.” The aged box was the original box mailed to my grandfather, for whom my Uncle Joe was named. Inside was a U.S. flag. No note was found inside the box, at least as it was sent to me. The folded flag inside is aged; I was afraid to unfold it out of both fear and respect. This flag may have draped the casket containing my uncle’s remains or may simply have been flown at the cemetery which serves as Uncle Joe’s final resting place.
What conflicting emotions my grandfather must have felt upon receiving and opening this box. Obviously, he would have been proud of his son’s service to his country. But as a parent, he must have been heartbroken to realize that what he held in his hands was all that was left of his hopes and dreams for his firstborn. War may have killed my uncle, but it also shattered the hearts of his family members.
The second box I opened was the “life box.” It contained objects which help me to learn who my uncle was. Sure, he was a war hero, but he was a son, a sweetheart, and a young man. Clearly, Uncle Joe loved his family. In one aged photograph, a woman who bears a striking resemblance to my mother holds a baby. I believe this was my grandmother, “Mimi” as the grandchildren called her, with her firstborn, my Uncle Joe. Other photographs show a very pretty woman all dressed up and in a swimsuit (tame by today’s standards). No identification is on the back, but I am pretty sure that the woman is Uncle Joe’s sweetie, Sue.
A cigar box in the “life box” held military items such as Uncle Joe’s lieutenant bars and a military sewing kit. It also contained two wooden pipes. I picture military guys smoking cigarettes; a pipe seems sophisticated. Although I don’t smoke (and never have), I don’t begrudge my uncle that vice. If smoking a pipe gave him some comfort as he faced death on a daily basis, then who am I to criticize?
In his leisure time, Uncle Joe collected stamps. A booklet containing a stamp collection and a plethora of loose stamps were interspersed with the military items. Stamp collecting seems so normal. How could he even concentrate on such an activity with hell breaking loose all around him? Perhaps it took him away from the horrors of war if only for a short time.
Numerous letters and paperwork filled the life box. His faded flight records and his promotion order from second lieutenant to first lieutenant tell of his military activities in the months leading up to his death. A letter from the War Department documented that Uncle Joe was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with Three-Oak Clusters prior to his untimely demise. The former award was for his bravery in aerial flights against the enemy in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations. These hazardous combat missions were “against vital targets deep in enemy occupied territory.”
Some of the letters were personal ones from his sweetie. He was endearingly referred to as “General” and “Sugarpants.” Serving his country meant that he was sent far away not only from his family but from a woman who loved him very much. His life and his future were taken from him at such a young age. Uncle Joe never got to marry, never got to have children, never got to see his numerous nieces and nephews, never got to finish college. He never got to return to his home and be hugged and welcomed by his mother.
Uncle Joe’s was just one in huge number of deaths resulting from World War II. War is indeed hell–both during the conflict and living with the losses afterwards. These losses are recognized by our country on a national holiday, Memorial Day. This holiday only comes around once a year, but for those who sacrificed all, that sacrifice took away every day for every year thereafter. Is it asking too much for Americans not to forget why we have this holiday? If you were able to enjoy a barbecue or a trip to the beach on Memorial Day, thank God for those who were willing to give their very lives in order to serve their country and ensure you could engage in those activities.
JUST WONDER-ing: Do you have a friend or a family member who gave his/her life in service to our country? If so, how did that loss affect you? What do you think is the best way to honor those have have made the ultimate sacrifice for us?