Yesterday afternoon, my partner and I were notified that her Uncle George had passed away in the afternoon. He had been ill with heart disease for the last few years, and when we saw him two weeks ago, we feared that it would be the last time. And so, it was.
But if I want to honor Uncle George’s memory, I had best NOT be sad. Uncle George was a World War II vet, volunteering soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Originally slated to be a mechanic, Uncle George eventually found his way into the Army Air Corps as a bombardier/navigator on a B-25. He participated in the North African/Italian campaigns.
Once he discovered I was a historian and interested in his experiences, well, he was in heaven. Clearly, the war was the most memorable part of his long life. That said, one of the consistent themes throughout most of his stories was he never expected to survive the war, much less live to be an old, old man surrounded by his wife, children and grand children. Uncle George pointed out to me that GIs died for all manner of reasons, very few related to combat. Planes would fall apart in training, pilots would make a host of mistakes and crash, ground crew members would lose track of moving propellers, and many folks would just get sick and die (this is before penicillin).* Uncle George thought it would be a long war and he simply never expected to survive. His worst two moments were:
1) On one mission in Italy, his plane was reassigned to another position in the formation. On the way to the bombing target, the plane next to their typical spot was hit by flak and then crashed into the plane that took their spot. Both plans went down without anyone parachuting out. Uncle George told me he spent the rest of the day soaked–from a cold, unrelenting sweat.
2) On another mission, a bullet pierced the fuselage and proceeded to dance its way around the inside of the plane where he was working. It zinged back and forth hitting the unarmed bombs (no worry there), but Uncle George didn’t want it to hit him so he wisely hit the deck and waited until things stopped.
BTW–For you fact-checkers out there: Uncle George kept a copy of his flight log (his handwriting was impeccable–Palmer Method kid), and his stories were always congruent, if somewhat understated, when compared against the log. That he could tell me these stores, 60-70 years later was, in his eyes, simply miraculous.
Like many vets, Uncle George had a low threshold for pretence and he didn’t have a pompous bone in his body. And if you did own such a bone, well, he’d sure tell you about it–a personality trait that did not endear him to many authority figures. That said, if he thought something was funny, he’d embrace it with all-out gusto. This explains the picture below. This is the last picture I have of Uncle George, taken on January 3, 2011. He just LOVED the hat because it was so silly. If he hit the hidden button, the hat would play “Jingle Bell Rock” (I think), and the antlers would move back and forth like windshield wipers. When we visited during this past winter, Uncle George could HARDLY wait to show us this wonderful hat.
And so, peace be with you Uncle George. We sorely miss you, but we are so thankful for your incredible, and yes, miraculously long life.
*This is nearly what happened to my father, who was in gunnery school when he developed a mastoid infection and nearly died (no penicillin in those days). In fact, the Army DID send him home to die. Lucky me, things turned out better than expected.