I Was Just Thinking… One six-decade-old day I’ll never forget
I’m too young to remember World War II. I was born in 1943.
But, I remember many people who fought in that war, some of them relatives. Six uncles were in the military in the 1940s and one of them – my mother’s oldest brother, Jack – fought in the infamous Battle of the Bulge in Europe and came home with a medal for his heroism.
But, I’m just on the cusp of age when it comes to remembering the Korean War, officially called the “Korean Conflict.”
That war far away in Asia is still remembered today, vividly, and not only because it ended with a split of the country that remains today – North Korea and South Korea. And, with the very dangerous idiot now running North Korea, it’s unlikely we’ll be able to put that Asian peninsula out of our minds any time soon.
Yet, I’ll remember the battle in Korea for a much different reason; it came very close to home for my family.
I was almost too young to remember my mother’s cousin Jimmy Wallis. He went off to Korea in 1950 when I was just 6 years old. My only memories of him are his red hair and slender build and the fact that my parents, along with many, many other relatives gathered together to send him off to war in the first weeks of our involvement in that far away land. I remember the tears of my great aunt “Lally” and didn’t understand those tears.
Years later, I did understand.
Less than a month after Jimmy arrived in Korea, perhaps as little as two weeks, he went missing. That news reached home to his parents in Eldora and to relatives in many surrounding small communities. I didn’t understand the fearful look on my mother’s face, nor the tears in her eyes, when she heard the news.
Jimmy was missing. Weeks turned into months and months into years and the grief felt by the family, although it never went away, was somehow pushed into the backs of minds of those who loved and missed Jimmy. My mother told me, much later in life, that everyone not only feared the worst after Jimmy went missing, they just “knew” that Jimmy would never be coming home.
Then in 1953 – more than three years after he’d gone missing during his first combat of the war – Jimmy’s body was found, lying right where it had fallen in a Korean jungle.
Of course, three years lying there right where an enemy bullet had ended his life, there was no real body to identify, just bones. His Army fatigue uniform, his helmet, and his canteen were found with the body. Although weathered after three years in the changing seasons, the uniform also provided the final identification of his remains. The dog tags around his neck identified him as Jimmy Wallis. In one pocket of his uniform was a Zippo lighter inscribed simply “Red.”
That was the clincher. Jimmy’s nickname had been Red and he wore the moniker proudly.
When Jimmy’s body was found, I had turned 10. By this time I was able to know a little more about what was going on around me, even though I couldn’t grasp the meaning of renewed grief.
The day of Jimmy’s funeral, my dad loaded the family into an old pre-World War II Buick and we drove for nearly two hours along narrow, bumpy highways to reach Eldora. Periodically along the way, I remember my mother trying to conceal intermittent sobs, I remember my dad patting her on the leg and saying, “I know it’s hard, Kid (my dad’s pet name for my mother) and I remember sitting in the back seat and feeling grief that I didn’t understand.
I will never forget the funeral that day in the cemetery near the Hardin County Fairgrounds in Eldora. There are certain memories indelibly etched into my mind … the resounding “boom” of a 21-gun salute that startled my 10-year-old ears, the flag-draped casket and the neatly-dressed and neatly-groomed military men who precisely and ceremoniously folded that same American flag and presented it to my sobbing Aunt Lally.
I remember countless folks walking up to Aunt Lally and Uncle Paul and speaking in hushed tones, offering their condolences. It seemed as though they came for more than an hour, although I know it was far less time than that. I remember the gathering after the funeral, the cake, coffee and punch, the sandwiches and even more tears.
And, I think it was that one particular November day in 1953 that gave me my first real impression of war and its consequences. I’ll carry those memories with me to my own grave.
I think of that experience every Memorial Day Weekend. And, I think, that’s what we should think about on Memorial Day – all those heroes who died in service of their country.
And, I think that in the six decades that have passed since that day that we’ve been in one war or another most of those years. And, I wonder why.