Monday, November 18, 2013

Bringing the boys home

The uncle I never knew died 95 years and one month ago today, going over the top on the Hindenburg Line in a forgotten place in 1918, just a few weeks before the end of World War 1.  If I read through the lines correctly on the military report, he practically vanished when hit by a shell early that morning. Still, there were some remains, and thus he was buried in a military cemetery somewhere in France.

My mother -- nearly 12 years old when her brother was killed -- told me how her father nearly lost everything he had while trying to bring his son back home to the family plot in Anderson, S.C.  He made innumerable train trips to Washington to plead with the men who sent Victor St. Clair Minor overseas to at least do him the honor of returning him back home. Several years after the war, St. Clair and a few of his effects came home and he was buried in the little Baptist churchyard where our family tended their dead. I have a few of St. Clair's things -- one of his dog tags, a little bronze container that might have kept oil for his machine gun crew, and a couple of photographs.

I was thinking about St. Clair a week ago on Veteran's Day -- the date of Nov. 11 was chosen for Veterans Day because that's the date the War to End All Wars ended.  While looking for something else I had come across my dog tags from my days in the Army in the late 1960s.  And I thought about others of our clan who served under arms.  Another uncle was a radioman in World War II, and St. Clair's older brother, Charlie, served in two campaigns as a cavalryman.  The man for whom I was named, John Monie, served in the Confederacy and was taken prisoner. My great grandfather, the Rev. A.D. Betts, was a Civil War chaplain whose diary records how he held wounded and dying men of both sides in places like Gettysburg.

So far as I know St. Clair was the only one of our family whose return to the United States was delayed after World War I.  We were lucky, because so many American families never found out what happened to their loved ones. Sailors went to the bottom of the sea, out of reach for eternity, and a great many soldiers and airmen were buried in unmarked and still unfound graves -- when there were any remains to bury.

I've been reading Rick Atkinson's "The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945," third in his Liberation Trilogy. Atkinson is a superb reporter and writer, and his book is a fine piece of work. On pages 638, 639 and 640 I found tears rolling down my cheeks as I read about the unprecedented effort to bring the boys home after WW II. There were 270,000 identifiable American dead whose families were asked if they wanted the remains of their sons and brothers sent home, or interred in Europe with their comrades. More than 60 percent came home, at an average cost to the government of $564.50 each, Atkinson wrote. More than 5,000 began their journey aboard the Joseph V. Connolly, the first of 21 "ghost ships" that would bring the GIs home.  Thirty thousand Belgians, Atkinson went on, promised to look after the tens of thousands of Americans who would remain buried in Europe -- "'as if,' one man vowed, 'their tombs were our children's.'"

Bodies came off ships like the "Connolly" in New York and were loaded onto trains that would take them home. "Among those waiting was Henry A. Wright, a widower who lived on a farm in southwestern Missouri... One by one his dead sons arrived at the local train station." There was Sgt. Frank Wright, killed on Christmas Eve 1944; Private Harold Wright, who died in a German POW camp; and Private Elton Wright, who died in Germany just two weeks before the end of the war.  

"Gray and stooped, the elder Wright watched as the caskets were carried into the rustic bedroom where each boy had been born," Atkinson wrote. Neighbors kept vigil overnight, carpeting the floor with roses, and in the morning they bore the brothers to Hilltop Cemetery for burial side by side by side beneath an iron sky.... Thus did the fallen return from Europe..."


  1. Very affecting, Jack . . .
    My best to you both,

  2. Great piece. My father's youngest brother was one of those who returned home for reburial. I was told that my grandmother could not accept that her baby (her 10th child) was in the casket and insisted on opening the casket for a look — a decision she forever regretted.