My cousin Robert sent me a disk with hundreds of scanned pictures from our grandparents’ photo albums. He even scanned in a set of newspaper clippings from their scrapbook. I was pleased to receive this set of family history and spent quite a while browsing through all the pictures. It is great fun to see your grandparents as children; aunts and uncles and cousins through the years.
But there was one folder of pictures and clippings that I keep going back to, that has captivated me from the first glimpse. The folder was called simply ‘WWII’.
My uncles never talked about the war or what they did in it. My mom knew a few of the main points – Uncle Bob was in the infantry and badly wounded at Anzio, Uncle Bill flew on B-17’s out of England. That’s about it. And both of them have passed on in the last few years. Well, I’ve learned a lot more now. And it makes you think about what is important, and about the relative difficulty of your own problems when stacked against theirs.
On the back of the picture are these words: “Billy Joe Cates Youngest Ball Turret over Germany”
And this faded newspaper clipping which I transcribed:
19-Year Old Gunner Given Flying Cross
S/Sgt. William J. Cates, 19-year-old ball turret gunner on the Flying Fortress “The Eagle’s Wrath” has been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for ‘extra-ordinary achievement’ while participating in raids on Nazi targets. He already held the Air Medal and three Oak Leaf Clusters.
Cates, whose parents, Mr. and Mrs. Robert G. Cates, live at Atoka, described his toughest combat experience as the mission to oil refineries in Brux, Czechoslovakia. “Going into the target we weren’t damaged at all because we were flying in the lead group and the 200 German fighters that picked on us an hour before we reached our destination concentrated their attacks on the group below us” Cates said. “They knocked down several planes in that low group and, after we had dropped our bombs, we went down and filled in one of the empty spots. Then they hit us. Our radio man was wounded and an ammunition box in the waist received a direct hit and exploded. The oxygen was shot out all over the plane. Our flaps were shot away and one tire was punctured. When we finally reached the Eight’s base in England and landed on the one tire, it exploded from the extra pressure. It was a rough ride.”
Sorta puts all your troubles into perspective, doesn’t it? Hassling with the computer or with the commute just doesn’t hold a candle to being shot at in the skies over occupied Europe, does it?
Sorta puts your accomplishments into perspective, doesn’t it? Making a buck or getting some feel-good certificate just pales in comparison with saving the world from fascism.
Those guys were heroes and we would do well to remember what they did. And teach our children about what they did. Its all a little close to home for me right now, thinking about my uncle who I knew well, but not as well as I thought I did. He never talked about it, at least not to me. I wish he had. If your uncle or father or grandfather fought for our country, you should ask them about it while there is still time to learn.
Maybe later I’ll share uncle Bob’s story, too.
Meanwhile I’m going quietly to my corner to think about what I can do to make this a better world; they set a pretty high standard for us to live up to. And say a little prayer for all the soldiers, sailors, and airmen who are in harms way today, still protecting us.
In the meantime, maybe we could just hold down the indignant internet clamor for a bit, because after all, it really isn’t all that important, is it? Especially not when you gain some perspective.