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A wound that never heals

A six year old’s perspective on coming face-to-face with what it means to lose a son

I must have been six, or maybe just a little older, but I was with my Mom, Dad, and Grandmother, and we were visiting some dear friends of hers, the Whitakers. This was Goldsboro, North Carolina, and “visiting” on

Sunday afternoons after church, was an important part of the culture.

However, Mr. and Mrs. Whitaker were special. They had known my grandmother since just after the First World War when Mr. Whitaker, an accountant, had left his native New England to work for a North Carolina Cotton Mill. By the time I knew them they had long since lost their northern accent and were nearing retirement.

They were charming, friendly, and cheerful. But as I found out that day, this seemingly happy pair bore a special kind of sadness for a loss that occurred over twenty years before, in a place halfway around the world.

During the visit I remember being a little bored, as little boys are apt to be when the adults are talking, and taking notice of one of the pictures on the mantel. I found myself studying it rather closely. It was a photo of a young man, dashingly handsome in his World War II flight suit. He even had one of the old fashioned leather helmets the pilots wore in those days. He was casting a pose that would have impressed any Hollywood producer.

But, there was also an unmistakable good nature to his smile. I didn’t know who he was, but right away, I liked him. It’s rare that a single photo can capture so much of a man’s personality, but in this case, it did.

With all the tact a six year old can muster, I asked my father, who was sitting next to me, who the man in the picture was. My dad was a little nervous in answering. Not just because I was talking when I should have been quiet, even though the topic of conversation was a mind deadening back and forth on various approaches to planting rose bushes, but because it was a sensitive topic.

The young man in the photo was the Whitakers’ only child and he had been killed in World War II. My father, in a gentle manner he always had with me in discussions like this, hoping not to draw attention to our father and son exchange, said it was very sad, but like a lot of young men in the war, Gordon didn’t come home.
Like any little boy, I didn’t immediately catch on that this meant he had been killed.

Remarkably Mr. Whitaker, hearing our conversation began to explain who this young man was. He told me his name was Gordon. He was often called Gordon Junior and that he was their son and that they had sent him off to war back in 1942. He had been an Air Force pilot, and had been lost in the Pacific.

Mr. Whitaker said that Gordon Junior was their great joy in life, and they had never stopped missing him. Then, with Mrs. Whitaker looking on, perhaps a little upset or perhaps simply a little perplexed, he went to the mantle to get the picture of his son for me to look at up close.

I may have been little, but for the first time in my life, I had a sudden, though gently offered, lesson in the cost of war.

Gordon told his father, during his last year of college that he wanted to take flying lessons so he would have a leg up in qualifying for the Army Air Corps’ Aviation Officer Cadet Program. With war seeming an ever likely possibility he knew he wanted to be a fighter pilot. His father agreed and paid for the lessons.

Gordon was accepted into the cadet program and completed his flight training in late 1942. He was commissioned in the Air Corps and was sent to the Pacific and a raging battle on the Island of Guadalcanal. Gordon quickly advanced to squadron commander. However, just as the battle was turning in early 1943 Gordon’s plane was hit by ground fire.

He bailed out. His wing man said he saw the parachute open, and tried to give him cover on the way down. But it was a short drop into Japanese held territory. His body was never found, and there was no record, either verbal, or written, of what became of him. The Department of Defense still lists him as one of the missing in action of this terrible battle.

Gordon’s parents have long since passed on. But to this day, I have trouble imagining how they found the tenacity and the resolve to carry on after such a terrible loss. Even as a six year old I could tell that this was a wound that had never, and would never heal.

Gordon never came home. He never had the chance to marry, have kids, argue with his son about keeping the car out past curfew or even to sigh, years and years later, when his knees began to act up because of his arthritis.

It’s been argued that for some lost in war, they are the lucky ones, because they never grow old. That argument has never carried much weight with me. It seems trite. They aren’t lucky, and their deaths aren’t happy memories. But what they did, particularly young men like Gordon Whitaker, should never be forgotten.
They sacrificed everything for a higher cause. And though I didn’t know Gordon, I can imagine what he must have been like. I also know that other young men, their parents’ pride and joy, didn’t come home either. And what’s even sadder to realize is that these stories, and this kind of sadness, didn’t end with World War II. We have lost fine young men and women like Gordon in battlefields and conflicts all over the world.

Still, on this Memorial Day, 70 years after young Gordon Whitaker gave his life for his country, I want to thank him. I live a comfortable life. I make my living as I choose, think as I please, associate with whom I please, and worship as I please. I complain about my government and elected officials whenever I feel like it. That’s all a part of being an American.

And, I owe that privilege, which I never take for granted, to Gordon Whitaker, a kindly, decent, and gifted young man, who, like thousands of others in his war, and others, didn’t come home.

 

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