Sunday, November 11, 2012

Honoring Family Veterans

Herman Heinrich Adams, my great great grandfather, was a Civil War veteran. I hadn't realized that until I visited the cemetery in Washington state where he is buried, and noticed that he had two headstones, a family stone and a government stone that indicated his military service.

Adolph Kern Pierce, my great uncle, was a veteran of World War I.  I had not realized this until I inherited this photo, then asked some questions of my remaining elders.  He was stationed in the United States since his poor eyesight prevented him from being sent overseas.  This past summer I went to the local veterans office and got a WWI flag holder for his headstone.  I hope that will let future generations know that he was a veteran.

Henry Leaver Pierce, another great uncle, also served in World War I, overseas in France.  I was thrilled to get a copy of his diary last year.  Once again, the photo was my clue to even know to ask about his service, since I had never heard it spoken of by my parents.

Howard Funk Tess,  my grandfather, was an MP in World War I.  He never spoke of the war, though after his death I asked my grandmother about it.  I didn't learn much except that he was desperately seasick in the ship going overseas, and that he had spoken about rats in the trenches.  I didn't know about his military service until his funeral, when his casket was draped with a flag, and his service mentioned in his funeral service.

LD Smith, on the left, was my step-great grandfather, a surgeon who served in the National Guard in WWII, and his son, James DuRell Smith, also in the National Gauard, served in Alaska during the same war.

Peter Hadley Pierce Pierce and his brother Richard Leaver Pierce, were my dad's first cousins.  Both served in the US Navy in World War II. I only learned of their service while interviewing Peter's wife when I was working on my family tree.  Peter was part of the initial landing on Iwo Jima. Their parents both taught radio code to members of the Air Force and Navy who were stationed in Madison.

While I do not have a military photo, another son of my dad's cousin, Lt. James Pierce, was killed in 1942 while flying patrol over a base in Alaska.  His  plane was lost at sea and his body never recovered.

Gene Earl Pierce, my uncle and my dad's only sibling, served his country during the Korean War.  I knew about his service because my parents spoke of it, and because he had brought home a tiny pink satin Korean outfit, trousers and an embroidered top, home for me.  A few years ago, a year or so before his death, I asked him if he ever wanted to return to see Korea, and his was emphatic that he had no desire to remember the place.  He wasn't open to talking about his experiences, but when I expressed an interest in seeing photos of him in uniform, he agreed and sent me several.

Joseph Hyers Ellestad is my second cousin's son, and the most recent veteran that I know of.  Here he is with his mother, returning home from service in Afghanistan.

For many years when I was a younger woman, I  knew next to nothing about the men - for in my family it has been all men - who served their country in military service.  My parents were never involved, didn't talk about it, and I only thought to ask questions once I started looking into family history seriously, after I retired from teaching.  And it makes me feel bad.  I wish my uncles, my grandfather, had felt open to telling me about their experiences, or that I had found a way to show interest, but I know that doesn't always happen.

A few years ago I tried to ask a World War II veteran, a close friend of my aunt, about his army experiences in World War II, especially when he complained bitterly about how long it took the United States to have a memorial for those veterans in Washington D.C.  My comment to him then was that I was not alive during that war, never knew anyone to talk about it, so why should other people in my generation be anxious to promote a memorial to a war that veterans apparently didn't want to discuss?  I didn't get far with that line, but when I asked to see photos of him in uniform, and didn't press, he opened up and told me a bit about what happened to him in the Philippines.  Perhaps that is a technique that will open up some veterans to talk, at least in general terms, to lifelong civilians like me.  I believe that telling stories is crucial, so that history will be remembered, and to help family members and friends understand each other better, no matter what their political beliefs might be.  If there are no living veterans, I hope parents talk about those veterans who are gone, of  their service, to their children.  I hope that the upcoming generations don't take as long as I did to seek out stories of service in their own families.

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