They were fathers once, not soldiers, pilots
by BOB GREENE
Chicago Tribune, June 14, 2002
They weren't soldiers. That's what we tend to forget. Most of the men who fought and died in World War II did not think of themselves
as soldiers, sailors and combat pilots. At least they didn't think of themselves that way before the war started. They were dentists,
mail carriers, house painters, mechanics, roofers, students, electricians-in-training. They were men trying to get on with their lives
as the 1940s began. They were our fathers and grandfathers.
Then they became soldiers, something they had never wanted. And they saved the world. They saved it for us.
I'm thinking about that after speaking recently to Damon Rarey, 58, who lives in California. He never knew his dad. "We never actually met,
put it that way," Rarey said.
His father was George Rarey, although he didn't like his first name, and almost everyone called him just "Rarey." He was a commercial artist
and cartoonist who lived with his young wife, Betty Lou, in Greenwich Village in New York City. Just about the furthest thing in the world
from being a fighting man.
Then came the attack on Pearl Harbor and a letter summoning him to military service. "My father couldn't even drive a car," Damon Rarey told
me. "He didn't have to in New York. But he became a combat pilot in the Army Air Corps." That's how it worked back then. One day a young
artist could be riding the subways. Soon enough, he would be flying fighter planes over occupied Europe.
In his free hours, Capt. Rarey drew pictures of the war: fellow pilots, the planes, the ships, the barracks, the scenes around them. He mailed
them home to his wife, along with letters. He drew and wrote beautifully. He longed to win the war and go home. He wrote one letter to his wife,
about "your warmth and sweetness ... I've known these things and knowing them and having them once, I have them forever. That wonderful look in
your eyes when we'd meet after being apart for a few hours or a few weeks, always the same, full of love. Ah, Betty Lou, you're the perfect girl
When Rarey went to Europe in November 1943, his wife was pregnant. Damon was born in March 1944. "He never saw me," Damon said. "He knew about me,
but he never saw me." George Rarey drew a picture to commemorate the day in England when he found out he had a son. The picture shows a daydreaming
pilot sitting on a wooden chair. A cartoon balloon above his head shows a woman in a maternity ward with her baby son in her arms.
In the letter he sent home with the drawing, Capt. Rarey wrote: "Betty Lou, this happiness is nigh unbearable. Got back from a mission at 4:00
this afternoon and came to the hut for a quick shave before chow. What did I see the Deacon waving at me as I walked up the road to the shack? A
small yellow envelope! I quit breathing completely until the wonderful news was unfolded. A son! Darling, Betty Lou!"
On his 67th mission, supporting troops after D-Day, he died in combat. The date was June 27, 1944. He was 27 years old. On the day before he died,
he wrote to his wife: "I don't care for this war - I want you and Damon and the life of our own choosing. I want to worry about the bills - ho! ho! -
and make kites and stuff for (Damon) and his friends. I've got all these things to do and time's a-wastin' - I ain't getting any younger, neither!
So let's get this war over - OK?"
They weren't soldiers. Not until they had to be. They were just our fathers, before we were born.
Bob Greene is a columnist with the Chicago Tribune. Mail: 435 N. Michigan Ave.,
Suite 14, Chicago, Ill. 60611. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: to catch a further visual and written glimpse of a WWII pilot's life,
don't miss George Rarey's sketchbook.Click Here.