Sunday, May 29, 2005

In Love and War
– by John Wilkins, San Diego Union Staff Writer


Through American WWII Orphans Network, Roger Connor and Sharon Crowley
found their fathers, who died during 'The Good War,' and each other.

Roger Connor and Sharon Crowley sat near photographs of their respective fathers, who were killed during World War II when Connor was 7 and Crowley was not yet 1.

Roger Connor was only 7 when his father was killed, 62 when he finally made peace with it. Fifty-five years is a long time to be a pallbearer.

Sharon Crowley was even younger, not yet 1, when her dad died, from the same general cause – World War II. How is it possible, she grew up wondering, to miss a man she never knew?

Tomorrow is Memorial Day, the annual rite of homage to the nation's war dead. There will be public speeches at famous cemeteries. And, for some, private remembrances of a shared journey.

About 183,000 U.S. children lost their fathers to World War II. They learned quickly not to ask certain questions – nobody wanted to make the grown-ups cry – and they learned not to belabor the personal price paid in winning "The Good War."

But even when their mothers remarried, bringing a new dad into their lives, some found it hard to move on. There was always this ghost off in the distance. Then they got older, and some decided to confront the specter, to give it shape and form, to get their arms around it. "Something goes off in people who are in their 50s and 60s," Connor said. "They just need to know more about their fathers."

This can lead them to the American WWII Orphans Network, a nonprofit organization founded 14 years ago. AWON offers support and advice – tips about navigating the military bureaucracy, or getting in touch with veterans.

Connor heard about the group six years ago. Retired from the Environmental Protection Agency and living near Washington, D.C., he was at the National Archives, looking for records about his dad, when he encountered a woman who mentioned AWON. He calls it "my miracle moment."

Crowley, who was living in San Diego and working as an office manager, heard about AWON a couple of years later from her stepdad, who had read a story in an American Legion magazine.

From opposite sides of the country, Crowley and Connor joined the network. Through it, they said, they found their fathers. And then they found each other.

There were two candle lanterns flickering on the cross as Roger Connor made his way to the grave. The caretaker at the cemetery outside of Hamm, Luxembourg, had placed the candles there, an act of kindness for the visiting son of a fallen American soldier.

It was just before midnight on New Year's Eve 1999, the dawning of a new millennium. "I wanted to honor my father by being with him at a special time," Connor said.

He had spent months looking for information about his dad, George Connor, a 30-year-old private in the Army who was killed during the Battle of the Bulge on Jan. 4, 1945.

All he had when he started were scattered memories, an image of his father in his military uniform, a vague recollection of being told by him to "be good." He had a postcard his dad sent him from Paris at Christmastime in 1944.

But slowly the ghost took shape. Through his contacts at AWON, Connor found other soldiers who had been in Company B. He talked to folks who had known his dad growing up on Sheridan Street in Danville, Ill.

Now he was at the cemetery, and the candles on the cross helped illuminate a letter he had written for the occasion. He read it out loud. He mentioned relatives and friends, talked about his search. What he had learned. And what he would never know.

"I have no photos of me with you. I have precious few of you. I do not remember your voice."

He talked about being flooded at times throughout his life by a "reservoir of sadness," and he thanked his father for his service to the Army, to the country, to the world. "May you rest in peace, dear Dad."

Off in the distance, fireworks marked the beginning of the new year. To Connor, they were a 21-gun salute.
He opened a small plastic bag. Inside was dirt from the yard at the family's Danville home. He worked some of it into the ground at the grave.
Then he dug up different dirt from the grave and put it into the plastic bag to bring home.

Four days later, he traveled to a field in Wardin, Belgium. His father had died there, 55 years earlier to the day. Connor sprinkled some Danville soil around. He scooped earth from the field and put it into the bag.
When he returned to the United States, he went to Danville. His two children live there, and so do two of his aunts, his father's sisters. They all got together and spread the dirt from the grave and the battlefield in the yard.

He took some of the foreign dirt around town, too, sprinkling it on a golf course and other spots his father had enjoyed before the war. "I wanted it all to be connected," Connor said. "The place where he lived, the place where he died, the place where he rests."

Sharon Crowley loves her stepdad. She grew up feeling it would be an insult to him to ask about her father, William Edward Crowley, a B-24 gunner who was killed over the Pacific near Yap Island on July 15, 1944.
The war orphans call that the "Wall of Silence."

When her stepdad was the one to punch a hole through the wall – "This is about your father," he said, handing her the AWON story from the American Legion – it touched her beyond words. "I cried," she said.
And then she started searching.

She, too, found veterans who had served in the same area as her father. She learned that he died in a midair collision with another B-24 – not shot down by the Japanese, as she had grown up believing.

She learned there is a "Wall of the Missing" memorial at a U.S. cemetery in Manila, Philippines, and Bill Crowley's name is on it. She thought she might like to see it someday.

But then she heard through AWON that if a serviceman's body was never recovered, it's still possible to have a marker in a national cemetery, a place for family and friends to pay tribute. Crowley wrote to the Department of Veterans Affairs and asked for permission to put a marker at Fort Rosecrans. The agency said yes.

On the day the stone was set in the ground, she got word at work. Her first instinct was to head right over. "But I knew it would be overwhelming, and I wanted to be ready," she said. She got her camera. She bought a rose.

At 1 p.m. on Nov. 15, 2002, she touched her father's name on the flat granite plaque for the first time. Tears fell. Now she doesn't feel a need to go to Manila. "My dad's right here," she said. So, too, is someone else.

A few years ago, she was on AWON's Web site, www.awon.org, and came across something written by Connor that mentioned growing up in Danville.

That's funny, she thought. My boss is from Danville. They traded e-mails. A short time later, they met at an AWON convention in Branson, Mo. They had a lot in common. Both had been teachers, both had ties to Illinois and both were Irish. And both, of course, lost someone in the war.

"When we all get together, there's no need for small talk," Crowley said. "We understand what everybody else is going through. We just get right to our fathers." The connection they felt at the convention grew stronger as the weeks passed. Their e-mails got longer, more detailed, more emotional.

Connor always thought that if he ever left the East Coast to live elsewhere, San Diego would be the place. About 18 months ago, he made the move. Crowley let him stay in her Little Italy condominium while he hunted for an apartment.

Life is like that: You start searching for your past and the future walks through the door. On March 17 – St. Patrick's Day – the two war orphans got married.

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Copyright © 2005, The San Diego Tribune.