October 26, 1998
Maggie Malone's article makes NEWSWEEK!
The two-page article by Maggie Malone shows (now deceased) AWONer Damon Rarey
and his Father (CPT George W. "Dad" Rarey) along with AWON Founder Ann Mix
and her Father, Sydney Worthington Bennett.
Finally, a Time to Grieve, by Maggie Malone
THE LETTERS FROM my father lay at the bottom of the cedar chest, in blue airmail envelopes. For a curious girl of 9 or 10, living with her mother and sisters in South Dakota, they were a revelation.
I knew very little about my father. My mother told me he had died in the war when I was 3 and that he went directly to heaven; a hero. The letters began to make him seem more real.
He wrote from France, Belgium and Germany, telling my mother that no matter where he was, he would subtract six hours from the time and imagine what we were doing at that moment back home. "I can see you bundle up Kathleen and see her out the door and watch her up the street,'' he wrote.
Then, after 65 missives, the letters stop. On March 24, 1945, my father was searching a house in Germany when it was hit by artillery. He is buried in the military cemetery at Margraten, in the Netherlands.
Up until late 1943, the draft board had spared married men with children. But in the last years of World War II, the U.S. military drafted 940,000 fathers between the ages of 18 and 35. Many of the new draftees were rushed into battle. When the war ended, the victors were welcomed home, the dead mourned. But the children whose fathers did not return were left to negotiate their way in the euphoria of postwar America.
"It always embarrassed me,'' says Washington, DC psychotherapist Susan Johnson Hadler, 53, whose father was killed near Aachen, Germany. "I didn't want to put off people. But we represented death to them, and everyone wanted to move beyond all that.''
Now many of these children -- all well into middle age -- have begun to speak out, seeking information about the fathers they never knew. This past summer, in particular, the success of "Saving Private Ryan'' has rekindled memories and inspired these ìquiet victims'' of the last just war to reach out to one another.
Though exact numbers are frustratingly elusive, a recent study by the Department of Veterans Affairs found 183,000 "idependent children'' had received benefits for fathers killed in the war. "I thought there had to be other people like myself that lost their dads,'' says Ann Bennett Mix of Bellingham, WA, whose father died at Mongiorgio, Italy, when she was 3.
A historian and writer, Mix created the American WWII Orphans Network (AWON) in 1991 to help survivors share information. "When I started finding them, I realized how important it was for them to talk to people like themselves, so I began the network.''
That December she attended a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for the children of the World War II dead, organized by the No Greater Love foundation.
The foundation provides programs of remembrance for families who lost a loved one in the military or by an act of terrorism. It was the first time many of the thousand who came had talked to another war orphan.
Since the No Greater Love ceremony, AWON has grown to more than 1,000 members, many of them in regular contact on the Internet (e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org).
The search for information can be maddening. Many servicemen's records were destroyed in a 1973 fire in the St. Louis archives. But some of the discoveries have been powerful.
Damon Rarey, of Santa Rosa, CA, whose father was shot down over France in 1944, says Mix helped him locate veterans who had been in his father's squadron. Last spring, Mix and Hadler published a book of 24 interviews, "Lost in the Victory: Reflections of American Orphans of World War II'' (University of North Texas Press).
Some of those interviewed told of satisfying lives; others have had tremendous difficulties. All say they have felt deeply bereft for as long as they can remember.
Since the book came out, Mix has heard from many other orphans "astonished that they aren't alone, that others have experienced the same bewilderment and pain.'' Their isolation has been a heavy burden.
"No one had ever recognized the needs of these children to mourn,'' says psychiatrist Vamik Volkan, a pioneer in bereavement therapy whose wife, Elizabeth, is a war orphan. "We put up monuments to those who died, but we forget the children who have to deal with the consequences.''
Volkan accompanied his wife to an AWON convention in Washington two years ago. "I observed that several women had been involved with father figures or had problems trusting that their husbands would not desert them,'' he recalls. "The men either identified with the hero image or they had pent-up anger toward their father because they so missed having an identity figure growing up.''
If those interviewed in "Lost in the Victory'' can be taken as a test lot, it seems that the mother's reaction to her loss was key to the child's ability to cope. Many mothers, abandoned emotionally, physically and financially, could barely keep going. There were no grief therapists to consult; support groups were unknown.
When a mother remarried, some orphans lost contact with their father's family. Elaine Ricketson Danks of North Hampton, NH, only recently found out her father's birth date and the color of his eyes when she made contact with his family after decades of separation.
Orphans whose mothers did not remarry had different problems, both social and financial.
" The war wreaked havoc with us middle-class people,'' says Bill Maury, a Kensington, MD-based journalist whose POW father died on a Japanese ship mistakenly sunk by American bombers. "We moved from Los Angeles, where we had been fairly well off, to a housing development in Washington, DC.
We had a rough go of it for a while.'' Vincent Papke, a Tuxedo, NY business executive whose father died in France, says, "My mother didn't date, didn't go out. I was a good boy, an altar boy growing up in Queens. But at 16 I started drinking and got into a lot of fights. I used to watch war movies on TV and miss my father. I'd be tipsy, 17 or 18 years old, and I'd say, "Where the heck are you? What happened?' ''
In trying to answer that question, Papke and Maury have become amateur war historians.
Wayne Downing of Colorado Springs, CO chose to follow his father more directly. "I was the oldest, the male in a family of females. A boy wants to break out of that,'' says Downing, who recently retired as a four-star Army general. "It occurred to me later in life that it must have been tough on my mother when I was in Vietnam for two tours, but she never said a word about it to me, never challenged me.''
For all the attention generated recently, the families of veterans of World War II still do not have a memorial on which to focus their grief. That may finally be changing. This summer the National Capital Planning Commission approved a design for a monument on the National Mall in Washington, DC.
The finality provided by such a memorial can be therapeutic, says Volkan. "When someone is truly dead to you, you can bury them psychologically and you are freer to invest in other people, new relationships.''
Construction may begin by Veterans Day 2000. In the meantime, reading letters, looking at mementos, talking with others help many of us comprehend our loss. And begin to move on.
Story and pictures above are © Newsweek, 1998
In memory of PVT Richard John Malone, KIA 24 March 45 near Wesen, Germany
Thanks also for text staging help from Bob Thomas.