On Memorial Day I think of the father I never met who died on March 15, 1944 when his plane crashed after a bombing raid in Germany. Those who last saw the plane reported the bomb bay doors didn’t seem to close and the plane was loosing altitude. The plane, a B-24 Liberator, was part of the 576th Bomber Squadron, 392nd Bomber group, Heavy. My father, Staff Sergeant Truman F. Roberts, U.S. Army Air Forces was a waist gunner. By all accounts, he was a smart, funny and kind young man who loved his mother and my mother. I’ve always believed he was thinking of them and of me, his unborn child, in his last moments.
Since he died before I was born, it was hard for me to think of him as a real person when I was a child. What was a fresh and passionate grief for others seemed like ancient history to me. And, since he was buried in Belgium, there wasn’t even a grave to visit to make him seem real. To his family in rural Arkansas, Europe seemed as remote as the moon and my mother just knew the grave was “somewhere in Belgium”. As a teenager, I remember worrying that he might be an unmarked grave in an unkempt cemetery so far from home and it made me sad.
In 1982, I married a very clever man who, as a ten year-old boy in 1944, had considered American flyers his heroes. He bought Liberty Stamps in school, saved tin cans and bacon grease to support the war effort and watched newsreels of American planes bombing enemy targets. He is still a student of history and especially of WWII. Not surprisingly, he was fascinated with my father’s story and the year after we were married, set out to find his grave. We were planning a trip to France for Christmas and he thought this would be a good gift for me. I thought this would be the most wonderful gift imaginable. And it was. But it took months from idea to actualization.
Since there was no internet to help in 1983, he started from scratch. As a former Marine, if there is such a thing as a former Marine, he knew of a military records center in St. Louis Missouri and thought that would be the place to start. A call to an information operator got the phone number but it took many calls to reach a real person. At last he did only to be told the records he wanted were kept in another location. “But I have to warn you, they never answer the phone number back there.” She told him.
After weeks of phoning at every hour during the work day, and as our departure date was getting closer and closer, he tried calling just at the moment people might be arriving for work. It worked! Someone answered and said “We don’t keep those records here but you can try the American Battle Monument Commission in Washington, D.C.”. Today she would have given him the website, http://www.abmc.gov. But there was no website in 1983 so the search continued by phone.
Thankfully, when he reached the American Battle Monument Commission, a bright and helpful woman answered immediately. She only asked for my father’s name and the state from which he enlisted and was back on the phone in less than a minute with the complete information. Not only did she give the name and location of the cemetery, including the row and plot number, but offered to contact the cemetery officials on our behalf. “Just let them know your travel plans and they will make hotel reservations and escort you directly to your father’s grave.” she told us.
A few weeks later, we arrived at the Ardennes American Cemetery in Neupre, Belgium. It is an amazingly beautiful place with 15 full time grounds keepers to make sure it always reflects the dignity of the heroes buried there. As promised, they were waiting and took us directly to my father’s grave. I took pink flowers for the grave. It was comforting to see his name on the beautiful white cross and to know that his grave was so well taken care of. I spent some quiet time alone at the graveside, thought about how far this boy from Arkansas had come and wished my mother could have been with me so we could have been a family of three, just once. I took pictures for her but it was difficult to capture the real beauty of the cemetery and the reverence and respect of everyone we met there.
So on this, and every Memorial Day, I think of my father and of the other brave young men buried around him in Neupre, Belgium and I’m grateful for his sacrifice and theirs. And I’m also grateful for the American Battle Monument Commission for maintaining the records of 176,399 American WWII casualties and for their service in helping families find their loved ones at last. And I’m thankful to my husband for the wonderful gift he gave my mother and me.
One last thought: Perhaps it would be a gift for someone to find the webpage devoted to someone they loved at American Battle Monuments Commission. I loved seeing the page devoted just to my father and will attach it here in his memory today.
Please share your stories with me so I can share them with others at www.makemomhappybymail.com
Be Well and Bring Joy