Memorial Day is family

May 28, 2001|By Thomas Belton

HADDONFIELD, N.J. - There's an Old Irish saying, "Every household gives one to the army and one to the church."

As it turns out, it was my brother Jack who joined the seminary at a tender age then quit (I think he missed the ladies), finished high school and then joined the Army. So I figured I had it made in the shade; Jack had done it all.

But once again on Memorial Day, as so many other Americans, my mind turns to the veterans in my family, alive and dead.

Of course, there's Jack who served in Vietnam and maintained his unique sense of humor during the war that served as the lightning rod for our generation. That war's motives are still debated, but the sacrifice of those who served is never doubted by any of us who lived through that decade.

There's my dad, Big Red, who served in the Army Air Forces during World War II running a stateside motor pool to support pilot training for action overseas.

There's Jimmy Duncan, my father-in-law who ironically served as the only Jersey City teen-ager in a combat infantry group out of Texas whose "Remember the Alamo" shoulder-patch was recognized all over the Italian boot as its men fought their way from Rome to Berlin. He received a battlefield commission in recognition of his leadership skills, which sustained him for years after the war as he rose in the ranks of the Jersey City Fire Department to become chief.

But the vet I think most about is my mother, Ethel Deweese, or DeeWee to her Army buddies. Like 150,000 other women, she enlisted in the Women's Army Corps (WACS) so that able-bodied men could fight.

Some WACS worked in exotic jobs, such as lab technicians who helped build the atom bomb, or as code breakers, or operated tabulating machines (precursors of the modern computer) to support the war effort. Most were tough ladies forged by the depredations of the Depression.

My mom was born to a family of 10 and began work young when the Depression put her father and older brothers out of work. She and her sisters hand-packed crates at the Scott Paper Factory in Chester, Pa., for pennies a day, which was enough to keep the family afloat through the hard times.

She was assigned to the Army Air Corps, who used WACS as weather observers, forecasters, radio operators, parachute riggers and aerial photograph analysts.

By 1943, DeeWee found herself working as an airplane mechanic on both fighters and B-29 Superfortresses. It was an era before ratchet wrenches, when women made better aircraft mechanics because of their smaller hands, which could get inside the guts of an engine and put it back together again without taking the whole plane off-line.

If she were alive today and were asked if she thought the WACS set the stage for the feminist movement of the 1970s, I'm sure she would be outraged. But she was always proud of being a veteran, of having been a part of something new and unique for women in America.

When she died she could have been buried in any military cemetery in the country but she chose to be placed beside Red, whom she met during the war. As a veteran, the Army sent a flag to drape over her coffin.

She and my Dad were lucky in their terms of service. They did their parts in relative safety, and as a bonus found each other to live long lives and celebrate many Memorial Days.

Others who served in harm's way overseas were less fortunate: Those friends of my brother lost in Vietnam whose teen-age smiles still haunt him or those Texas buddies of my father-in-law who were left behind in European graves.

It is for them that we mourn the most on Memorial Day because they sacrificed the most and never had the chance to see the world open up to peace or to experience the adulation of their children on this day of memory. Let's not forget.

Thomas Belton lives in Haddonfield, N.J.

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