The illustration I used was that of what so often happens in the modern world when a death occurs in one’s family. It is sad but true that many funerals today are also occasions for family reunions. We all live such busy lives at such a fast pace that we lose contact with the very people we love, especially our extended family. Needless to say, we do this to our detriment.
This past week alone, I was notified of the death of two of my own extended family members. The first, “Uncle Alvin”, was technically my father’s uncle, and thus my great uncle. He was the younger brother of my paternal grandmother, closer in age to my own father. They grew up playing together.
For my part, I remember him mostly from my early childhood years. He was a veteran and a hardworking man, who owned a cabinet shop and provided well for his family. Sadly, he suffered from dementia in his latter years; and in so many respects, he has now been made whole. I know he will be well remembered, sorely missed, and one day, seen again.
The other uncle, “Fred”, was the husband of my maternal grandmother’s sister. He too was a veteran who spent almost four decades working at the Atlanta Journal and Constitution newspaper. Together, he and “Aunt Doris” raised four wonderful children in the suburbs south of Atlanta.
I regret that life, particularly in the modern world, so often takes us down divergent paths. This may have been true for ministers in all generations; but it appears to be true of most other professions today as well. We follow our careers wherever they take us. As a result, we very often lose contact with our families. In retrospect, I wished I had done more to keep in touch with my own extended family. Both they and I would have been better off for it. A little lesson came my way this week that underscores this very truth.
Tom Brokaw wrote a book a few years ago titled The Greatest Generation (New York: Random House, 1998). In it, he had this to say about the generation of men and women who grew up in the depression and then went off to fight World War Two, "It is, I believe, the greatest generation any society has ever produced." His contention was that here was a group of men and women who fought, not for fame and recognition, but because it was the "right thing to do".
Then, once they had won the war, they simply came back home, put away their weapons, and quietly went back to work rebuilding both their lives and their nation. Furthermore, for the most part, once home, they hardly ever said anything at all about their wartime experiences.
How right Tom Brokaw was! Witness the fact that, other than listing the details of his funeral service and his beloved family, my Uncle Fred’s obituary contains only seven simple sentences…
Fred Graham Watson, 90, of Fayetteville, passed away April 14, 2013. He was a faithful husband and loving father. Mr. Watson was a good and faithful servant to the Lord Jesus Christ, faithful member of Bible Baptist Church of Hampton for over 35 years and was a supporter of missionaries worldwide. He served his country in the US Navy in World War II, was on the first ship in Tokyo Bay during the Pacific Campaign and was present at the signing of the Japanese Surrender. He retired from the Atlanta Journal Constitution after 36 years of service. He was also featured as the “Unknown Hero” in the September 1, 2011 edition of the Fayetteville, Georgia newspaper. He was an avid Georgia Bulldog fan and follower for 75 years.*
When I read this, I was simply dumbfounded. Here I am, an avid history buff, and somewhat of a World War Two enthusiast in particular, with literally hundreds of books and documentaries on the subject in my personal library; yet, I never knew anything at all about the military service of my mother’s own uncle. I am still busy piecing the story together, but it now appears that he was aboard the first U.S. Destroyer (perhaps the U.S.S. Collett, DD 730) that sailed into Tokyo Bay.
Whichever U. S. Destroyer he was on, one thing is for certain. Shortly, thereafter, along with 200 other shipmates, he was transferred to the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri (the famed “Might Mo). There, mere feet away from my “Uncle Fred”, would have stood Admirals Chester Nimitz and Bull Halsey, the heroes of Doolittle’s Raid, of Midway, of Coral Sea, and the famed Marianas Turkey Shoot. There, too, would stood, General Jonathan Wainwright, and, of course, General Douglas MacArthur himself. Of course, there too would have stood representatives of the defeated Japanese Empire, forced to sign the official instruments of surrender, thereby ending the single greatest event in world history.
In short, “Uncle Fred” himself lived history. Then, just as Brokaw asserts, he simply came home, put away the mementoes and the memories, and went on with his life, never bothering to speak about them again. Even his own children did not know of his exploits until very recently.
For my part, I am essentially flabbergasted. How many times I crossed paths with this man and never once thought to inquire about his service to his country. Now, he is gone and his beautiful wife has Alzheimer’s and cannot recall any of the matter. Thank God for the fact that his basement flooded a few years ago, forcing the family to clean out the boxes, and thus uncover the records and the photos. Otherwise, the entire matter would likely have gone unnoticed and simply faded away into oblivion.
But there is much more to learn from all this. As a nation, we were once losing World War Two Veterans at the rate of c. 5000 a day. Now, that number is down to under 1000 a day. Obviously, the vast majority of the men and women who were privileged to be part of that greatest of all generations have now passed away. If you even suspect that you know any who are left, my admonition is to seek them out. Get their story. And do it now. Why?
Because their stories need to be heard. You and I will be better off for having heard them. (And if we don’t hear them, they may be lost forever.) Likewise, the brave deeds of these individuals need to be recognized and lauded. They really did save the world for us. More importantly, perhaps, these esteemed man and women deserve our attention. In our busy lives, spent for the most part in pursuit of things only trivial by comparison to their pursuits, we have now all but abandoned them. We have made them little more than living relics, and relegated them to the dust bin of history. And there is, perhaps, no greater sign of being unappreciative than that.
So, in closing, let me simply say what is long overdue: "Thank you, 'Uncle Fred'. I am sorry I did not know about your service on behalf of our country, nor any of the details of your amazing story. But, I look forward to seeing you in Heaven one day. Maybe we can sit down and spend a century or two recounting your experiences on behalf of your fellow man. I, for one, would love to hear all about them. Your grateful nephew, Jack."