Before Dec. 7, 1941, when a teenage male wearing the Western Union uniform and cap stopped his bicycle at your house, you were going to receive good news. After Dec. 7 if you were a parent with an adult child (ren) or married with a spouse serving our country, your worst nightmare was to see a teen in a Western Union uniform walking toward your front door with a clipboard and a telegram.
During World War II when an adult child or a spouse was KIA, killed in action, DOW, died of wounds, or MIA, missing in action, the immediate relative received a hand delivered telegram from the Department of Defense.
If nobody was home, the Western Union was supposed to return to that address when there was someone home to sign and receive the telegram.
Three days before Christmas, Wednesday, Dec. 22, 1943, my grandparents’ home was festively decorated for Christmas. There was the scent of pine inside their home. My grandparents, Pop and Grammie, were working. Phyllis, mom’s 16-year-old sister, was playing girls’ basketball in PE class. Nobody was home at 71 Fay’s Avenue that bitter cold December day in eastern Massachusetts with a couple of inches of snow on the ground.
Pop was the first person to arrive home. He removed his key from his right front pocket to unlock and open the door. Today, something prompted him to look at the floor. There was an envelope facedown that had been slid underneath the door. Pop picked up the envelope and read the name of the sender, “NOOOOOOOOO!”
He tore the envelope to read, “WASHN DC DEC 22 1943 MRS MARTHA XXXXXX THE SECRETARY OF WAR DESIRES ME TO EXPRESS HIS DEEP REGRET THAT YOUR SON PRIVATE RICHARD E. XXXXXX WAS KILLED IN ACTION IN DEFENSE OF HIS COUNTRY ON THREE DECEMBER IN ITALY LETTER FOLLOWS= UL 10 THE ADJUTANT GENERAL =”
Aunt Phil told me, “I came home after Pop. The telegram was crumbled into a ball on the entryway floor near the shredded envelope. In my grandparents’ home, the laundry room was the exit into the backyard from the kitchen. Pop was in the laundry room with the door shut. All I could hear was his nonstop wailing. It was the first and only time I knew he cried.”
During the war, parents and spouses displayed a blue star in a front window for each person serving in our armed services. My grandparents had two sons in the Navy and one in the Army. On Dec. 25, they replaced the middle blue star with a gold star. A gold star represented a family member had made the ultimate sacrifice for his country.
Later that Christmas Day, Mom’s sister, her husband, with their daughter, Mom and I gathered at Grammie and Pop’s home for a somber blue Christmas dinner. Four years later, Billy Hayes and Jay W. Johnson wrote a country tune, “Blue Christmas.” Elvis covered Blue Christmas in his 1957 Christmas album.
Mom and I lived with her parents several times during the war. In 1954 we were gathered at their home for a holiday. Pop was sitting quietly in his chair. Mom asked, “Pop, why are you so quiet?” He responded, “I was thinking of Richard.”
I had a close relationship with Pop. In 36 years once Pop spoke to me about Uncle Richard.
“When Richard came home for Christmas in 1942, he was in fantastic shape. He was rock solid from his First Special Service Force training!” It was the only time Pop’s eyes sparkled.
Grammie joined the Gold Star Mothers, a support group that met for lunch on Thursdays. Once a week for three decades she broke bread with mothers who shared the loss of their son.
Dec. 3, 17 days before his 22nd birthday, Richard was KIA on Monte la Difensa south of Casino, Italy. He had a picture of me in his helmet when he died. His personal items were sent home, including the picture. I had the picture framed.
Twice I’ve visited Italy to climb Monte la Difensa, following in my uncle’s footsteps. From the top of the inactive volcano, I visualized the two-hour fire fight. By Aug. 14, 1945, there were 407,300 similar stories of loss during the war.
My wish for everyone who has a loved one currently serving our county, may you never open your front door to see two grim faced persons in uniform with the news that you qualify to have a gold star in your front window. “May all your Christmases be white.”
Ken Beaton of Carson City contributes periodically to the Nevada Appeal.