Ken Beaton: Fatherless children, a cost of war

Ken Beaton

Ken Beaton

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For some unknown reason, I’ll receive an email, open it, click on a link and there’s a commentary idea waiting patiently for me.

I received an email from the World War II Museum in New Orleans. There was a two-minute video about a WWII P-38 pilot, 1st Lt. Shannon Edsel, in the 428th Fighter Squadron, 474th Fighter Group whose dual engine fighter took a header into a field in eastern Germany on April 13, 1945, 25 days before Germany surrendered. Edsel was so close to the end of WWII, but he didn’t make it. He had a wife and a 1-month-old daughter, Sharon. If he was fortunate, he received a photo of their first child from his wife shortly before the 13th that he kept in his cockpit.

When he opened the letter from his wife and held the picture in his hand for the first time, tears of joy rolled down his cheeks as thoughts of watching her take her first steps, ride a bike without the training wheels, practice driving to pass her driver’s test, have a serious look on his face as he grills her scared senior prom date, “I want my daughter home by 2 a.m. sharp, Buster,” and walks her down the aisle on her wedding day. None of those rites happened because Edsel was killed in action with his wife receiving “the telegram” just before VE Day, Victory in Europe.

By the time Sharon entered the first grade in September 1951, she had listened intently to her mom tell her stories about how her parents met. Her dad was going to complete college using the GI Bill after the war. He had a gift, the ability to fix anything from bicycles, cars, and household appliances. “Your dad had the most beautiful blue eyes. I could get lost in those eyes. Sharon, you have his eyes.”

By the time Sharon was in her 40s with three teenagers, Erin, Shannon II and Brian, there was an inner voice that became louder and couldn’t be ignored. Her dad’s remains were never located and given a final resting place.

She couldn’t do anything because immediately after May 8, 1945, East Germany became a Russian satellite behind the “Iron Curtain.” The most diplomatic way to describe the situation was the Russians were not “user friendly.”

After the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the western nations saw this as an opportunity to unite East and West Germany on Oct. 3, 1990. Now Sharon could travel to the area in the eastern part of Germany where her dad’s P-38 crashed into a field.

With the help of The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, they located the wreckage of her father’s crashed P-38. Their mission is “to achieve the fullest possible accounting of all Americans missing as a result of the nation's past conflicts.” Basically, they give the families of our fallen closure with locating, identifying, and returning the remains of their loved one to be laid to rest.

In 2003 Shannon’s crashed P-38 was located. The plane’s identification plate was unreadable, but the two B1710 Allison engines’ ID plates were readable along with the ID plates for the four 50 caliber machine guns and the 20-millimeter cannon in the nose of the plane. The pilot’s remains were recovered in 2003 to be examined and identified, a slow process. In 2006 1st Lt. Shannon Edsel had been identified through DNA. He received a military ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington.

There are 180,000 American adult children who were left fatherless by WWII. Many never met their dads. Most have no memory of their dad. Most people reading this commentary can’t relate to the empty hole that exists inside each of those adult children seeking information about their dad.

I can relate to those fatherless children. My mom had three younger brothers, William, Richard, and Donald. I was the only nephew on my mom’s side of the Daigle family. My mom took a picture of me at 21 months old wearing my dad’s USCG chief’s hat in Mobile. The picture was taken on Richard’s 21st birthday, Dec. 20, 1942. Richard carried the picture of me in his helmet for good luck because he was a paratrooper and a member of the First Special Service Force, “The Devil’s Brigade.”

I can identify with Sharon feeling a hole in her life. Her dad didn’t have a military burial in the United States. Uncle Richard’s unit, The First Special Service Force, “the Devil’s Brigade,” took an extinct volcano from crack German troops in two hours! General Mark Clark, the U.S. Fifth Army Commander was so impressed that when the Fifth Army broke out of the Anzio Beachhead in May 1944 to liberate Rome on June 4, 1944, he assigned the FSSF to be on point with an Armor Division. An officer and three enlisted men from the FSSF in a jeep were the first allied troops into Rome at 06:20 hours as they secured a bridge into Rome.

Don’t ask me how many times my grandmother Daigle, my mom and her two sisters told me, “Uncle Richard carried a picture of you in his helmet when he was KIA on Monte la Difensa on Dec. 3, 1944.”

I traveled to Italy in 2008 and 2014. When I looked at an Italian map, Monte la Difensa is in a rural region of Italy. I took six semesters of conversational Italian so I could communicate with the locals. Our bus driver, Ernesto, didn’t speak English. I was one of two people who spoke with him. Each morning, I always received a big smile from Ernesto.

I know what that hole in your life feels like. Twelve years after my dad passed away in 1998, I finally spent a weekend looking through all the pictures I kept after my parents had passed away. I picked up each picture and read the back. I picked up the picture of me wearing my dad’s USCG chief’s hat in Mobile, turned it over and read the back side, “Kenneth Paul Beaton Mobile, Al, Dec. 20, 1942” Instantly, I recognized mom’s penmanship. She wrote on the back of the picture my uncle Richard carried in his helmet which was returned to my grandparents with his other personal items.

I spent six semesters studying conversational Italian, traveled to Italy twice to follow in my uncle’s footsteps. There were times when I felt that Richard Daigle was guiding me to discover information about him. I can identify with the children who lost their dad in the war. I located Richard’s foxhole mate, Harry’s oldest grandson, Danny. Danny emailed me a picture of his grandparents holding Henretta, his mom, at 2 months old. When her dad was KIA beside Richard, Henretta was five months old. Harry’s final resting place is the Sicily/Rome American Cemetery and Memorial south of Rome in Nettuno.

I had a long conversation with Richard’s girlfriend, Rachael’s, adult daughter, Anna. Rachael met Richard; she was a first-year student in nursing school. Because Rachael was not Richard’s wife, the only way she learned that he was KIA was when her Christmas card was returned marked, “Return to sender, KIA.”

Here’s an example that Europeans have not forgotten the cost of their freedom comes. “At the Netherlands American Cemetery every grave is adopted by a local family. A local family comes and makes sure every grave has decorations – such as flowers and flags on holidays, sometimes on the anniversary of the individual’s death, or possibly on the individual’s birthday.”

In 2011 my wife and I took a 15-day WWII Memorial Tour of five European nations. When our tour visited the Netherlands American Cemetery, we witnessed Dutch elementary school students planting a tree to remember the fallen Americans in the cemetery.

Dec. 3 is the 80th anniversary of the First Special Service Force, “The Devil’s Brigade,” defeating the Germans on Monte la Difensa, Italy. Thirty-nine members of the “Force” were KIA including foxhole mates, Richard, and Harry. The second regiment’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. T.C. MacWilliams was one of the 39 KIA on Dec. 3. MacWilliams never read his wife’s letter notifying him that their first born was a son, named after his father. My wife and I met Thomas C. MacWilliams, Jr. on the first “Follow In Their Footsteps” Italian tour.


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