Ken Beaton: What just happened?
Have you ever asked yourself, “What just happened?” The last time I asked myself that question was on Thursday, September 19, 2019.
For me, a story seems to come together in the most unexpected places. I had left my room on the sixth floor of the Holiday Inn in Rockford, Illinois, walked down the hall and pressed the down elevator button. It was the second day of the First Special Service Force Association’s 73rd annual gathering. Today’s first meeting would begin at 10 a.m.
I looked to my right and notice a gentleman about my age walking to the elevator area. I read his FSSF Association badge, “Gene” from “the Green Mountain State,” Vermont. His dad was a member of fourth company in Second Regiment. My uncle was in first company.
I extended my right hand and said. “Hi Gene, I see your dad and my uncle were in the same regiment in the Force.” But wait there’s more similarities. Before joining the Force in 1942, Gene’s dad was dating a student nurse in Vermont, like my uncle.
Before the Force boarded five troop trains in May 1943, Gene’s dad had “popped the question” to his future mom. He requested and received a two-day weekend pass. Immediately, the couple made their plans to “get hitched” on Friday. They had a small civil ceremony with a memorable two-day honeymoon. (My uncle Richard and “My almost aunt,” Rae had decided NOT to get married until he came home after the War.) Richard told Rae, “This is a horrible time to bring a baby into the world!”
All the couples, newly married or engaged, kissed goodbye with moist eyes at Burlington’s train station. “Hold me tight and give me one more kiss!” Everyone asked themselves, “When will I be in his/her arms again?” Gene’s future parents’ did not know they had a son who would be born in nine months, March 1944.
The Force received their amphibious landing training at a base on the shores of Chesapeake Bay. They travelled by troop trains to the west coast, boarded troop ships to Kiska, an Aleutian Island occupied by about 10,000 Japanese troops. Upon landing on Kiska’s shores, the Force discovered the island had been evacuated by Japanese troops hours before the Force landed. The coffee pots were warm.
The Force returned to Fort Ethan Allen in Burlington for additional training. When Gene’s dad returned to Burlington, his wife hugged him with a broad smile and said, “You’re going to be a dad!” They spent more quality time together before another tear filled goodbye in October 1943. On the East Coast, they boarded troop ships to the Mediterranean shores of Naples, Italy.
My uncle and Gene’s dad were Killed in Action in December 1943. Richard was KIA on December 3rd. Twenty-two days later, Gene’s dad was KIA on Christmas Day 1943 during the Force’s victory on Hill 720. About three weeks later in January 1944, Gene’s mom received the telegram from the War Department. Less than two months, March 10th, Gene was born.
There was another similarity. My uncle’s remains were returned home in 1948. Gene’s dad’s remains were returned to his family’s Mississippi hometown in 1950.
Two days later at the FSSF Association’s Saturday evening banquet, I was seated at a table with seven people I had never met. The adult son of another Force man had recently learned his dad was a member of the Force and killed during the War. He was with his wife and five of his newly discovered relatives attending the banquet. He was happier than a little kid on Christmas morning standing in front of all his wrapped presents. The smile on his face was from ear to ear. Almost every sentence was a newly discovered page from his family’s history. He received answers to questions he never thought to ask. I know the feeling because I had a similar experience when I attended my first reunion in 2006.
The First Special Service Force Association is a welcoming close-knit extended family. Each person was searching for at least one more story about their dad, grandpa, brother, uncle, cousin, in-law or outlaw. They experienced a warm welcome when they joined. In return they give the same welcome with new members. This your new family. They live in Canada, France, Italy and the USA. There are four languages spoken, hey?
“May the Force be with you.”