I spent several hours last week searching for people who served with my dad in the 1950s. He was drafted in 1952, served in the 4th Infantry as part of the United States Army Europe (USAREUR), and was stationed in Germany until 1954. He took hundreds of pictures while there, including dozens of candid shots and portraits of his fellow GIs. Aren’t these wonderful?
He put notations on the back, but often, it’s only a last name, “Sgt. Cady,” or “Urban, out on the field problem ‘Monte Carlo.’” (A field problem seems to be some type of training.) Some photos, like “Gene Smith, George Wilson, and me,” actually have full names.
I’m fairly certain I’ve seen these pictures before. My dad died five years ago, and we’ve spent much time pouring over all the photographs he left behind. But looking through these pictures again last week created an urgency in me—probably because I seem to have a sudden and deep awareness that there actually isn’t all the time in the world to do things. I left my mom’s house on a mission to track down these men and give the pictures either to them or to their surviving family members. I reasoned that with Google, I could find anything. And probably in like 20 minutes.
Google has let me down though. At least in round one of searching.
It’s more difficult that I thought to quickly find a random Sgt. Cady who was in Frankfurt in 1953, or a Gene Smith in Friedberg in 1954 (do you know how many Gene Smiths there are?), or a GI with the last name of Urban who must have liked to read while out on a field problem. I searched obituaries and newspaper articles, and poured over the message boards at the Korean War Project (some message boards are dedicated to units that served during that time in places other than Korea). I found a few promising leads, but after some emails and phone calls, they all turned out to be dead ends.
Even though my searching seems to have hit a wall, I can’t stop going back to the Korean War Project site. I discovered a section called Letters to the Lost, where I started reading letters, like this 2006 one from a woman named Jeannie, which starts:
I was almost 3 years old when you were killed in Korea. I missed having a dad, all my life. I still do. Your entire family missed you - your mom and dad and brother, especially your wife. One wonderful person missing out of a family throws everything off. You were that person.
Many are from surviving family members and friends. Some are from surviving veterans themselves. These letters tell of horrors and heroism, in a plain and authentic way. If you are ever in one of those moods where you need to have a good cry and reset your outlook, go spend some time browsing these letters.
I also keep going back to the message boards. Even after I abandoned looking for leads to track down the guys in my dad’s pictures, I kept hitting the forward arrow to read the next batch. So many of them read like desperate entreaties, put forth on the off-chance that someone might still know something about their loved one’s military service, after all this time. Like this one:
I was just wondering if anyone knew my grandfather during the war. He always had great stories to tell about the war and he was a great man and will sorely be missed but will always be in our hearts and he said his group received a bronze star that he never really talked about a lot and I was just wondering if anyone knew what the commendation was for because all he would say is that there was a break through in the allied lines and the Chinese would send wave after wave of men and they fired for 36 hours straight and if anyone has anything to add it would be much appreciated.
It doesn’t help that Korea is such a forgotten war, sandwiched in between World War II and Vietnam, and its veterans are dying rapidly now. The question that underscores so many of the entries I’m reading is Why didn’t I get the stories while I still had a chance? My dad, who had the luck to get sent to Germany as part of NATO troops, wasn’t even in Korea, and I still feel regret that I didn’t ask more questions.
This kind of regret can come for you at any age, but it really nests itself in tight during midlife. This is what my latest Cincinnati Magazine column is about. It’s ostensibly about growing up in a ranch house in Northern Kentucky, but it’s really about my fear that I will run out of time to learn all the stories of my ancestors and ask all the questions I haven’t asked.
This is why I started a “bullet journal.” Not to better organize my days, but to have a special, beautiful space to write down memories, stories, and aspirations.
I’m still new to it (and learning how to hand letter!), but I created this entry a few days ago after spending the day riding around with my mom, looking at the neighborhood where she grew up and hearing the stories about her parents.
I don’t want to run out of time. I mean, I will run out of time. That’s a given. But I want to be intentional in learning what I can before it’s too late.
And of course, I would love more than anything to send these pictures of my dad’s to someone. But I’m going to need some help from the universe on that one.