The whole story in one tiny artifact

One tiny, worn and ripped yellow piece of paper can hold a boatload of answers.

On November 23, 1944, Chuck was in New Guinea, spending his first Thanksgiving away from his family. His first letter home to his parents consisted of censor-approved information (oops, almost) about his long journey overseas. Before sealing the envelope, he tucked in the yellow meal card he carried on the ship. The hole-punches marked the daily meals he had consumed. With it, came a simple explanation.

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The card survived the inspection of the censor, the 6,500 mile trip back to Oregon and has held together – just barely – for the last 70 years.

When it first slipped out between the pages of Chuck’s letter, I barely gave it notice. However, over the last few months, its presence in the archive has proven to be very valuable.

At the end of Chuck’s furlough in the fall of 1944, Chuck left his hometown of Tillamook, Oregon and travelled to San Francisco. On the docks of the Presidio, he was met by hundreds of fellow passengers from the Army, Navy and Coast Guard.   But our information stops abruptly there. Without the name of the troopship, Kim and I had no idea what day Chuck boarded the vessel or how long it took them to reach New Guinea.

Every week, Kim and I meet to write together. We always have the Chuck’s letters on hand for inspiration. A few months ago, Kim was flipping through the binder of letters, when this tiny yellow card caught her eye.  Kim took a longer glance at the meal card and abruptly announced “Three holes per day. All we need to do is count the columns.”

It’s amazing how you can stare at something and never really see it. She was right. There were 19 columns of punched holes. He was on the ship for 19 days. The answer was always in plain sight.

We were giddy for a few minutes, excited about the discovery, when it occurred to me that Chuck may have had another motive to sharing the meal card with his parents.

“Kim, is it possible Chuck sent this home to pass on information? Was this his way of telling his parents how long his trip took?”  While there’s no way to confirm that theory, it would not be at all surprising. Chuck and his parents were exceptionally perceptive.

About a week later, I shared this story with another friend of mine named Afy. “We know he traveled in November for 19 days, but we are still in the dark about the date his ship left San Francisco. I typically carry photos of the archive on my phone, in case I need to access it remotely.  She glanced at my phone and  immediately pointed to the punched holes said, “There are thirty days in November.  His meals started on November 2.”

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Yep. It was clear that the first column was not touched. B for Breakfast, D for dinner and the number 1 – for the date, November 1, 1944. Never felt the sweet bite of a hole puncher.  The dates of his journey were revealed as November 2-20, 1944. Each person who looked at this card identified something new to glean from it.

I found this book on one of my online treasure hunts, to aid with the research. It doesn’t hold any big revelations but it did have a few minor ones. Including…what happened to lunch? Didn’t these men deserve a midday nosh?
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Not according to the Army. The men were only allotted two meals a day. The powers that be decided that they would get by perfectly fine on less calories since their physical activities were limited.

And just when I thought the meal card had no more secrets left to spill…my friend Susan found another.

Susan, a very good friend who just happens to work for the National Archives, has played a key role in connecting us with historians at various Presidential Libraries. Susan is enamored with Chuck and we often get together to talk about the book’s progress. Recently, we were sitting at my dining room table looking over the archive. I pulled out the meal card with my naked hand and she cried out, “Oh my goodness, that’s an original signature. Where are your gloves?” I did not own gloves, a tweezer or a mini scalpel. I am not an archivist and I don’t play one on TV. But she was absolutely right. It was his full signature and the only one we have. Maybe I should invest in some gloves.

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“Karen, didn’t you say he wrote his parents about being seasick for a few days at the beginning of the trip? Look right here. He skipped dinner and breakfast back to back. I bet that’s when he felt ill.”

It was an intriguing thought, so I went back to the letter he wrote while on board. It appears that Chuck mentioned the first day and a half of the journey being rough, but nothing specifically about November 9-10, 1944.

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Susan’s idea about skipping meals was a great one, but not necessarily the cause of the lost meals.  Perhaps he wasn’t sick at all on those days, but serving a four hour guard duty looking out for enemy submarines. Or maybe he didn’t want to interrupt a hot streak playing cards. All of this speculation reminded me of a very important rule in research. Don’t try to prove a theory by providing the data to back it. Instead, follow the trail of clues and go where it takes you. With that said, it’s  still enormously fun to speculate.

One unknown piece of the puzzle still eluded me. The name of his troopship. Every path I followed led to a brick wall.  I knew the dates he traveled, the port he departed and his arrival destination. I was hopeful that the equation components would reveal the name of his vessel. I finally learned why that was never going to happen.

A historian at the National Archives wrote a reply to my letter of inquiry. It was not good news. In 1951, the Department of the Army destroyed all manifests, logs of vessels, and troop movement files of United States Army transports for World War II and most of the passenger lists.

I can’t deny that I’m disappointed. It’s very hard to push myself away from the table when I’m still hungry for more. However, this book isn’t going to write itself. Time to close this chapter. For now.

 

And we who pay him homage

While visiting the Tillamook County Pioneer Museum, Kim and I had the opportunity to review over 1,000 documents which told the story of the Hunter family and their contributions to their community. In one folder, I found this Citation of Honor given to Chuck’s family after his death. I’ve never read anything like this before. It left a lasting impression on me -one that’s taken me months to work through.

Today, September 22, 2015 marks 70 years since Chuck’s death while serving in the Army Air Corps. I thought it was time to share this on the blog, along with my own thoughts on the message.

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He lived to bear his country’s arms. He died to save its honor. As an avid hunter, Chuck grew up around rifles. Annual hunting trips were established to not only provide meat for his family, but to create lasting memories with his father. In November 1942, almost a year after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Army. He was ready to bear arms for a greater purpose – to defend his country from further attacks. When the war ended in the Pacific, certainly he longed to go home. However, he knew his job was not over. According to a fellow radio operator, Chuck was one of first airmen to see Tokyo. One month after peace was declared, Chuck was killed in a routine supply run. Routine. Nothing was ever routine when it came to flying in 1945. He was a soldier….and he knew a soldier’s duties. 

His sacrifice will help keep aglow the flaming torch that lights our lives…that millions yet unborn may know the priceless joy of liberty. 

According to Webster’s dictionary, “liberty” is defined as the state or condition of people who are able to act and speak freely; the power to do or choose what you want; a political right.

As I read these words, I think back to the Baby Boomers who tested the strength and endurance of their liberty by speaking out against racism and sexism. I think about Americans today who are still fighting to enjoy the liberties others often take for granted. I know that light still burns, but it hasn’t yet touched everyone who will benefit from it’s promise.

And we who pay him homage and revere his memory, in solemn pride rededicate ourselves to a complete fulfillment of the task which he so gallantly has placed his life upon the altar of man’s freedom. 

For the last two years,  Kim and I have been dedicated to creating an enduring legacy for Chuck. We are currently the custodians of his story, as there are no family members left to share it. Upon reading the Certificate of Honor’s beautifully crafted statement, I felt the need to expand our mission. It’s not enough to tell his story. We must pick up where he left off and never stop fighting until every American – no, every human being – can create their own lives and leave their unique mark on the world.

The truth, declassified.

Was I really going to do this? Tear apart a heroic story looking for inconsistencies? The tale of Chuck Hunter’s tragic demise during a mission to save POWs in Japan was a known fact in Tillamook, Oregon for seventy years. What right did I have to turn it upside down?

I went back to Chuck’s own words, hoping they would tell me how to proceed.  I poured over his letters for a third and fourth time.  The essence of his humanity was evident on every page. He was simply put, a genuine and earnest young man.  He was effortlessly charming,  engaging and sweet. I could relate to him.  I decided to trust what I knew in my heart. Chuck would want to be remembered accurately. So, I set off to find the truth.

I began by calling my friend Devra, who for many years worked as a curator for the Smithsonian museums.  She reached out to a colleague,  senior curator at the Air & Space Museum, her friend Tom Crouch.  Shortly after Tom and I began to correspond, he introduced my research project to Daniel Haulman at the Air Force Historical Research Agency (AFHRA.)

After a few days of telling Chuck’s story to new people,  my head was spinning with the potent combination of joy and anticipation. I thought, “this is it! I will find out all the answers today!”  In reality, there was a long road ahead but at least I was pointed in the right direction.

If you’re familiar with the experience of “hurry up and wait”,  you can imagine how often I refreshed the inbox on my Outlook account. It turns out that staring at the computer screen, trying to will an email to appear isn’t very effective.

And then…it came. 

Air Force Historical Research Agency
600 Chennault Circle
Building 1405
Maxwell AFB, AL 36112-6424

Ms Nudelman:
This letter is sent in reference to your request for information concerning Sgt. Charles
Hunter. I digitized the 21st Troop Carrier Squadron history and the 374th Troop Carrier Group
history for September 1945. Sgt. Hunter died when the C-46 he was on flew into a mountain
moving squadron supplies, equipment and personnel from the Philippines to Atsugi, Japan. You
will receive an email with directions on how to download the files sent regarding Sgt. Hunter. If
you would like copies of all the histories of the 21st TCS and 374th TCG, I enclosed an order
form for them. Please fill it out and return it to the address on the sheet if interested. If I can
assist you further, please contact me. Thank you for your request, have a great day.
Sincerely,

James M. Cloninger, PhD
Historian

The memos he shared with me had a written account of the human and material losses sustained by the 21st Troop Carrier Squad in September and October 1945.  Here are the excerpts regarding Chuck’s last flight:

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C-46 number 8455 crashed in the Atsugi area on the 22nd September while hauling a Squadron load. The crew and passengers, seven in all, were instantly killed. 

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The weather over Japan was quite different from anything the pilots had ever encountered over the Coral Sea, around New Guinea, or in the Philippine Islands.  Japan- the festering ground of typhoons- presented such problems as icing conditions, strong active fronts with very strong winds aloft, and a persistent ground haze just before sunset. The whole Tokyo Bay area would get “socked in” without warning and at the time there were no other Allied controlled emergency fields. We lost a ship on September 22nd carrying 1st Lt. D.S. Leatherman, 1st Lt. T.C. Cowell,  Sgt. C.W. Hunter, Sgt. F.E. Douglas and Pfc. E. Schwartz. They tried to come into Atsugi on instruments and hit a mountain. 

The two memos, dated October 1945 & November 1945, documented the story of a typhoon, which forced the crew to fly with little to no visibility. The crew relied solely on their instruments for navigational guidance. The weather dealt them a terrible hand. In the end, the plane was lost- on what was meant to be a routine supply run.  The number crunching and administrative tone of the memos made me queasy.  There were rows and columns of digits, an attempt to quantify the damage to their squadron.   Sgt. C. W Hunter was Chuck from Tillamook.  Helen’s younger brother. Alice and Frank Hunter’s second child – their only son.   You could try for a hundred years and never, ever be able to quantify their loss.

The sheer injustice of this accident happening one month after the war had ended was too much for me to comprehend.  The truth didn’t bring my peace. I was an idiot to think that it would.   I managed to capture a few racing thoughts in a follow up email:

Was this preventable? Or was his life considered expendable?  How on earth did the story of his death become entangled with a POW Rescue mission, a completely different set of circumstances? Did Alice and Frank Hunter die without knowing the truth? Is it possible he took part in the POW rescue mission in any capacity?

Karen,

I can only speculate about how the POW story started. My guess is that someone connected the date of his death to the POW missions being flown…and that connection would have made the sacrifice easier to understand rather than just an accident during “normal” resupply operations. That information provided to you would have been classified, I believe, into the 1980’s or even 1990’s. His parents probably never knew…

The actual resupply missions were flown by B-29s of the 20th Bomber Command. Based on the 21st TCS history, Chuck was flying between the Philippines and Okinawa up until his flight into Japan and death. It looks like the 21st TCS flew supplies and personnel into Okinawa from Clark Airfield after the unit finished moving the 13th Airborne Division to Okinawa. It would not surprise me, speculation of course, that some of the supplies and/or personnel flown by Chuck/21st TCS ended up being part of the POW supply mission. I can’t prove that, but it would make sense.

Couple parts to answer your question… There was a strong desire to get American troops into Japan as quickly as possible. Partly as a show of force, partly to begin the demilitarization/demobilization of Imperial Japanese forces and partly to retrieve POWs in Japan. Another part to this is that in the month of September 1945 there were approximately 660 aircraft accidents in the US and approximately 260 aircraft accidents outside the US suffered by the Army Air Forces.

Flying was extremely hazardous especially over long stretches of water. Remember that weather forecasting at that time wasn’t particularly accurate and it was pretty normal, from my readings, for aircraft to get into weather that they would normally not fly in.

James M. Cloninger Jr., PhD
Major, USAFR [AFSOC]
Air Force Historical Research Agency

Before I could step on the gas pedal and push toward my next discovery, I took a moment to absorb what I had learned. The narrative about his final mission had changed dramatically. One question was answered, but many more were born from that revelation.  I decided to take a step back.  I went back to my archive of Chuck’s letters and began to read. This time with a new set of eyes.

Frank Hunter, Chuck’s dad, worked as Tillamook’s only rural mail carrier. Waking up at 5:30 am, Frank’s first act was to sort the mail.  Before the day was over, he would travel 70 miles and visit 500 mail boxes.  When there was a spare moment, he would write Chuck brief notes – often composed on very small pieces of paper, similar in size to “Post-it notes.” He kept his stories light and entertaining, but on occasion, the tone of the letter shifted.

Frank on his mail route. A young Chuck tags along for a ride.
Frank on his mail route. A young Chuck tags along for a ride. Photo Courtesy of the Tillamook County Pioneer Museum
One short stack of notes are still adhered together after 72 years. The first page was dated October 6, 1943. I believe this letter was sent to Chuck during his training in 1943. Perhaps Chuck brought this letter back home when he visited Tillamook on furlough in the summer of 1944. Why else would a letter penned by Frank be saved along with three years worth of letters written by Chuck? Unless, of course, Frank never posted it.

He writes:

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There has been about 5 planes wrecked here and many lives lost and not many planes flying either. If you could keep your feet on the ground, it would suit me fine. You would probably live to have a lot of fun. 

Love, Pop

 

September 22, 1945

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January 9, 1 946

Dear Mrs.Hunter,

Words can not express my heartfelt sympathy for both of you and Mr. Hunter. It is times like these that we must look to God for guidance. It is our faith in him that will carry us through…

I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I read those words from the last letter in the stack. I had just finished sharing some of Chuck’s stories with my husband. I was exhilarated about the treasure trove of information that this personal account of WWII had offered me. I was looking forward to doing research on this young man, “Chuck Hunter” and see if he married Sherry or found his way back to his high school love, Joyce. Of course, my ultimate joy would be to find his children or grandchildren and give them back the letters that somehow escaped their rightful possession.

I was standing in my kitchen, too excited to sit down as I reached for the last letter dated in 1946. And there is was. Devastating news in the first few words. I think I made it to “heartfelt sympathy” before I cried out to my husband.

Oh God no. Please. No.

This whole time I spent absorbed in Chuck’s world, it never occurred to me, not once, that he wouldn’t make it back home. He was so animated. I swore at times, I could hear his youthful voice deepening to that of a man as time went on.  I was shaken to my core. I wanted to grieve for someone who died 70 years ago. A stranger who had become important to me. I checked the letter’s date against the last letter written by Chuck. Somewhere between August 1945 and January 1946, Chuck lost his life. But how. And where? The war was over. What the hell happened?

I turned on my computer and did a search for both his name and his sister, Helen Hunter. Immediately, an obituary from the Tillamook Headlight Herald appeared. It was Helen’s.

Helen Beth Hunter was born in Tillamook Nov. 13, 1920, and died Oct. 16, 2008, in Wheeler at age 87.

Her parents were Alice Todd Hunter and Frank William Hunter. They lived on McCormick Loop on a few acres, and one of her joys, when young, was horseback riding with her dog. She was devoted to animals her entire life. Helen was quite athletic, was an avid skier, and loved hiking and walking.

Her brother, Charles, was born in 1924, and they both attended Hunt Grade School and graduated from Tillamook High School. Both were baptized in the First Christian Church in Tillamook, where Helen has been a member since she was 9.

After high school, Helen enrolled in Linfield College and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1942. She then enrolled in Yale University’s School of Nursing, receiving her Master’s Degree in nursing and R.N. in 1945.

Helen’s brother, Charles, joined the Air Corps, where he was a radio operator during the war. He was killed in September 1945, when his plane crashed into a mountain in Japan while trying to bring out some prisoners of war.

Helen decided to join the Army Nurse Corps in 1945 as a 2nd Lieutenant, and spent 20 years in the Army, retiring as a major in 1965. She was stationed in various posts in the United States and abroad, as she loved to travel.

After retiring from the military, she returned to Tillamook County and bought a home overlooking the beach near Neah-Kah-Nie Mountain. During this time, she worked as director of nurses for the Rinehart Hospital in Wheeler.

After the death of her father in 1969, she cared for her mother, who still lived in Tillamook. Helen was then able to be at her home in Neah-Kah-Nie again full time with her beloved cats.

She had a lively intellect, a kind heart, and a sense of humor. Into her later life, Helen continued to travel the world, touring each continent – even Antarctica – and telling stories of her adventures. When with her relatives at holidays, they loved to see what stories she had to tell while looking at her wonderful photographs – of penguins, Komodo dragons, and the Panama Canal.

There was no mention of a husband or children. But what an exceptional life she had lived. Served our country, cared for her parents and travelled the world. As I read the excerpt about her brother Chuck’s death in September 1945, one thought passed through my mind. There are no descendants of their family. There was most likely no one alive to remember Chuck. He had no wife or children. He had 21 years on this earth. He left this world tragically, without a legacy. I was now the custodian of his story. Seventy years after his death, this responsibility had fallen to me, a total stranger. And I accepted the task without hesitation.

The obituary had mentioned an Army Air Corps mission with the purpose of saving Prisoners of War. A phone call to the Tillamook County Pioneer Museum confirmed these details and the date of his death: September 22, 1945. Better still, the museum staff pulled records from storage about the Hunter family – including Chuck’s obituary and letters from the War Department.

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The museum documents included the following information about his death:   During September 1945 Charles and the 374th Squadron were flying equipment and provisions to prison camps and returning prisoners to stations under American supervision.   Charles’ plane crashed into a mountain outside Yamato, Japan.

He was a hero. The day he died, he saved the lives of his brothers who were prisoners of war. I had to know more. I needed to know…how many people did he save that day? What POW camps received supplies and food from his plane? My next step was historical research on the early days of the Occupation of Japan. I poured over the reports of General MacArthur, available online through the Library of Congress. I never knew about the brave and very dangerous effort led by the 20th Air Force to drop supplies to thousands of dying men. They dropped steel drums filled to the brim with food and medical items, each one floated down swiftly with the aid of a cargo parachute. Just one month before, these planes were releasing bombs at a safe distance away from the explosion. But in order for the drums to land safely, the drops needed to be at 1,000 feet.

Seventy-seven rescuers died during “Operation Swift Mercy” which was initiated on August 30 and ended on September 20, 1945. I found the names of the 77 men on a casualty list, but Charles W. Hunter was not mentioned among them. And if POW rescue mission ended on September 20th, why was Chuck’s death date recorded as September 22nd?

To be continued…

One typewriter slightly damaged

Day in and day out, Chuck was surrounded by familiar noises from the airfield. The synchronized humming of the C-46 cargo plane’s twin engines played like a soundtrack on an endless loop. One evening in March of 1945, the noise coming from above his tent- the whooshing of twin engines deliberately whirling in opposite directions- abruptly ended his poker game.

Chuck describes the incident to his parents in a letter a few nights later.

airraidletterNetherlands East Indies March 26, 1945.

Well we have had a little experience this week. We had a Jap raid. I was sitting in my tent playing cards with my buddies when I heard a different sounding plane. It sounded like one of those new Maytag Washing Machines. I said, “What does that plane remind you of?” And one of the boys said, “Sounds like a Jap plane to me!”

Just then we heard the bombs. Boy, we cut the lights and ducked in the brush in a hurry! It was sure a surprise to us in the tent! When the red alert was over, we went to see just how much damage was done.

And just like that, he cuts his account short. Chuck never shared the scene he witnessed, only suggesting that perhaps he may get a medal out of it. He changed the subject completely, surely leaving his parents to rely on their own imagination.  I’m sure Alice and Frank Hunter read this letter with great interest, looking for any details about the air raid’s aftermath, only to be left wondering, “What isn’t he telling us?”

Seventy years have passed since Chuck escaped harm that evening, in a land now known as  Indonesia. Taking cover in the bushes, with his body vulnerable to shrapnel, Chuck must have been terrified. The scene that unraveled around him and the damage he observed afterward would remain his secret. His parents were to be kept innocent of such chaos.

Today is February 4, 2015. It doesphoto 1 (9)n’t escape me that I benefit from resources not available in the era when the Hunters patiently waited another two-three weeks for their son’s next letter. Just last week, I tapped away on my keyboard for no more than a minute when I struck gold. Twenty-four hours later, the UPS man handed me an Amazon.com package. It contained the book which chronicled the wartime experiences of Chuck’s outfit, the 374th Troop Carrier Group. Surely, it would tell the real tale of that night.

After flipping through several chapters and scanning for the phrase “21st Troop Carrier Squadron”, I finally hit pay dirt.

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I reached for the letter and began looking for similarities.

  • The date of the air raid was March 23, 1945. Chuck wrote in his letter dated March 26, 1945 of “having a little experience a few nights ago.”
  •  According to Chuck, the air raid came during their evening card game. 2100 o’clock is military speak for 9 pm.
  • Chuck and his buddies quickly realized that the “Maytag washing machine” sound was in fact a the noise from the engines of a “Washing Machine Charlie” aka a Japanese single twin-engine bomber.
  • And finally, the one noted casualty was a visiting corporal from Chuck’s squad.

It all matched up perfectly. The event described here shared the same details with those in Chuck’s letter.

I just needed one more confirmation. Buzzing with excitement, I emailed a copy of the letter and a photo of the historical account to my new friend, Dr. Jim Cloninger, Jr. a historian with the Air Force Historical Research Agency. Over the last several months, Jim has been nothing short of amazing – more magician than historian –  pulling “Chuck-specific” information from thin air.  He responded to me within the hour. Attached to his email was a declassified two-page memo dated March 23,1945. The word SECRET was stamped on the top of each page. Along with the document, he shared this message in his email:

This is a copy of a report from the 374th's Intelligence Officer concerning
the March 23 air raid. Notice block 11. "Other Pertinent
Information"...was not as clean or simple as Chuck or the Colonel made the
raid out to be. There is always more to the story...

The memo was addressed to the Commanding Officer of the 322nd Troop Carrier Wing. Immediately, I read Block 5, with the heading “DAMAGE SUSTAINED BY THE 374th TROOP CARRIER GROUP”
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Remembering Jim’s note, I read the memo’s final notation Block 11: OTHER PERTINENT INFORMATION

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That night, the air field known as Sorido Strip was occupied primarily by the members of the Air Transport Command (ATC). A few aircrews from the 21st Troop Carrier Squadron were just visitors trying to get some well-deserved rest before their next flight.  This particular memo captured information only pertinent to the 374th Troop Carrier Group. The heaviest blow was taken by the Air Transport Command (ATC) which sustained 39 deaths and 88 hospitalized, according to the Graves Registrar.

The loss the ATC experienced that night was a sidenote. A mere notation by one Intelligence Officer to another because it wasn’t pertinent information to their group.  Top billing went to the lost supplies belonging to the 374th, which included:

Four boxes of smashed lightbulbs and one (1) typewriter slightly damaged.

A Mother’s Love (For Alice)

Chuck Hunter as a young boy

The nightlight broke in my 6 yr old son’s room and he is not ready to face the darkness of night alone. I lent him a battery-operated candle that simulates the dancing movement of an actual flame to keep his world slightly illuminated. He was so exhausted and immediately turned his head toward the wall – a tell- tale sign that he would be asleep in moments. But I knew he would want to drift into slumber while listening to whatever song I picked for our nightly ritual. It was always different, depending on my mood, or whatever tune was on my mind at the moment. Even though it was fake, the ambiance of the candlelight was real. It led me to think about how this nightly ritual between mother and son was happening in many homes tonight. Not just this night, but all the nights long before my son and I existed. For this is what mothers did for their sons. A firm tucking-in to secure his tired body into his favorite sheets. A kiss on the back of his hair that desperately needed a trim. A song that spoke what the heart felt. And a wish that he will always, always remember these moments.

“Its very clear, our love is here to stay
Not for a year, but forever and a day
The radio and the telephone,
And the movies that we know
May just be passing fancies
And in time may go.”

This song, my parents’ favorite, was written by George & Ira Gershwin in 1938. That year, Chuck Hunter was 14 years old and I suppose long past the days of his mother, Alice, putting him to bed. But I imagined this song, “Our Love is Here To Stay” coming over the airwaves and finding its way to Chuck’s home on McCormick Loop, playing softly in the background, as the last few dishes in the kitchen were being put away. Maybe they listened to the radio earlier in the evening to hear reports on the war happening in Europe – thousands of miles away from their dairy farm in Tillamook.

“But, oh my dear
Our love is here to stay
Together we’re going a long long way”

Back in my son’s room, I listened to his soft breathing which would soon turn into snores. I stopped singing for a moment and thought about whether or not to finish. At this point, the only one listening was me. I’ve sung this song so many times, I could sing in my sleep.  But tonight, I heard the words in a new and unexpected way.

So many things have changed in the 75 years since this song first played. Everything that was known then, is now obsolete. If artifacts exist at all, they are most likely found sitting on the shelves of antique stores or exhibits in museums. Nothing is the same. Well, almost nothing. The love we feel for our children is a constant force that even time can not wipe away.

I recall a story I learned about Alice Hunter during our recent trip to Tillamook, Oregon. The son of the current owner of the Hunter house and farm, was only about 10 years old when his family moved in. And although it was the 1980s, the contents of the house told a different story. Nothing could prepare them for the time capsule that was Chuck’s bedroom. The wallpaper, the furniture, the toys…all indicating that the year was still 1944. Chuck slept in his childhood room for the last time while on a brief furlough that summer before he was shipped overseas. His bedroom laid untouched for over forty years.

“In time the Rockies may crumble
Gibraltar may tumble
They’re only made of clay
But our love is here to stay”

The year is now 2015 and although I can’t put myself in Alice’s shoes, I can relate to the love she felt for her son. There are very few things in Alice’s world, seven decades ago, that I would recognize. But her love for Chuck is very familiar because it’s a timeless emotion. And it propels me forward, as I continue to write Chuck’s story.

A precious jewel

There is not one single piece of evidence that can be found which will tell you about a person’s life. Their true story emerges when you bring together all the elements of life that defined them.  One way to gain insight into their choices and motivations, is to learn about someone truly dear to them. We were intrigued by Chuck’s first love and the place she had in his heart. We traveled a great distance to deepen our knowledge about Chuck Hunter. This past November, we arrived in his hometown of Tillamook, Oregon full of questions and hoping to leave with some answers.

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Chuck mentioned Joyce’s name in numerous letters to his parents. In this one, he compares her to his current girlfriend.

“Chuck’s high school girlfriend… Joyce? Do you know who Joyce was?”

Our new friend David Blum, Tillamook High School Class of 1942 classmate of Chuck Hunter answered our first, and most important question with an absolute definitiveness that comes with living 89 years:

“Joyce Higgins.”
We yelped. And then we shrieked. We may have rattled our hosts a bit with our enthusiastic response. We barely registered the look of surprise and delight on David’s face.

After months of tirelessly searching online for the last name of the object of Chuck’s  affection, joyful laughter turned quickly into tremendous relief.  We found her.  The woman Chuck said, “no one could measure up to” was Joyce Higgins.

yearbook photo (2)

For months, Kim and I felt fairly certain the “Joyce” he referred to in countless letters was in fact, a classmate whose yearbook portrait seemed to emit a charm and warmth that black and white pictures rarely convey. But Chuck, never once wrote her last name. There was absolutely no need to identify her further in the letters to his parents, because they knew that there was only one “Joyce.”

It was on that Sunday morning in November, while sitting at the kitchen table in the home of Mr.Blum and his daughter Evajean,  just a few short miles from the Hunter Farm, I felt a deep sense of peace. Although we spent a year working with historians and librarians, digging deeper into dusty, incorrect or damaged records, this was our most significant moment of discovery.

Chuck never returned to Tillamook. After his fatal airplane accident in September 1945, his remains were buried in Japan and remained there until 1949. He was finally laid to rest at Golden Gate National Cemetery in California. But just for those short two hours, while we sat with his childhood friend, Chuck was home again.

David, a retired pastor, felt immediately at ease with sharing his memories of the days he double dated with Joyce and Chuck. “ I was madly in love with Margaret Moulton, who happened to be Joyce’s dearest friend.”  With those words, I sat up straight in my chair and leaned in closer, careful not to spill the coffee in front of me. Even though I was recording our conversation, I consumed every detail he shared. Here we were trying to create a legacy for Chuck and we were sitting with probably the only person left in Tillamook – perhaps in the state of Oregon – who could tell us about Chuck’s life.
David noticed my tears before did, and paused his story to pass me the tissue box. Grateful for the tissue, I dabbed my wet eyes and said to him quietly, “You know, Chuck never got over Joyce.” Not at all surprised, David nodded his head and said, “Well, Joyce was a jewel.”

A few hours later, we found ourselves in the archival room within the Tillamook County Pioneer Museum. A mountain of boxes labelled with Chuck’s name or with the name of his parents and sister awaited us. In all, we had 1,200 artifacts to scan for any details that would support the story we were writing. We each donned a pair of white cotton gloves and dove right in.

It wasn’t until we reached the final folder in the very last box labelled “Misc.” where we found a clue relating to Joyce. It was an old address book kept by Chuck’s mother, Alice Hunter. The very last page had this entry:

zahler
We almost missed this important find. After four hours of research, we were hungry and tired, but we pressed on because…” what if?” I’m so glad we looked.

No wonder our internet searches for “Joyce Higgins” turned up very little. By 1946, she was known as Joyce Zahler. And with that, the flood gates were open. Mrs. Joyce Zahler married for a second time in 1974 to a Mr. Charles Lane.
One quick email exchange later and I was on the phone with Joyce’s stepdaughter, Melody.  She told me that the name “Chuck Hunter”  felt very familiar to her, but she needed to call Joyce’s daughter Karen for the full story.  Karen knew the minute Melody spoke his name who he was to her mother.  She said, “Yes. Chuck was the man mom would have married if he survived the war.”

If only.