ABC, CBS, NBC and other news stations are proudly welcoming our soldiers home from Iraq with a “Thanks for your service.” It is great and refreshing to hear good news on the TV. Many families are thrilled and filled with gratitude to have their loved ones coming home. Of course, everyone gives them a royal welcome home and shares in the distress for families and friends of those who will never come home.
My favorite cousin, Chester Wood, was in the army during WWII. Every man in good health had to serve in one part of the armed services for a year back in the late 30’s and early 40’s to have training as a soldier. Of course, during the war all men of age were inducted into some part of the military. Chester was just completing his required year when war was declared. He would have been sent home soon just when the war started, and like all others, he couldn’t leave. At least he had a year of training to his benefit.
Chester had lived with us in Birmingham for several years and we loved having him. He was truly handsome, tall, personable, and had an award-winning smile. He was always glad to help see about Tucker, my brother, and me. We delighted in his company and felt like he was our brother.
His dad died when he was an infant so his mother, my dad’s older sister, went back home to live. My dad was a teenager then, also living at home in Birmingham. Aunt Sophie, Chester’s mother, remarried when Chester was seven years old and they went to live in South Carolina. Years later, when Chester was old enough to go to work, he came back to Birmingham and that is when he lived with us. He was stationed during his required year of training at Fort Benning in Georgia when the war started.
As the war progressed, General Eisenhower was building up forces for the D-Day invasion in Europe and Chester, like thousands of others, was sent to England. Sure enough, Chester’s company was part of the D-Day invasion in France. He went in on the third day, which was awful. Those who went in on the first and second day of the invasion were mostly killed or wounded. We carefully listened to the radio, wondering where Chester was. We knew from his APO change of address he was most certainly in part of the invasion.
Receiving a telegraph from the War Department was a most terrible happening because it meant bad news for sure. People hung small 8” x 10” white banners trimmed in red and blue in their windows. In the center would be a star for each family member in the service. The star was gold if your soldier had been killed. All the neighborhood knew who had loved ones away, and came at once to help if they saw a telegraph arrive.
When Aunt Sophie, who was now a widow again, and again living with her mother in Tampa, Florida, received a telegraph from the War Department, she was hysterical. Thank goodness it wasn’t a report of death but an MIA (Missing in Action). If Chester didn’t turn up within a year, he would be declared automatically as deceased. None of the family could even take a deep breath. We were holding our breath praying for Chester’s safety and mostly that he was alive. It was literally exhausting not to know. We hoped and prayed, “without ceasing,” as the Bible instructs us to do.
The war ended in Europe not long before the year was up for Chester to be declared dead. It was worse than holding your breath. We couldn’t even breathe. Would we be part of the many who never know what happened to their loved one?
Then another War Department telegram arrived in Tampa for Aunt Sophie. Chester was alive, and a POW (Prisoner of War). He had been found in a POW camp in Germany. It would be a while before he would be allowed to come home because of serious health issues. What a relief! How happy and thankful everyone was with a heart full of sincere gratitude. Chester was alive and coming home. He had been a specimen of good health, which added to his good looks. We were enormously grateful and excited. Chester was alive and coming home.
From Germany, Chester was taken to a hospital in France and then to a US Army hospital in England. Months were going by when we were finally notified that he was in the USA at Fort Mac in Atlanta, Georgia. He was still under strict medical supervision. He couldn’t leave the base or have visitors.
The reason was he had to be gradually given food again, slowly over a lengthy procedure until his body and mind could handle food and eating sensibly. Doctors had discovered that after a year of starvation, one could kill themselves by overeating. It was like starvation made one “crazy.” When food was again available, people became gluttons, eating everything in sight— more than the recovering body could handle, to the extent that death could be the result. Therefore, returning to eating had to be monitored and carefully controlled individually until the person was “well” enough to reasonably handle eating. This was all unknown to us.
My dad’s office with the US Navy Department was on Spring Street in downtown Atlanta, Georgia. He knew his Navy ID card, signed by Commander General Halsey, carried strong weight. Of course, he went out to Fort Mac to see Chester and succeeded. He telephoned us long distance that he was going to try to bring Chester to Birmingham for a weekend visit, as he came over every Friday possible.
We were back to holding our breath again. This time for happy. On that Friday night we waited with bated breath. Darkness came and we still waited anxiously in unbearable anticipation. Finally we heard Dad’s car pull up in the back yard. Tucker and I rushed out the back door, but it was too dark to see who was in the car. I ran over, Tucker right behind me. “Dad,” I stammered, “did you bring anyone home with you?” I could see Dad smile and then in then in the darkness I could see another pair of eyes. CHESTER! I screamed and tore out around the car to where Chester was emerging. Tucker and I grabbed him, laughing and crying. Unimaginable delight, pleasure, and joy—not enough words to describe the unbelievable feeling to see again a loved one that you might not have ever seen again. Now I was gasping for breath, still screaming, “Chester, Chester!” He grabbed us both up in his arms, hugging us and laughing with immense pleasure. It was then, and even now, the happiest moment of my entire life. We couldn’t turn loose of him and he of us. Hugs, hugs, and still more hugs. How blessed we were that dearest Chester came home.
Quickly we discovered that the Army doctors were right. Chester went over to the refrigerator, took out a bottle of milk, and standing there with the refrigerator still open, turned the bottle up to his mouth and drank every drop of milk without putting the bottle down until it was empty. Amazing! A full quart of milk in one big gulp.
Chester said he wanted two things while he was there. He wanted a clean white tablecloth on the table for every meal, and clean, fresh sheets on the bed every night. The next morning when Mother was preparing breakfast, she asked Chester how many eggs he would like. He said, “How many have you got?” Mother answered, “A dozen.” Chester said that would be fine and ate the entire dozen, not ever thinking about none left for anyone else. We didn’t care about the eggs, but were concerned for Chester. We appreciated the doctors’ care even more as we could see and understand their concern, and also the training necessary to recover from the horrors POWs went through. Chester said the Germans couldn’t feed the prisoners. They had little to eat for themselves, much less others.
When Dad was at Fort Mac, those in charge agreed to let him take Chester out for only a weekend if he would take a soldier home that was ready to be released. This soldier was from Jasper, Alabama, and had no way to get home. Hard to remember how different things were back then. Dad said the soldier seemed afraid and had a cigar box that he was tightly holding onto, never putting it down. On the way to Alabama, Dad stopped at a restaurant in Anniston at the request of his passengers who were hungry. The two of them ate everything the restaurant had, including a whole pie, according to my dad. The restaurant owner told them, “Sorry, I don’t have anything else I can prepare for you.”
Jasper is just north of Birmingham, and as they drove along, the soldier, name unknown, sat in the back seat, still tightly holding onto his tattered cigar box. As the car got near and nearer to Jasper, the soldier began to get more and more agitated and nervous. His eyes got bigger, and wider, and wider. When he could see his house ahead down the road, the soldier put his cigar box on the car seat, opened the back car door, and before my dad could stop, he jumped out with the car in motion. He could no longer just sit there with his home in sight, and went running down the road towards home. His family, all watching and waiting on the front porch, came running to meet him.
Every time I think of this scene, even seventy-five plus years later, tears come to my eyes and I lose my breath. I just choke up with emotion remembering how glad people were to see each other again. There is no other pleasure like it—when loved ones meet again after years of separation and little expectation of such joy. The joy of seeing each other again.
Chester, that weekend, told us in detail what he had been through and then never spoke of it again to us. I remember Chester’s war stories but they are for another time. This story is about the remarkable joy of coming home. Chester’s stomach was swollen to a huge size, his hair looked like straw, his teeth were yellow, and his skin was an awful color. He had been captured by the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge. He was no longer a handsome picture of health. Many were killed, but Chester made it back home to his loved ones. So very many didn’t. How blessed and thankful we were and are.
Now the same thing is happening again. Gladness and sadness all around. God bless us all, especially the sad ones. Many people have learned that war is not the answer to anything. Civilized people should find a way to settle differences without causing such grief and being so barbaric. Surely civilized people can learn to act civilized—not killing each other. Both sides of a conflict have the same sad experiences of lost loved ones. What a useless way to attempt to solve a difference. Maybe some do need killing to protect others, but not wholesale destruction. Surely smart people can find a more agreeable way to act. Civilized people acting civilized so loved ones can be at home, not at war.