Thursday, November 01, 2012
My Eulogy For Bud
Bud is being buried this morning.
I wrote about my uncle Bud a few days ago but I took down the post. It was too personal, too angry, even disrespectful of his privacy and dignity.
What a difference a few days can make. Today they'll be burying a man I never really knew in life and the regret I feel for that is powerful. In death I know, and understand, my uncle as I never did in life. Almost overnight, it all makes sense.
For the first 60+ years of my life I knew that my uncle Bud had been in the Air Force at the start of WWII. He'd flown really horrible, twin engine bombers that were incredibly easy meat for German fighters. He was shot down, captured by the Germans, treated for his wounds in German military hospitals, transferred to a StalagLuft prisoner of war camp in 1944 and then, on a forced march, he ducked into the bushes and wound up walking from central Germany out through France until he reached the Allied lines.
I also knew that Bud had a lifetime battle with the bottle that took a toll on him, his wife and kids, his career - everything. Yet they stood by him when most wouldn't. They stuck with him through to the end.
I always knew that something happened to Bud in his air war in Europe, something horrible. We all knew Bud had some dark secret. We knew Bud lived with a demon. Whatever it was, he didn't speak of it, not even to his family.
On the day Bud died I called the house to speak to my aunt and my cousin, their eldest daughter. She and I have been lifelong pals, still are, always will be.
As we were reminiscing about her troubled but always incredibly "happy" Dad, she told me something remarkable.
Bud, her Dad, had taken her aside in the last two months of his life and told her everything. He let it all out. He told her what happened and how he returned to be the Dad he was.
The shootdown we all knew about wasn't Bud's first. It was his second, certainly, possibly his third.
On one previous occasion they had to ditch their stricken bomber in the English Channel. Fortunately the crew all survived and managed to get into a couple of life rafts. A winter storm was blowing and they spent a couple of days in the cold, blowing rain and sleet before they were spotted and rescued.
In due course they were all returned to their base. Each of them had to be checked out by the base flight surgeon. Bud had developed some sort of respiratory problem, possibly pneumonia, so he was ordered to the infirmary for treatment and recuperation.
A day or two afterward, Bud's crew, with a replacement, were ordered off on another mission over Europe. They were shot down and all were killed.
To fathom what that meant, you need to consider how these early war crews were formed and the awful odds they faced. In a hangar or hall would be assembled newly-minted aircrew. Pilots over here, navigators over there, bomb aimers in another spot, flight engineers, wireless air gunners and extra gunners depending on the aircraft to be operated.
The pilots, as aircraft commanders, would look for what seemed like a suitable navigator and see if they could pair up. They then went on a similar exercise to add a bomb aimer, a flight engineer, a wireless air gunner and extra gunners as needed. And in this entirely haphazard fashion a crew was created.
This crew went into training on the aircraft they were to fly into combat. They became a team. They lived in the same barracks, ate the same food in the same messes, flew in the very same aircraft, partied together in the same pubs and, eventually, flew together into combat. Many of them were just 19 or 20, kids.
Once deemed fit for duty they were sent to an operational aerodrome, usually as a replacement crew for a previous crew that had gone down. The loss rates were so murderous that it didn't take long for newcomers to become veterans, able to notice once familiar faces that no longer were and unfamiliar faces that appeared out of nowhere to take their place.
It's been well researched that what kept these aircrews flying in these horrible conditions was belonging to a crew and knowing that you would all see this through, together, no matter the outcome.
Bud's crew died, all of them, somewhere distant, all but Bud and that broke him, then and for the rest of his days. He already knew what it was to be helpless in one of those obsolete bombers, being raked to shreds by an eager German fighter. He didn't have to imagine how his friends, his crew died.
It wasn't Bud's last mission that broke him. That happened much earlier. Today we talk about post-traumatic stress disorder but, in Bud's day, they had another term for it, "L.M.F." a brutally pejorative term that meant Lack of Moral Fibre, cowardice. Aircrew that were branded LMF were busted in rank and assigned to cleaning latrines and other demeaning work as an object lesson to other aircrew.
After Bud walked out of Germany and made it to Allied lines he was returned home but nothing better awaited him here either.
My Dad was a horribly wounded infantry officer. He was the luckier of the two. His wounds were probably 90% physical and just 10% psychological. (Trust me, I've known a lot of these people and you almost never get away with just one and not at least some of the other) People at home could see his wounds and accorded him at least some measure of respect and accommodation. Bud's wounds were just 10% physical and overwhelmingly emotional - and that didn't count. Two arms, two legs, the war's over, get on with your life and stop moping.
There was really not a lot for Bud when he got back save for one awesome woman. He had a loving, faithful, steadfast and infinitely forgiving wife, my aunt. The family thought she should ditch Bud and find someone without the booze problem but she resisted them and, today, stands at the side of his grave.
I'll break my custom and wear the poppy this year, for Bud.
With what I've learned in the past two days, I see in death an uncle I never knew in life. It all makes sense now. That's going to take a while to work through.
Maybe if Bud's life is to have real meaning, it's to remind us of how easily we discard people like him after they've fought our wars for us. How many guys very much like Bud will we discard after Afghanistan?