What price, this sacrifice?

It has been sometime since my last post. I have been compelled to write today because I was prompted by a message from a cousin. With the COVID-19 virus that has interrupted our routines, she has been giving virtual Sunday School lessons for her class. The lesson she shared yesterday spoke of the sacrifice of loved ones lost in war.

Memorial Day reminds us each year at this time to pay tribute to those in uniform who never came back home. Many of us, many family and friends have been touched by the loss of someone in uniform. For some, multiple family members have given their life in the service of their country.

This is the story of one of my family members. My great-uncle, Jesse Lawrence Caston was born on April 20, 1893. He was the eldest child to Joseph and Elizabeth Caston. He grew up in a mill village in the shadow of the Pepperton Cotton Mill. As a young man, he would later join other residents of the mill village as an employee of the cotton mill serving as a laborer/machinist. The guns of August would herald in the beginning of a World War in 1914. Within three years, the United States would be brought into the war, and soon hundreds of thousands of men would be called up to serve.

He registered with the draft board on June 5, 1917. The local draft board selected him for service and on April 2, 1918, PVT Jesse L. Caston, service number 1,933,313, reported for duty at Camp Gordon, Ga. He trained as an infantryman until June 8 and then embarked on the USS Susquehana on June 22 as a member of Company G, 148th Infantry, 37th Division.

On August 19, the 37th Division, along with three other American divisions, was attached to the Belgian, French 6th and British 2nd Armies in support of the allied offensives in Flanders. This major offensive was known as the Ypres-Lys Operation. The 148th Infantry fought in Recicourt and Avocourt for three strenuous months until the allied victory had been won.

The price of that victory was high. My uncle was one of those soldiers who paid that price. Through the ancestry and genealogical research done by another cousin, a glimpse into his sacrifice is revealed from his service/death card.

Caston, Jesse L. 1,933,313 Pvt

Engagements: North-west of Verdun

Wounds received in action: Wounded severely about Oct 17/18

Served overseas from June 22/18 to October 22/18

Died of broncho pneumonia on Oct 22, 1918.

My great-grandparents received the notice from the War Department on Saturday, Nov. 16, announcing the death of their son. Te dispatch went on to say that Pvt Caston died on October 22, from gas and pneumonia.

I cannot fathom the sorrow that they must have felt that day. The Armistice had been signed and announced just five days earlier on November 11th. I can only think that they were happy that the war was over and Jesse would be home soon. That was not to be. The family would have to revisit their sorrow almost three years later when his body was finally brought home by the War Department.

At what price was his sacrifice? A young man’s life taken away. He would never have the love of a wife. He would never feel the joy of watching his children play. The mill lost a hard worker. The community lost a good man with potential to bring so much to the community. His mother and father lost their oldest son. His siblings lost their big brother. His family lost forever a piece of their hearts.

It is why I tell his story and why I will continue to tell his story from now on so my children and my children’s children will remember his sacrifice. I am chilled to think that he lay on his death bed in a Red Cross hospital in Warwickshire, England with no family around him, only to hope that he was tended softly by caring nurses. In his last breath, I am sure he knew that he was loved by his family. I pray his spirit sees that he will continue to be remembered and honored not only on Memorial Day, but everyday.

A Memorial Day Tribute – The Picture on the Dresser

When I was a young lad of elementary school age, I would sometimes find my way into my parent’s bedroom and ramble in their closet. I would find my father’s Class A uniform coat and put it on and stare at myself in the mirror. I remember it was Khaki, a Class A uniform color in use back in the 50’s and 60’s. The right shoulder sleeve was adorned with the bright blue, white and red patch of the 11th Airborne Division. My father had been a soldier in World War II and also was in the Georgia National Guard in the 50’s. I would stand up straight and salute myself in the mirror, struggling to keep the oversized coat from swallowing my little arms.

As I practiced my close order drill, my eyes would drift around the bedroom and I would find a picture kept on my parent’s dresser. It was a picture of a man. It was not a picture of my father. The man in the picture looked a lot like my older brother Pat. Next to the picture in another frame was an award. My inquisitive eyes would try to read the big words……”The Silver Star awarded posthumously to”………. I would try to finish reading it and then I would eventually finish my drill then go and play.

As I grew older, I would eventually ask my mother who the man was in the picture. In her most loving way, she sat me down and told me that the man was my older brother’s father. She told me that he was a soldier and that he had been killed in a war. I had wondered why my brothers were so much older than me and they had a different last name.  I began to understand now why the picture was there and what it meant to my family and what it meant to me.

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This reality would further touch me on a Memorial Day long ago. We got in our car and drove to the National Cemetery in Marietta, Georgia. As we drove through the cemetery, I looked out over the hundreds of headstones that stood over the rolling hills. Our car finally came to rest and we all got out. My mother had an arrangement of flowers that she had purchased from one of the flower shops in town. We walked up the hill and came to find the headstone of her late husband. We placed the flowers and said a prayer. We made our way back home that afternoon and we shared hot dogs and hamburgers at a family barbeque.

Years later, I would reflect on my family, a family with brothers who have different last names. I would think about the thousands of other families who had brothers and sisters with different last names, all with the common thread of ultimate sacrifice, the final devotion of service to a country and a way of life.

The victims of war are not only the soldier, the sailor, the airman or the marine; they are also the widows, the sons, the daughters, the mother’s and the father’s. They are the families that must pick up the pieces and move forward with their lives after the loss of a loved one from war. My mother was not yet 30 years old when she faced this reality, along with three young sons whose father would not be coming home.

I am led to believe that the people who originated the Memorial Day remembrances right after the Civil War, did so not only to remember the fallen, but also to aid their own grieving and healing process. A war where hundreds of thousands lost their lives seems unfathomable to us today, but was all too real for our ancestors.

We must dutifully remind ourselves that this is not just another three day weekend to open up the summer, but a solemn remembrance of those who have given their lives in war. I will always be reminded by a memory, a memory of a picture on my parent’s dresser.

In Memory of 1st Lieutenant Carl L. Kelly, Infantry, Killed in Action in Korea, 1951.

Awarded the Silver Star

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“Hangar’s in a Field”

As a business traveller and an avid military historian, I have been fortunate to visit places I have read about and studied. There are other times that an unexpected jewel of military history is gifted to me as I ride into town. This is what happened to me recently as I drove into the small mid-west town of McCook, Nebraska.
About five miles out-of-town, I saw a sign on the side of the road that said, “McCook Army Airfield Historic Site”. The sign could have been missed by a weary business traveller, but I think my “history sixth sense” kicked in and my eyes found the target.
After checking in to my hotel and taking a brief break, I saddled up in my rental to go and check out my new find. The sign pointed to a sandy gravel country road and indicated a distance of four miles. From the highway, there was no evidence of an airfield, only a vast expanse of farmer’s fields. I made my way along the road, nothing behind me but a cloud of dust. As I came closer, I began to make out the unmistakable image of an aircraft hangar.McCookAAF6
A total of five hangars were lined up adjacent to the fields. There were also a few other buildings scattered around the hangar’s, still hanging on to their parcel of the former military base. My car came to rest in front of a commemorative plaque just off the gravel road. Spelled out on the plaque was a condensed history of the base. She was only in action from 1943 thru 1945, but she made a significant impact to the war effort. McCook Army Airfield was the final training base for bomber squadrons before they shipped out overseas to go in harm’s way.
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In her heyday, she had 110 buildings and structures and barracks for 5,000 men and three 7,500 foot runways. There was a hospital, theater, chapel, gymnasium, fire station and a post office to serve the troops. There were also machine shops, warehouses and buildings where the airmen were trained. She provided final training of heavy bomber crews for the B-17 Flying Fortress, Consolidated B-24 Liberator and Boeing B-29 Super Fortress. Her bomb groups that she had trained saw combat in all theaters of the war in the European, Mediterranean and Pacific. Some 15,000 servicemen and 500 civilians were stationed at McCook during her life. My eyes looked at the overgrowth of brush and weeds creeping up around the hangars, but my heart could see the bustle and vibrance of an Army airfield of a bygone era. The majority of the base was now in the private hands of farmer’s, albeit a small plot that was dotted with small stone memorials, a few old rusted airfield vehicles and a lone white box building that had been a supply house(QM Building #318).
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As I walked among the grounds, in my mind I could see the faces of the young men who had trained here. I visualized a young Tech Sergeant clad in olive drab overalls spotted with grease stains. He had the bill of his cap turned up and a Chesterfield cigarette hanging from his mouth. He was sitting in the driver’s seat of the “Field Queen”, a yellow Army truck that once travelled miles along the ramps and runways, but now sat as a silent guardian over the memorials.
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I envisioned a couple of officers, a pilot and a co-pilot, walking down the ramp discussing the training flight they were about to embark upon. I saw a group of young enlisted aircrews walking along smiling and laughing as they strode into the post theater to see their favorite pin-up girl in a new movie. I looked from the hangar across the barren corn fields where a runway once lived and imagined the awesome spectacle of a B-17 roaring down the runway with all four engines racing to lift her into the air. Visiting the airfield also brought back some happy memories of a World War II “Hangar” Dance that my wife and I had attended a few years back at Falcon Field in Peachtree City, Georgia as part of an airshow weekend sponsored by the Dixie Wing of the Commemorative Air Force.
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As I stood in the hot Nebraska sun, I looked down at the stone memorials that had been placed there by different flight groups who had trained there 70 years ago. Listed on some of those memorials were the numbers of squadron members who never came home. I looked up and I thought about the airmen who had stood in these same fields and flown in these skies. I wondered of the fate of these men and thought that this place may have been where they had their last memories of home. They may have had a brief stopover at a coastal airbase before leaving the United States, but McCook Army Airfield may have been their last memory of home. I have a family relative whose name is etched on a stone war memorial in my home town of Jackson, Georgia. Robert C. Reynolds was a young Army Air Corps pilot who was lost over Austria. I am uncertain of his unit, but I was told by my mother that he was a bomber pilot. As I stood in the silence of the fields, I wondered if Bobby had trained here and flown in these skies.
This year on Memorial Day, I will remember all of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation, but I will also hold a special remembrance of my cousin, of those hangar’s in the field and of those young men who took to the air and never returned. 70 years farther down the road, the plaque and those few stone markers may be all that is left of the airfield. But as long as we still have Memorial Day and remember those who have fallen, we can stand at that plaque and look up in the sky and in our mind’s eye see the planes and look over the horizon and picture the airmen standing vigil by the hangar’s in the field.
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