This past weekend my wife charged me with condensing the “Heffelbower Memorabilia” boxes into something that would fit in a plastic tub in our new shed. My father, Don, was born in 1917 and my mother, Dorothy, in 1915. Dad died 25 years ago and Mom two years ago. Their lives were in those boxes.
I found the transcripts of the court martial that exonerated my father in the loss of his P-38 during World War II, and the hearing where he was declared permanently disabled. With one engine dead and the other on fire he rolled the fighter plane over, popped the canopy and unfastened his seat belt. The twin tail hit him, shattering his pelvis and several vertebrae. He was found in freezing weather a day or so later, wrapped in his parachute with no memory of anything after the tail hit him. He spent a year in the hospital and had to kick a morphine addiction. Parts of his body were lost to gangrene, but nothing that showed.
The Standard Parachute Company sent Dad a congratulatory letter, a special engraved pin and an invitation to visit. Thanks to that chute he lived to almost 65, was trained in watch-making and became a successful traveling salesman for PPG Industries.
Dad only went to the hospital when the pain was too much. Mom and I would wrestle him back to bed from wherever he had fallen and wait for the doctor to come with injections and a stretcher. In later years I drove him to the hospital when he had the big heart attack.
For a former motorcycle and midget car racer, this was a very different life. I never knew him any other way.
The boxes also had a newspaper from March 1949, almost two months before I was born, with the memorial service for my uncle Darl. For the first time I learned about the secret mission to supply French and Italian partisans in the Alps, where the B-17 “Miss Charlotte” became lost in a snowstorm and met a 10,000-foot mountain while flying at 7,000 feet. The crash site was discovered in 1944, but it took awhile for the crew’s remains to be sent home.
On a whim I Googled my uncle’s name, and discovered the French website of a group devoted to finding such crash sites. They had photos of the place and the crew. I can’t describe my emotions in seeing what happened to the man in the photo on my grandmother’s piano, the one who looks just like my father.
There was also information about my father’s baby brother, the one for whom Dad quit varsity sports to deliver ice so the youngest could stay in school and go to college. Dwight did well. After a stint as a naval officer, he went on to become CEO of the defense contractor responsible for building every American nuclear weapon from the 1950s until the mid-90s. I remember meeting him one night in the 1950s as he came through Kansas on the Santa Fe Super Chief, headed to a place called “Los Alamos.” Every canon shell fired in Vietnam, every tank round fired in Gulf War I were his work.
I spoke with him in 1995 when I was destroying land mines in Laos for information on his cluster bombs. He was very helpful. At the end of his life his company decommissioned nuclear weapons. He said that was much more profitable than building them.
This family history has led to me, a Vietnam-era Air Force JAG officer who became a religious pacifist. I’m a peacemaker who, had my eyes not suddenly gone bad, would have been a fighter pilot in Vietnam. I teach conflict resolution and was trained in hand-to-hand combat. What does it all mean?
War does more than kill people. It scars generations yet unborn. Those who die don’t have children, and those who live have children deeply affected by the war. We in the United States have been spared war’s most direct effects, but have never come to terms with the millions of soldiers who come home, raise families and drop to the ground when they hear an explosion.
I am glad this weekend reminded me how much WWII shaped my life, even though I was born years after it ended. Those who fight in Iraq will have children like me. We need to be there for them, and do what we can to limit how many there are.
Duane Ruth-Heffelbower is director of graduate academic programs at the Fresno Pacific University Center for Peacemaking & Conflict Studies. Among the subjects he teaches is family systems theory.