Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Veteran's Day Tribute to the Moms

When I was a little girl in California we lived within driving distance of two great-grandmas. My great-grandma Kelley lived to the age of 103 in her little Craftsman bungalow on 15th street in San Jose, tending her roses and reading her large-print Bible. My great-grandma Couse lived into her 90's, also in a tiny house, hers shaded by a gigantic Monkey Puzzle Tree. Both women had raised children, buried husbands, and lost a son to World War II.

Grant was everywhere you looked in Grandma Kelley's house. His intricate pencil drawings hung on the walls, his sculptures sat on the mantelpiece, and the silent piano seemed to be waiting for the musician to come home. Grant was a fighter pilot, and an amazing one at that, but first he was an artist. When he was 15 years old and in the hospital after the ill-fated "flying car" episode he blamed on his brothers, the newspaper reported, "His good right arm, on which he expects to build a reputation as an artist, was gashed when a spark plug was forced almost through the muscle."

His arm recovered and when he went to war, he shared his talent with the men in his squadron. "Cowboy" Irv Mayer said, "Grant taught me the rudiments of portraiting and I spent so much time copying one picture of my girlfriend that I fell deeply in love with her and proposed the first day I got home." Grant sketched pictures of his fellow pilots like this one of Collin "Sexy" Overland.

He was considered one of the best pilots in his highly decorated squadron. He earned air medals and citations, one presented from Admiral Nimitz himself. Near the end of the war, Grant was returning after a mission and Cowboy was in the ship's ready room. "I was talking to a friend when we heard the heavy thump sound of a plane as it hit the island superstructure. On the phone, Ahoy the bridge--what happened? An F6F just hit the bridge and fell into the water. Know who it was? Yeah. It was Kelley."

Cowboy knew immediately that Grant wouldn't survive. "Why?" he asked, "because I passed his swimming tests for him. This great naval aviator with a hundred carrier missions was afraid of the water."

The chaplain wrote to Grandma Kelley:

When you receive this letter I know that you will also have received the news of your son's death out here in the Pacific. I am writing you this note simply to tell you that every man in the squadron in which he served wishes to express to you his deepest sympathy. I met Grant shortly after he came aboard our ship. I have spoken with him often in our cruise together. He was a thoughtful and cooperative shipmate. His friends considered him the best pilot in the squadron. We want you to know that we share with you your sorrow, for Grant's departure of this life has left a deep feeling of sorrow in the hearts of everyone of us.

Mrs. Kelley, I have often felt that it is more exacting of the wife or mother to offer their share of the supreme sacrifice that men in the service of their country are sometimes called to make than it is for those of us who actually wear the uniform of our country. May God give you the grace and courage that you may need to make your share of this sacrifice in your love and service of Him. May God, whose grace is sufficient for every need, be with you now and ever more.

Grandma Couse's memory was going but she never forgot that one of her children was missing. At one visit, Grandma looked at my dad and asked, "Did Earl come home today?" He said, "No, not today." I saw his pictures on the wall, the handsome young man with dark hair and perfect teeth and turned away so no one could see my eyes filling with tears.

Earl was a storekeeper aboard the U.S.S. Neosho, an oil tanker, when on the morning of May 7, 1942, a bomb exploded in the water just a hundred yards away from their ship. High in the clouds they spotted the single-engine bomber. Earl was at his battle station when an hour later 15 planes flew overhead. The Neosho fired shots that all fell short. The planes disappeared and the crew began to once again breathe when two hours later 24 enemy planes appeared in the sky. They were separating into squadrons of 4. Seventeen minutes later the men of the Neosho were dying and in the water. Earl was unhurt and scrambled into a whaleboat. Injured men were being pulled from the ship and Earl was one of 15 who volunteered to leave the safety of the whaleboat to make room for the wounded. He swam through the chaos to a life raft. The sea was rough and the life rafts drifted away from the whale boats and the heavily listing Neosho. He was never seen again. He signed his last letter home, "Love, goo, and all that stuff, Earl"

Grandma Couse received a telegram: The navy department regrets to inform you that your son Earl Couse, storekeeper third class USN is missing following action in the performance of his duty and in the service of his country.

Earl's sister Martha wrote, "The carefree days were gone forever." Grandma Couse never completely lost hope. When she sat on her porch to visit with friends, if she saw a man in a sailor uniform at the end of the road, she stood up and stared until he passed. Each time she was hoping it was her Earl coming home. She wrote in 1942:

I wonder if a letter will come today
From my boy in blue so far away.
Hundreds of mothers will echo my cry
As they sadly watch as the mail goes by.

Some of the mothers have passed the test-
the Navy has written, "Your boy is at rest."
The rest of us wait and silently pray,
"Oh God, may a letter come today."

On this veterans day, I think not only of the service men and women, but of my great-grandmothers and the sacrifice of their precious sons.

Great Grandma Couse, 1973.


Lisa said...

A beautiful tribute, Eileen.

Jen Bay said...

What a wonderful tribute, both to the brave men who sacrificed all, but to the Moms who sacrificed their child.

Kelly said...

Grandma Couse's poem has me in tears. Thank you for sharing Eileen