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Flags in the Cedar Chest

By Janice Watterson Snyder, 21 Mar 2004
Splasher Six Volume 32, Fall 2001, No.3
Cindy Goodman, Editor

Throughout the year, but especially on Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day, I think of the Flags in my Grandmother’s cedar lined trunk. They are an exceptional collection because of the lives they represent.

A regimental flag, with only 36 stars, was flown in the Civil War. Large and very thin, its colors are faded. As if weighted by the war it represents, it could never be hung again. There are holes in it, worn by its years but in the field of blue the holes are patched with pieces of Union uniforms. My grandmother’s Grandfather Daniel L. Swander was a courier with the 86th Illinois Infantry and brought it home. For many years, in another century, it was flown on holidays in Moline and Rock Island, Illinois. My grandmother cherished it, sharing it with her children and grandchildren as she shared stories told to her about the war.

Forty Eight stars mark the memorial flag of my father, Dale F. Watterson. He was reported Killed in Action on March 31, 1945 while flying as Navigator with the Hundredth Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force. After a bombing mission over Zeitz, his B-17G was hit by flak, had to leave formation, and never returned. As my mother, Harriet Watterson, was given the folded flag at the memorial service she said she clutched it so hard she thought her fingers would go through it. The mystery of what happened to his plane and crew remained unsolved for over half a century. Only now with the Internet, European researchers, and documents released under the Freedom of Information Act am I able to attempt to resolve the events of my father’s death and the crew of AC#44-6470. During the summer of 2004, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Office (JPAC) will investigate the German area where the crash and disappearance of the crew took place.

The rest of the flags have 50 stars each but represent the wars of the twentieth century.

Leo E. Snyder, my husband’s father, was born before the first man had flown at Kittyhawk. He served in the Horse Cavalry and was being sent to Europe during The Great War when the unit was switched to protect the Arizona border. He would tell stories of his horse, Pickles, of the hardworking but stubborn mules, and the dust which was all they saw of Pancho Villa. He lived his life in Ohio, briefly in Florida, visited California, and saw men land on the moon. His days ended in the Arizona dessert he had come to love while in the service. One flag is his with 50 stars instead of the 45 under which he was born.

John William Gerdes, my stepfather, was proud of the ribbon that showed he enlisted in the U.S. Army BEFORE Pearl Harbor. He figured it was going to be a long war, he didn’t want to walk that far, so he lied and said he knew how to drive a truck. He was assigned a 6×6 with the Third Infantry Division and drove through invasions of Algeria-French Morocco, Tunisia, Sicily, Naples-Foggia, Rome-Arne, Southern France, Rhineland and Central Europe moving towards Berlin when the war ended.

He was home in Illinois on R & R knowing he would be sent to Japan when VJ day allowed his discharge in September, 1945. When he died in 1982, his coffin was covered with the American Flag.

Richard A. Gerdes, my brother, was 18 when he joined the US. Army in November, 1968. He worked in Air Traffic Control at Fort Rucker, Alabama, training and working with Army helicopters there during the Viet Nam War.  Discharged in November 1971, he eventually moved his young family to Idaho and was killed in a car accident in 1980. He is buried next to his father, and like his father, earned the American Flag.

There are smaller flags like the one Leo Snyder used to put up on his flagpole in Arizona and the one J. William Gerdes flew over his home in Idaho. One treasure to me is a small pair of plastic flags, one the American Flag, one the Union Jack. Together they were decorations in a tribute to Americans at the WW II Hangar Dance at RAF Molesworth, England, summer 2000. There, on a Pilgrimage to Thorpe Abbotts Field, my husband and I experienced the honor of being included with veterans of the Eighth Air Force and their families .

We have other veterans in our family, but their respective flags are in their immediate families. Uncle Ray Satow served with the Marines from Bougainville and Guam through Iwo Jima and Okinawa and the occupation of Japan. Uncle Les Caldwell, as a teen, lost his leg serving in France during WW I. Uncle Thad Capek, a Marine, was in Germany after WW II and later served during the Korean War. Uncle Frank Satow served in North Africa during WW II. Uncle Glen Watterson served the Armed Forces as a chaplain with the Red Cross while his brother, Bernard Watterson, was a pharmacist’s mate in the Pacific Theatre. There are no flags for the countless others who have worked in war efforts, who have lived worthwhile lives contributing, voting, being a part of the governmental process which values our Constitutional Republic. They too are part of the memories we should share.

Throughout our country, there are many cedar chests such as my grandmother’s and now, mine. The carefully folded cloths of blue, white, and red are just triangles of fabric. They become United States Flags only when we remember the men and women who earned them, the families that believed in them, and the American concepts which dedicated them. Waving a flag is easy. Being a responsible citizen is much harder. It’s time…today…that we do both.