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My Toughest Duty

By Henry Cervantes
Splasher Six Volume 33, Spring 02, No. 1
Cindy Goodman, Editor

In the fall issue of Splasher Six, poignant stories of Hundredth families seeking links to relatives who died in the war reminded me of an incident I thought might be of interest.

After flying twenty-six missions as copilot on Joe Martin’s crew, the war ended, but I stayed in. My first assignment was ferrying war-weary B-17s from different collection points to the original “bone yard” at Kingman Field, Arizona. Following that relatively pleasant job; they handed me the toughest duty I would be called upon to perform during my next twenty-one years in uniform.

In 1948, families were given the option of having loved ones lost during the war to be returned to the States for reburial. Many requested this courtesy and I was among a group of soldiers of all ranks detailed to act as “escorts”.

Remains of soldiers from the Midwest were sent to a quartermaster warehouse on Chicago’s South Side. There they were re-identified, prepared for reburial and placed in a new casket. Our indoctrination required that we visit the processing area and the experience was overwhelming. Most of us lasted but a few minutes.

Approximately every four days, an escort accompanied the remains of a soldier of equal or lower rank to his hometown. For nearby destinations the flag-draped coffin was delivered by GI ambulance. More distant locations were serviced by railway and for this, the casket was sealed in a heavy wood case, one of the soldier’s dog tags was nailed to it, and a flag strapped over it.

My first destination was to a hamlet in a remote corner of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I had never attended a funeral, and wondered if the deaths I had seen in the 100th would come back to haunt me. No, I decided, they didn’t affect me then, why now? I don’t even know these people. I’ll just do my job in a soldierly manner.

A blustering March wind was blowing off Lake Superior when the four-car milk train pulled into a tiny station. On the platform about fifty farm people were peering from one car to another not knowing which might disgorge the grim cargo they had come to mourn. I double-checked the black armband on my left sleeve and went to the baggage car. Rail workers had already removed the casket from the shipping case and helped me readjust the flag. An anguished wail of distress arose when the casket came into view. I looked for a hearse; there was none. Instead, an old fellow in blue overalls, two Pendleton shirts and a fat, fur-lined cap with flaps positioned his horse-drawn farm wagon next to the baggage care and we made the transfer.

I stepped down to the platform where a stocky woman introduced herself to me. She appeared to be in her early forties, spoke in a soft Irish brogue, had a ruddy complexion, faded copper-colored hair, tired blue eyes and although she held a brown plaid mackinaw close to her body, it could not conceal that her dress had been dyed black. I expected to see other family members, but there were none. She was a widow, and the war had taken her only child.

We formed into a cortege. Two American Legionnaires led the way with their flags ruffling and snapping in the wind. While the mother and I trailed the wagon and the others followed, crowded together for warmth and support. We half-stepped down a deserted main street to a well-maintained farmhouse at the far end of town.

They held a wake that evening. Escorts were not required to attend such events, but the thought of my own mother having to endure such an ordeal compelled me to go. It was an eerie scene. A color photograph of a smiling, young, redheaded, freckled-faced, blue-eyed pilot hovered over the flag-draped coffin. Votive candles cast flickering shadows on the walls. Old men in work clothes were in back whispering, teenaged girls were crying, and old ladies were on their knees counting their beads and murmuring prayers.

Remote, and lost in her thoughts, the mother sat alone, her tear-swollen eyes on the portrait and her hands on her lap palms up. Ramrod straight, I marched to a chair next to her and sat down. She glanced at me and patted my hand as if to thank me for being there. Determined to remain aloof from the suffering in the room, I did not react. Instead, I kept my eyes forward; fists clenched, jaw tight. Suddenly she reached over, tenderly took my face in her hands, looked deep into my eyes and, with huge tears rolling down her cheeks, sobbed, “You look just like my boy.” I gasped! Given my Latino features I knew all she could see was the uniform. The pain was more than I could bear, and I fell into her arms crying. The wailing swelled to a crescendo as she contained her own grief to mother and console me.

Most of the people had left, and the area doctor and I were in the kitchen chatting when she came, drew me to the casket and said, “Henry, please open it. I want to see if that’s really my boy.”

We had been brief to “expect anything,” but this was unbelievable. Rather than comply, I assured her that it truly was her son because a soldier’s remains were required to pass fourteen different tests in order to be certified for return to the family. Quietly, but firmly, she said, “My boy broke the little finger of his left hand playing football in high school. It didn’t heal right, and that kept him from being accepted into West Point. I want to see his finger, then I’ll know that it’s him for sure.”

Earlier, others had shown me newspaper clippings stating that he had died in a fiery B-24 crash. Furthermore, my visit to the warehouse and a scorched dog tag nailed on the shipping case left me with no illusions as to what was in the box. Gently, I held her hands to hinder her attempts to open the casket. The doctor had been watching us, and I gestured that she needed a shot. He gave her a sedative and the coffin stayed closed. She and I remained on Christmas-card terms until her death nineteen years later.

The four-month assignment taught me that it is easier to lose a friend in combat than to bury a stranger. During the war, a fellow may have slept next to you, but when he went down, there were no card, flowers, wakes or funerals. He disappeared to some nebulous place you did not care to think about, another guy replaced him, and you carried on. It was not until I helped all these bereaved families that I began to truly understand the enormity of war