by James Wells
When I found the image in the back of one of my mother’s photograph albums, I wasn’t even sure who it was. I’ve seen hundreds of pictures and a few hours of 8mm film taken of my father both before and after WWII. In most of those images, my father still has that mischievous, carefree, boyish grin that’s always competing for attention with a dimpled chin that communicates maturity, sternness, and self-confidence. But the person in this photograph is different.
This image of him isn’t typical of those often used to portray the “thousand-yard stare” of men that have been in combat. Emotionally detached from the horrors they have witnessed, they stare off in the distance but focus on nothing.
In this photograph, my father is doing something similar yet different. His eyes communicate what he has been through and witnessed. The dark circles below them inform us that he has seen humanity at its worse. The wrinkles underneath them tell us those eyes have seen more than what a hundred men would never hope to see in a hundred lifetimes. But there’s more to learn from the photograph. That fatigue shirt hanging on drooping shoulders seems so foreign to me. My father’s lowered head speaks of both sadness and dejection. He appears to be worn out, defeated, and lost.
I had to play detective to identify when and where the photograph occurred. In addition to carefully studying every clue I could glean from the picture, I reviewed my father’s letters from that approximate time. I connected events he mentioned to entries in his two-inch thick military personnel file, which miraculously survived the 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in Indianapolis that destroyed over sixteen million records.
The photograph had to have been taken sometime near or shortly after the end of WWII. One clue is how thin he appears. As early as August 1946, my father was stationed in Germany and participated in the Nuremberg War Crimes trial as a military police provost sergeant. He loved German food and beer, and photographs of his plump face and frame prove that. So this photograph preceded that.
I also detected a single chevron on his right shoulder, pointing down underneath the three pointing up. That insignia would agree with a letter he wrote my mother on the last day of 1945 informing her he had just made Staff Sergeant.
Three opaque glass panels behind my father, one of which looks like a door, make me think he is in an infirmary or a hospital. A bright light shining through the glass panels casts my father in an ethereal glow. The aura gives the flat photograph another dimensional existence, one I can’t identify, but like to think is some resurrected spiritual energy. Who took the picture, and why? I haven’t a clue. Could it have been a friend? Given my father isn’t smiling, I don’t think so. Perhaps it was a nurse or an orderly. Maybe, but that doesn’t make sense. How did my father end up in possession of this photograph? All of that remains a mystery.
But I did come up with several possibilities. I find it more than coincidental that within two weeks of him fending off a Japanese Banzai attack with his .30-caliber machine gun, and confronting an enemy patrol alone one night when armed with only a .45-caliber pistol, my father wrote my mother about his arm shaking uncontrollably. He closes a letter written on April 30, 1945:
With all my love
P.S. please exc writing my arm is shaking like heck.
The very next month in May 1945, and again two months later in July 1945, and several more times over the next twenty years, my father makes similar complaints in his letters to my mother. I remember his hands and arms shaking, in one of my couple dozen memories of him. I would like to think it is a Christmas morning. He was attempting to read the instructions on how to assemble a toy for my older brother. I wondered how in the world could he possibly read anything on that paper with his hands and arms shaking so bad. I was about five years old, and the image reminded me of an injured butterfly in its death throes.
I also know from his letters and personnel file that he injured his shoulder when carrying food supplies. He wrote my mother from the hospital on July 5, 1945, telling her the injury occurred six weeks earlier, but he didn’t report it for fear of being taken out of combat. The injury caused him to have a “trick shoulder” that allowed him to dislocate it at will.
And from his letters and personnel file I know that shortly after returning to the states, in May 1946, he had a malaria attack with shaking chills and kidney complications that required a few weeks of hospitalization in Camp Kilmore, New Jersey. To make matters worse, he and my mother temporarily broke up via U.S. mail, the first time in January 1946, the second the following May. If I were to guess, the picture occurred when he was at his lowest mentally, physically, and emotionally, sometime around May 1946.
To me, the most shocking feature about the photo is that it’s of a nineteen-year-old boy who appears to be older and more worn out than his sixty-something son who is now studying the picture, three-quarters of a century later. However, what I find most compelling about the image are my father’s eyes. Each of his eyes is communicating something different. Whereas his left eye is blank and unfocused, staring off in the distance and portraying what I would regard as the thousand-yard stare, his right eye is focusing on me, his son. There’s a deep sadness in that right eye. The young boy that was once him has been sucked right out of it. He’s expressing his sorrow for his past, as well as his future deeds. He’s trying to apologize to me, his future son, for the future loss of his life in Vietnam. In that right eye, he sees how the official reports about his death in 1965 will suck the boyhood out of me. In that right eye, he understands how my discovery of the coverup and classified circumstances of his mysterious death a half a century later will suck my sanity and obsess me to near madness. In that right eye, he’s exposing his weakness and vulnerability in both his earthly life and afterlife. He’s telling me he’s powerless to help not only himself achieve peace but also me. He’s asking for my help to resolve the true circumstances of his death so that we can help each other. I intend to give it to him.