I have been reading a great memoir of the Second World War: Quartered Safe Out Here, by George MacDonald Fraser. It details his experiences in the Burma Campaign as a 19-year old private in the Border Regiment fighting the Japanese during 1944-45. I mention it because he deals with many of the universal experiences of men in combat.
It is however his brief discussion of his family that recently resonated with me. He speaks of his mother and aunts seeing him off to war, and how about 30 years earlier they had seen their brothers and cousins off to war in 1914. As I read this I had a WOW moment.
Here he was talking about me leaving for South East Asia in 1973 being seen off by my wife, mother and aunts. Just as they had seen their own brothers and husbands off to war in 1942. Now I have seen in programs such as Ken Burn’s The War, a lengthy look at WWII, women who spoke movingly of their loved ones going off to combat. One in particular said that as an officer’s wife she had to hold it all in, to put on a brave face and that under no circumstances could she cry. So she did it.
I flash back to my leaving in 1973, surrounded by my wife and mother and aunts and uncles. They all hugged me and my wife kissed me and then I was gone. I went down the ramp to the commercial airliner that took me to San Francisco where I would leave from the military air depot at Travis Air Force Base. It was the gateway to the Pacific in those days for all men departing for the Vietnam War. I began what in my mind was clearly a new phase of my life, I didn’t dwell on it, it was my job and my duty to do so.
It was only years later that I learned that my wife broke down and cried as soon as I was out of sight and hearing.
I can only imagine my aunts and what went through their minds. Here they had witnessed a similar scene in 1942, I suspect stoically sending their husbands off to defeat Hitler and going home to deal with their loved ones leavings in private. They would then put on a brave face in public.
Fraser says in his book he doesn’t know how these women did it. I agree with him. How did they make it through each day: wondering what was happening so far away, fearing the knock on the door and the delivery of a telegram or the visitation of a military officer and chaplain.
When I flew combat missions, each day had an artificial veneer of normality to it. Get up, do the mission, and return to base, and then do it again, and again, and again. I was in my mind in control of my life, at least on the surface. How did my loved ones handle the uncertainty of each day? Did they try to push it out of their minds? Did they rely on a strong faith to sustain them? Or did they crumble.
I will never know, my wife and I have never shared this. I suspect it is like combat something she can never share just as I cannot share my experiences in warfare.
Perhaps, that is for the best.