The last living link to an almost forgotten story, which happened during an almost forgotten time, took her last breath a month ago. Her name was Mildred Lawson.
It’s easy to mourn a life well spent and well served to God, country and community. But the real sadness for me came when I realized that there was no witness left to tell the story of a particular day when America was fighting wars on multi-continents.
Across America, men as young as 18, who had never left their hometowns, were called to travel to foreign lands, to step into fields where bullets rang out and death grimly awaited.
Britain, a small country with courage and heart, had been fiercely fighting off the massive German army, alone, for over two years. Then came the Japanese attack on Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor that brought a sleeping giant to life and sent our military to the Pacific to fight Japan and to Europe and Africa to help the Allies fight off the Germans who had already claimed Paris.
Should this kind of history interest you, I highly recommend “The Splendid and the Vile” by Erik Larsen, who recounts the Battle of Britain and illustrates valor at its grandest. The German Air Force was mightily trained, having prepared for two decades. Hero pilots from World War I led the Germans, yet stunningly, embarrassingly, Royal Air Force fighters, averaging 20 years old with mere weeks of training, fought back and won air battle after air battle.
Winston Churchill begged America to intervene. “My mother was American,” he resorted to telling President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who wanted to join the fight (he had once served as assistant naval secretary) but Americans were resolute: Stay out.
Pearl Harbor, however, proved there was no choice. We had to fight.
When Miss Mildred left for her eternal visit with the Lord, she was the last survivor of four who could tell the story of two country boys filled with moxie and enormous patriotic spirit. They struggled through the horrific Depression, traveled out of the hills and found opportunities toward better lives. They could raise families without worrying how to scrounge up food.
The way they figured it was this: They owed it to America to give their service and, if necessary, their lives.
Miss Mildred and my mama were married to those two men: Ralph and Tooney (a nickname). Both men had been exempted from the war because they were married and each had a baby. Shortly after Pearl Harbor collapsed, Daddy, Mama, Aunt Ozelle and Uncle Tom headed to Newport News, Virginia, so the men could help build battleships in Norfolk. After a time, they returned home.
It was 1943, and even with the strength of America and Russia entering the battle zone, Germany, Italy and Japan were formidable. Many were the times that it appeared the war in Europe could not be won by the good guys — Britain and her Allies.
In a small Southern town, Daddy and Tooney devoured the newspaper stories and listened to Edward R. Murrow as he reported for CBS Radio from London. One midday, as Daddy reached over to turn off the radio after listening to Murrow’s latest report, they both shook their heads.
“They won’t draft us,” Tooney said, thinking aloud.
Daddy nodded. “That’s right.”
Tooney suddenly brightened. “But we could enlist!”
Daddy studied on it for two seconds, then exclaimed, “Grab your hat and let’s go.”
Together, they joined the Navy and were quickly dispatched — on different ships — to the midst of the South Pacific battle zone, where they remained until the war ended.
The twist to this story? The wives, each left with a baby and a job, did not know until 15 years after the war’s end that their husbands had volunteered.
“I’d wrung his neck,” Miss Mildred recalled, laughing.
To all the soldiers and their families: Thank you!
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of several books, including “What Southern Women Know About Faith.” Sign up for her newsletter at www.rondarich.com. Her column publishes weekly.