Memorial Day is about remembering. It’s about recalling those brave young men and women who gave their lives that future generations of Americans might live in freedom. However, each one of those who gave their life in the service of their country comes with their own personal story. This is my recollection of one. The story of one empty chair at the family dinner table.
I was about six years old, I was with my mom, dad and grandmother, and we were visiting some dear friends of my grandmother, the Whitakers. This was North Carolina and “visiting” on Sunday afternoons after church was an important part of the culture.
Mr. and Mrs. Whitaker were longtime family friends. They were charming, gracious and cheerful. But as I found out that day, they bore a special kind of sadness for a loss that occurred over 20 years before in the South Pacific.
During the visit I remember being a little bored, as little boys are apt to be when the adults are talking, and I took notice of one of the pictures on the mantel. I found myself studying it rather closely. It was a photo of a handsome young man in his World War II flight suit. There was an unmistakable good nature to his smile. I didn’t know who he was, but right away I liked him.
With all the tact a 6-year-old can muster, I asked my father, who was sitting next to me, who the man in the picture was. My dad was a little nervous in answering. Not just because I was talking when I should have been quiet, even though the topic of conversation was a mind-deadening back and forth on various approaches to planting rose bushes, but because it was a sensitive topic.
The young man in the photo was the Whitakers’ only child and he had been killed in World War II. My father, hoping not to draw attention to our father-and-son exchange, said it was very sad, but like a lot of young men in the war, Gordon didn’t come home.
Mr. Whitaker, having caught a hint of our conversation, spoke up and began to explain to me who this young man was. I think my parents were surprised by his willingness to talk about his lost son. He told me his son’s name was Gordon, just like his. They called him Gordon Junior and he was their only child and he went off to war back in 1942. Mr. Whitaker said that Gordon Junior was their great joy in life, and they had never stopped missing him. Then he went to the mantel to get the picture to show it to me.
I may have been little, but for the first time in my life, I had a sudden, though gently offered, lesson in the cost of war.
Gordon was just about ready to graduate from college when he asked his dad if he could take flying lessons. He wanted to get a leg up in qualifying for the Army Air Corps’ Aviation Officer Cadet Program. With war seeming more likely, he knew he wanted to be a fighter pilot. His father agreed and paid for the lessons.
Gordon was commissioned in the Air Force and was an outstanding aviator. He flew in the closing weeks of the Battle for Guadalcanal and later flew “top cover” for the mission that killed the Japanese top strategist, Admiral Yamamoto. He survived that mission but was lost two weeks later while escorting a photo reconnaissance plane over Bougainville.
Gordon’s parents have long since passed on. But to this day, I have trouble imagining how they found the tenacity and the resolve to carry on after such a terrible loss. That empty chair at the dinner table never went away.
Even as a child I could tell that this was a wound that had never healed.
Gordon never had the chance to marry, have kids or argue with his son about keeping the car out late. He never had the chance to grow old and reflect on times past. More than 75 years after Gordon’s death I live a comfortable life. I make my living as I choose, think as I please, associate with whom I please and worship as I please. I complain about my government and my elected officials whenever I feel like it. That’s all a part of being an American. And, I owe that privilege to Gordon Whitaker, a kind, decent and gifted young man, who like thousands of others in his war, and other wars, didn’t come home.
David Kerr is an adjunct professor of political science at VCU and has worked on Capitol Hill and for various federal agencies for many years.