History too easily tallies the price of war. It blithely numbers the dead, allowing us to close the book, walk away, and fight the next war.
But the families of those missing in action can’t close the book. We can’t walk away. We’re bound by cruel uncertainty to keep churning through a tragic past which grows hazier and more unreachable with each passing year.
My Uncle John was an aspiring boxer whose career was sidetracked by a knockout in the NYC Golden Gloves Tournament. He coasted for a few years, working odd jobs, and falling for Alice. Until in March 1941, realizing a great war was imminent, he asked Alice to marry him and enlisted in the Navy, at 22.
In May 1941, he came aboard the USS Pollux, a 459-foot supply ship, as a Storekeeper Third Class. That year his dreams of boxing glory revived, and he began training for a return to the ring, this time as a professional.
In the early morning hours of February 18, 1942, the Pollux was off the coast of Newfoundland plowing through 40-foot seas and blinding sleet driven by a hundred mile an hour gale. She was running a zigzag course to avoid Nazi U-boats known to be in the area. Because her captain was relying on an unfamiliar radar system, the Pollux was, incredibly for a Navy ship, thirty miles off course when at 4:17 a.m. it slammed into and impaled itself upon a huge boulder a hundred yards offshore from a small beach backed by 70-foot ice covered cliffs.
After several unsuccessful attempts to launch lifeboats, and just after the Pollux’s bow was torn off by the mountainous waves, their stricken captain gave permission to abandon ship, shouting above the tempest, “May God go with you!”
You can almost see John standing on the frozen, windswept deck looking out at the beach, so tantalizingly close, as his ship was being ripped apart beneath him. He measured his youthful vigor and boxer’s strength against the distance and was sure he could make it to shore and back to Alice. So, he leapt into the paralyzingly cold sea and vanished forever.
Or so I thought.
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) was created in 2015 to make good on the American warriors’ ethos: Never leave a fallen comrade. Its mission is to provide the fullest possible accounting for the 81,477 U.S. personnel missing from World War II to the present.
Each year, DPAA conducts investigation-and-recovery team missions throughout the world to pinpoint last known locations of missing Americans and attempt to excavate their remains. Recovered remains are sent to the largest forensic anthropological skeletal lab in the world for analysis and identification.
DPAA advised me about a year ago that they’d located remains which may be associated with John. They requested a DNA reference sample, which I provided. I’m still awaiting those DNA test results.
Last month, I was invited to attend my first DPAA Family Member Update Meeting. More than 200 families from Texas and nearby states met in Dallas to receive the latest information on the searches for their missing service members.
For the first 90 minutes, attendees were offered the opportunity to take the microphone and share memories of their loved one, what was known about their final mission, and to describe the effects of the loss on their family.
The rawness of their emotional wounds, in some cases 80 years after the fact, was simply devastating. It was clear from each story that the impact of the loss had been greatly exacerbated by the torments of hope, which are the particular cross of MIA families. I quietly wept for the entire hour and a half.
Rendered an emotional dishrag by the opening session, I skipped the rest of the day’s events and headed back to Corpus Christi.
On the long drive home, I kept thinking that, as our world again sleepwalks toward – this time probably nuclear – war, the gut-wrenching witness of our MIA families demands careful consideration by us all.
(Uncle John is second from left in photo.)