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    rows of headstones at Cambridge American Cemetery

    Half-Pint’s War

    Paying tribute to a relative who died in World War II combat, I found no place in the military cemetery’s rituals for the complexities of my grief.

    By Alice Hutton Sharp

    May 29, 2023
    • phil bence

      Thank you for your thoughtful essay, honoring Pint and Grandfather Jim, without honoring war.

    • Tony

      A truly beautiful tribute. Read with love in my heart. God bless

    At Royal Air Force Tibenham, an American writes letters home. It is late January 1944, and his bomber squadron has been in action for a month. In his portrait, he is crisp, polished, strong-jawed and vital. In a group shot, he stands at least four inches shorter than the other men in his unit. They call him Ernie, but at home his family calls him Pint, or Half-Pint.

    One letter is to a cousin with a new baby. “Boy I’m going to have a lot of relation I’ve never seen when I get home,” he writes. “I’ve flown some real ones – Have the Air Medal now (5 combat missions) + they were real enough for me Jim – 4 out of the 5 were the ruggedest that’s been flown here.”

    “Letters help a lot here,” he ends. “God it seems only yesterday that you were a baby + now you have one – time does fly. Best of luck Jim. Sure would like to see your boy.”

    Jim was my grandfather, the baby my father. Pint’s letter is postmarked February 2, the day his plane disappeared.

    Sixty-nine years later, I found myself drinking instant coffee in a Styrofoam cup at the Cambridge American Cemetery, in the lush English countryside. The volunteer was bringing me through the rituals of a relative’s visit before escorting me to the Tablets of the Missing.

    I was uncomfortable with her insistence on treating me as family, and tried to explain that I was there, chiefly, out of a sense of duty. My grandfather’s cousin Shorty was a fixture of my childhood visits to my grandparents’ house. Half-Pint was never mentioned. I found his name while writing out a family tree, mapping the sprawling family network that made up my grandparents’ community in Keokuk County, Iowa.

    names on the Wall of the Missing at the Cambridge American Cemetery

    Cambridge American Cemetery near Madingley, Cambridgeshire, UK. Avpics / Alamy Stock Photo

    In 2013, I received a grant to spend a semester in Europe, studying manuscripts of a twelfth-century commentary on the book of Genesis. When I realized one of the manuscripts was in Cambridge, near where Half-Pint’s name was recorded on a memorial wall, I felt an obligation to visit. As far as I knew, nobody in my family ever had. My grandfather had died the previous October. He had never been to Europe, and may not have known that Half-Pint’s name was on a memorial. It was as much in mourning for my grandfather as it was to pay my family’s debt of respect to his cousin that I felt I ought to go.

    Trained as a historian, I know the absence of those who are missing from our histories. People leave their traces according to their chances: what remains is often nothing but a letter, a baptism record, legal troubles. For all the praiseworthy work, over the last century, to make history more than a parade of great deeds and great men – to look at culture, money, race, or gender to fill in the picture – we cannot capture it all. History is a net full of holes.

    The Cambridge American Cemetery sits northwest of central Cambridge. Its thirty acres were a gift from Cambridge University, and it nestles along a gentle slope, green lawns carved out of the surrounding woodlands. Arcs of white crosses curve out from the chapel and memorial wall, like an amphitheater of the dead, or ripples in a pool.

    Anxious about missing my stop, I got off the bus too early, and walked beside the highway in the rain to where the main gate was supposed to be. It was blocked off for construction of a new visitor center, timed to the seventieth anniversary of VE day. Tired, wet, and five months pregnant, I paced back and forth in front of the gate until I caught the attention of a construction worker. He directed me to retrace my steps to a side road that would take me to another entrance. By the time I had found it and faced an uphill path towards the memorial wall I was soaked through, and the climb felt arduous and unforgiving.

    The cemetery was empty that day, except for construction workers, and the volunteer in the grey portable building among trees was startled to see me when I knocked to ask directions. And that is how I ended up sitting in her office, drinking instant coffee. It was a gentle kindness that made it difficult to reject her other, more official, ministrations.

    My grandfather spent much of the war teaching aerial gunnery in El Centro, California, where my father was born. In his letter, Half-Pint assured him that he shouldn’t be too eager to see action. “Take it from me Jim – stay where you are + what you’re doing if you can,” he wrote. “You’re doing your part as much as anyone – think of it this way – if you were in combat someone else would have to do your job + it just as well be you doing it.”

    My grandfather did not get to stay where he was. In December of 1944, he left for the Pacific theater, stopping in the Marshall Islands before heading to Iejima and the Battle of Okinawa. A memoir he wrote on a yellow legal pad casually mentions a sniper’s killing of journalist Ernie Pyle on a road they frequented, thirty days of bombardment, and watching Kamikaze pilots fly their planes into American ships. His prose is sparse and his internal reaction to these experiences is left to the imagination.

    In visiting the cemetery, I wanted to honor the wounds my grandfather had carried but never shared.

    I was an adult before I knew the depth of my grandfather’s wounds. There was the physical pain for which he tried almost every cure: oxycodone, acupuncture, a cannabis ointment from Mexico. When I was in university, a doctor finally suggested he might have PTSD. It wasn’t until after my grandfather died that my grandmother told me he couldn’t sit through a church service without breaking into a cold sweat; a year before her own death, my grandmother told me he had promised he’d never do himself harm. I’d never dreamt that the quiet grandfather who always slipped me a dollar for ice cream – even when I was a married woman – had thoughts of ending his life. In visiting the cemetery, I wanted to give Half-Pint the care our family owed him, while also honoring the wounds my grandfather had carried but never shared.

    As soon as the volunteers identify you as a relative, a liturgy begins. It swept me along like a wind. Perhaps my strange journey – not to visit my grandfather, but in place of my grandfather – was too unusual for standard categories of “survivor” and “tourist.” Was I somehow a survivor of World War II because my grandfather’s cousin died in the war?

    My coffee cup empty, the volunteer retrieved a camera and a small clear plastic tub, and we set out for the Tablets of the Missing. The tub, full of grey sand, was an addition for the digital age: the sand would be pressed into the engraved letters to increase their visibility in photographs. “The sand is from Normandy,” she told me, the words weighty with significance. I did not reply that Normandy would have meant nothing to Half-Pint, who did not live to see D-Day. Who, I wondered, are these rituals for – the dead or ourselves?

    rows of headstones at Cambridge American Cemetery

    Early morning sun creates shadows for the rows of headstones at Cambridge American Cemetery, June 25, 2014. ABMC photo: Warrick Page.

    If it had not been for the war, Half-Pint would not have died as he did – he would have stayed with his wife and children. Since he died in his country’s service, it seems right that the country honors him with a name on a wall, as well as a posthumous Purple Heart. In this memorializing, however, Pint’s name and story are deployed in service of a larger message – the honoring of war.

    By nature and upbringing, I find myself uncomfortable in military settings. My father spent his twenties avoiding the draft to Vietnam. My junior and senior years of high school were marked by protests of the Iraq war. It was there I first met Christians whose faith I found compelling, whose commitment to the kingdom of God brought them to a public witness. I went to the Cambridge American cemetery in discomfort, thinking: this is what the Second World War did, these are the lives it took. Even in a war held up as the epitome of good against evil, lives were lost and my grandfather was never the same. My grandfather took his memories of his lost cousin to his own grave, and left us with his silences.

    I found no place in the cemetery’s rituals for the complexities of my grief.

    My grandfather had formidable good luck. “The Hutton luck,” my mother calls it. He always found the best parking spots and had phenomenal hands in cribbage. In the two cousins’ letters, luck is their final wish to each other.

    In January of 1944, my grandfather sat down to catch up on his letters while his wife and infant son slept. “So you’ve been on two missions,” my grandfather wrote to Half-Pint, “and that letter was written the 28th of December. I’ll bet by now you’ve seen a lot more action.” His attention turns professional: “Does that old B-24 kind of jump around when they start shooting at you?” Half-Pint’s brother Shorty had been accepted for aviation training; my grandfather’s brother Skeet was in New Guinea. “He’s not so far from where the lead is flying,” wrote my grandfather. “You are sure right when you say we four couldn’t be much farther apart. We are scattered all around the Globe.”

    The letter closes with the only thing my grandfather had to offer. “Well I haven’t much more news so until the next time here’s wishing you all the luck in the world Pint. As ever, Jim.”

    The letter was returned unopened.

    Their messages were eventually interleaved in the family Bible until I found them in my grandmother’s den.

    The volunteer was English, but her daughter had married an American serviceman. As we walked to the wall, she mused that my relative’s name might be too high for us to reach. “That would be ironic,” I said, “given his family called him Half-Pint because he was so short.”

    We found his name – easily reached – and she filled the letters with sand, brushing over them with a sponge. She took a picture for me. My camera was better, but it seemed inappropriate to insist on redoing her work. And then, she waited.

    Our family graves in Iowa are black or red granite; you trudge among the mud and find them in the grass. This, in contrast, was white, clean, manicured, and cold. There were no flowers. On the whole, the cemetery felt tidy, but abandoned. It was silent and empty.

    I had imagined myself alone, with all the things I wanted to say and think. I had wanted to trace the letters under my fingers, sending my love and witness through the years. “Granddad, because you couldn’t come, I came for you,” I wanted to say. “Half-Pint, I’m sorry. I liked your brother and I’m sure I would have liked you. We remembered you.”

    Instead, I stood there awkwardly, with the grief for the grandfather I had known tied up in the duty I felt to the cousin I hadn’t. The feeling of being watched weighed upon me, and sooner than I would have liked, I told the volunteer I was ready to go.

    As we turned away, the chapel carillon marked the hour. Like the cemetery itself, it was disorienting, both familiar and foreign. Stripped down to bells, the tune was simultaneously “God Save the Queen” and “My Country ’Tis of Thee.”

    Behind us, the grey sand remained, standing as a witness that someone had come, until wind and rain left the letters empty again.

    I arrived as family, and left as a tourist. As I clutched the grainy photo print of Half-Pint’s name, the grey sand against the creamy stone, I mentioned my long walk in. “But,” the volunteer said, surprised, “survivors can take the tourist bus from the lower gate for free.”

    I had spent my visit trying to shake the designation of “survivor.” By that point, though, I was exhausted, and concerned about finding my way back to town. A bright red hop-on, hop-off tourist bus pulled up at the lower gate. Nobody got off.

    “Is it true,” I asked the driver, “that you give free rides to survivors?”

    “Do we?” he asked, and waved me on.

    I carry a lifetime of memories of my grandfather after the war. In contrast, Half-Pint remains frozen in time. Having died for the war, his memory is always in the care of the war. I wanted to scrape his memory back to an image of Half-Pint as he mattered to people I loved. It felt like removing damp Normandy sand from his name, piece by piece.

    The son I was carrying on that trip bears my grandfather’s name. He and his friends like to spend their recesses re-enacting World War II. The books they read transform it to a conflict of military technologies with planes and ships at center stage. Anonymous soldiers are reduced to numbers. He will never see the Second World War as lived history that left its mark on familiar faces. Few survive who saw what my grandfather saw. Memories of the dead die with those who remember, and monuments take their place.

    A decade after my visit, the new interpretive center at the Cambridge American Cemetery welcomes visitors, rather than blocking their access. The website says that they “will gain a better understanding of this critical campaign.” As a historian, I ask: Whose understanding? History is a net of silences, but it is tied by the choices of the living. We curate, discard, preserve, and interpret through our own experience. What room is there in this triumphant history for a pair of cousins – one who died in a war and one who lived with it?

    Contributed By AliceHuttonSharp Alice Hutton Sharp

    Alice Hutton Sharp has a PhD in Medieval Studies, for which she focused on book history and Biblical exegesis.

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