“It was only when I picked up a telephone in San Francisco airport to call Dorothy back in Asheville that I realized I had not left the war behind, and would never leave the war behind. I realized that the war would be a living part of all of us who fought it, and all of those who suffered losses from it, forever.
“Dorothy was glad to hear from me and eager to welcome me home. But it was in this phone conversation that I finally learned the reason behind the dark, bitter letter I’d received from her a few weeks earlier in Saipan.
“Dorothy had had a brother named Harry. He was her only sibling. The two of them were as close-knit as a brother and sister could be. I’d known that. What I hadn’t known until Dorothy sobbed it to me just now, over the phone, was that Harry had been killed the previous December in the Battle of the Bulge.
“Dorothy wasn’t unfinished unburdening herself. As we talked on, the floodgates of her bitterness and grief opened wide, and she blurted out something to me that left a permanent scar on our marriage. She probably did not mean it the way it sounded—people have trouble putting the right words to pain as deep as what she was feeling. This same kind of anger mixed with anguish was being experienced by tens of thousands of others in those sad times.
“Still, I had no way of preparing myself for what she said, or of totally recovering from it afterward. What she said was, ‘Why couldn’t it have been you instead of my brother?”
Col. Robert K. Morgan, The Man Who Flew the Memphis Belle: Memoir of a WWII Bomber Pilot, p. 220-221.
This passage is unforgettable and heartbreaking because it tells of a time that should be happy: the reunion of a returning veteran from the battle lines to his wife. He has just arrived on American soil, the war is over for them, and they are free to move on and live their lives in peace. Yet instead, at that very moment, the war unexpectedly knifes back into their lives and reveals a wound from which neither husband, wife, nor their relationship will ever recover.
As the pilot of the Memphis Belle, the first B-17 to survive 25 missions in the skies over Europe and return home in 1943, Captain Robert Morgan had certainly done his duty. He had earned the right to stay out of combat. The demands which accompanied his return to the United States, however, had broken his romance with the girl in Memphis whom Morgan had named his plane after. He not only married another woman, but by the fall of 1944 had returned to combat, flying B-29s against the Japanese home islands from Saipan in a new aircraft he had christened Dauntless Dotty after his new wife Dorothy. Now on April 30, 1945, (the same day that Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun committed suicide in Berlin), Morgan was in San Francisco on his way home to Dorothy. But before they could embrace each other again, this fateful phone conversation left a permanent scar between them.
To me, this passage is an individual example and microcosm of a greater phenomenon that was underappreciated about the WWII generation for many decades after the war. The children and grandchildren of the WWII generation could not understand or fathom the immense suffering which marked the generation that fought the war. Compounding the disconnection was the silence which the WWII generation retreated into after the war about their experiences. They did not talk about the deep damages they had sustained from the war, from the deaths of loved ones to the emotional traumas of those who survived or were left behind, because virtually all their contemporaries shared the same burdens. For veterans of World War II, the war did not end in 1945. They carried their losses and pains with them for the rest of their lives, even as they went about trying to rebuild their lives with families, homes, work and educational opportunities, and wealth which had been unimaginable for average Americans before the war.
As he relates in his memoir, Robert Morgan was one of those millions of American servicemembers who tried to make the best of the life he had, because he knew too many young men who had never returned from Europe or the Pacific and would never have those opportunities. He and Dorothy worked for decades to make their life together last, and I think they even succeeded at times, but in the long run they were unable to maintain their marriage. Morgan would marry twice more before his death in 2004, and the story he tells in his memoir of how his old plane the Memphis Belle intersected in his life, eventually landing in her own museum to be preserved for current generations, is a treasure for us today to learn.
But the real gift that Robert Morgan and his contemporaries who went through World War II have left us today, people who will most likely never experience such a war ourselves, is the ability to intuit some insight on what the human spirit can weather. If one can imagine how Robert Morgan felt at the end of that telephone line talking to his wife Dorothy at the moment the war was supposed to be over for him, one can also imagine what she must have been feeling and carrying her heart as well. In that awful moment, we readers can understand why we should be grateful to never suffer through such a war ourselves.
This is the third of three posts on Morgan's memoirs. Read Part One. Part Two.
“A place can evoke the history that occurred there, but through words our minds truly gain perspectives and understanding of what it was like to know, feel, experience, hope, fail, triumph, and live through events from which we ourselves were absent. The written word is our most intricate map to retrace and reconstruct what we think happened, and ultimately brings us back to ourselves.”
– Keith Huxen, PhD , Senior Director of Research and History, The National WWII Museum
Keith is the former Senior Director of Research and History in the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy at The National WWII Museum.