My Uncle Bill: WWII Frogman and Grandfatherly Uncle

My mother’s older brother Bill  was very much like my grandfather in physical appearance, temperament and attitude.  If our family life is a play, Uncle Bill was the understudy who took over when my grandfather was no longer available.  At least that’s the way it seemed to me.  My uncle provided a tangible, very real link to Grandaddy. 

Uncle Bill, Mama and me at my grandparents’ house in the mid-60s.

By all accounts, my uncle was so like my grandfather that they were often at loggerheads during Bill’s boyhood and teen years.  Each was painfully honest in every situation, and this may have proved more of a stumbling block than a stepping stone in their relationship.  Bill had little interest in farming.  Fortunately for him, his older brother Leland had followed in Grandaddy’s footsteps and taken over the land up by the river.  When World War II began, Bill saw it as an opportunity to get off the farm and put a stop to conflict with his father.  He enlisted at seventeen, just before Christmas of 1943.  We have most of the letters he sent home during his military service.  Never overly sentimental, never self-pitying, his early letters border on heartbreaking.  They are the writings of a young man who acted too hastily and immediately regretted his decision.

A sad and serious Uncle Bill, age 17, in his first Army photo.

These first letters, sent from Fort Thomas, Kentucky, tell of receiving vaccinations, shoveling snow in blizzard-like conditions, and hoping to join the Air Corps but being eight pounds underweight.  Bill  lists the various articles of clothing he has been issued, remarking with wonder that it’s more than he’s ever seen before.  He asks his family to send some shoe polish, because his boots have stiffened uncomfortably from daily wear in the snow and slush.  He also asks for a pencil and a few wire coat hangers.   The talk in the barracks, morning and night, was that of homesick young men pining for their loved ones and the lives they had left behind.  Most, like Uncle Bill, were from rural areas.  They had realized, too late, the simple glory of farm life.  In Bill’s words, he “never realized how swell home was, but he sure would like to see it now.”  His father, he admits, knew more about the Army than he did.  His letters are always signed “Love, Billy.” 

He was soon transferred to Fort Gordon-Johnston in Florida for basic training to enter an amphibious brigade. At the end of January 1944, he reports getting $39.55 for his first month of duty.  Nearly every letter begins with an apology for not writing sooner, but he seems to have written every few days.  He often asks about my mother’s asthma, the progress of the tobacco stripping, and he offers hopes that the crop will bring a good price. A high point about army life, he notes, is access to new movies.  He mentions seeing Jack London, Swing Fever and later, Double Indemnity.  In one letter he writes that he was “feeling fine, and at times, almost happy, but not quite.”

Bill, a year or so later, looking a bit more upbeat.

As the months ticked by, Bill wrote from increasingly exotic places, although his exact location could not be divulged.  From Florida, he went to New Guinea, the Dutch East Indies, many small islands in the Phillipines, and then on to Hawaii for training in Underwater Demolition.  After his return, he talked of being dropped in the ocean, no land in sight, and no special equipment but a pair of flippers.  He and his fellow Frogmen were expected to tread water for six to eight hours as they awaited the ship’s return.  The Frogmen were the precursors to the Navy SEALs, and I can only imagine the intensity of other training exercises and actual duties.  Bill didn’t talk much about any of that.

The tone of homesick regret is gradually replaced by a sense of wonder at the strange beauty of places he could never have imagined.  In the Philippines, he buys a handmade mattress from a local woman, tours a ruined city in a horse-drawn buggy-taxi, attends Saturday night dances on base where the “fine-looking” Spanish and Filippino girls “can jitterbug to put the girls back home to shame.”  He discovers an injured cockatoo in the jungle and nurses it back to health. He revels in the abundance of tropical fruit and notes that there is no cigarette shortage in the army, unlike in the States.  He is surprised by his ability to work all day, on a ship in the equatorial zone, in temperatures up to 115 degrees, with hardly any ill effects.  The miserable poverty of some of the native villages affects him deeply. Hospitalized for a while with “yellow jaundice,” he enjoys the rest, as well as the fluffy pillows.  When a fellow patient has a break-down and runs screaming in the halls, he remarks that the jungles will do that to you, after two or three years.  He laments not being able to write about the most interesting parts of his days, because such information would be censored.  Despite his discretion, in several of his letters a line or two has been neatly cut away.

Some of Uncle Bill’s letters home during his time in the Army.
Bill’s Army knife, useful for cutting jungle foliage.

In Bill’s letter of August 16, 1945, news has just broken of  Japan’s surrender.  The war is officially over.  He begins to believe he will return home soon, to the farm he so wanted to leave.  After several months in the U.S. occupational forces in Japan, he arrived stateside in the winter of 1946.  Like his fellow soldiers lucky enough to return, he was older and wiser, and had a new appreciation for home.

Uncle Bill in the mid-60s with his beagle Ginger, the first of his dogs that I remember.

Bill went to the University of Kentucky on the G. I. bill.  His dark hair turned completely silver when he was still in his late 20s, giving him an air of elegant sophistication.  My father, seeing Mama with her brother on campus, assumed she was with a handsome professor.  Bill was in his 30s when he married a divorced woman with two sons.  Margaret was the sister of one of my mother’s childhood friends.  Bill never had any biological children, but he was a supportive and caring stepfather.

Mama and Bill were close, and they were alike in many ways.  As long as I can remember, Uncle Bill was a big part of my life.  He often traveled to Atlanta on business.  When it was still a rather grand  hotel and hadn’t slipped into seediness, he stayed downtown at the old Henry Grady Hotel.  He often had a free evening, and he’d treat my parents and me to a festive dinner, somewhere we wouldn’t ordinarily go.  I always looked forward to Uncle Bill’s visits.  I loved his dry wit, which was sarcastic and sometimes biting, but never mean-spirited.  As a connoisseur of life’s ironic absurdities, he was highly amusing company.

Uncle Bill was empathetic and attuned to the plight of the down-trodden.  He was especially soft-hearted when it came to animals.  Bill always had a dog, or he cared for someone else’s dog, typically one that would prefer to be Bill’s. When a neighbor’s three-legged lab mix made it clear that he would much rather live with my uncle, his owners passed him on.  With Bill, Colonel got several walks each day, plus a long car ride.  Colonel loved a ride, so Bill made it part of their routine.   During a visit after Colonel’s death and not long before Bill’s own, I went with him on his nightly duty to walk a neighbor’s dog.  Bill had noticed that the dog’s owner worked long hours, and he offered to provide an afternoon walk.  Before long, this had turned into three daily walks.  Bill was retired and dogless at the time, so he was happy to oblige.  On the night I went with him, he put his raincoat over his pajamas and we walked down the street to the neighbor’s home.  He let us in with his own key, and the woman rose to greet us warmly, from what appeared to be a late-night dinner party.  No doubt her guests thought it odd that her dog-walker was a dashing silver-haired seventy-year old in PJs.  No doubt they also thought she had lucked into a great deal.  Bill never cared if people considered him somewhat eccentric.

Uncle Bill and me at Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire in the 80s.

Bill’s time in the service may have fostered his love of travel.  He and Margaret were always setting off for some legendary spot.  During my year in England  they popped in on several occasions.  They were my first visitors when I lived in Cambridge.  We ate at the city’s best restaurants and took day-trips to Eton and Windsor Castle.  Later in the year, we rented a car and drove up to York over the course of nearly a week.  Bill and Margaret went on to Scotland and I returned to London by train.  And when I was in England for a month the next year, they came back, too.  I can still see the look on Bill’s face when I showed him my tiny, cell-like room in the London House Annex, a dormitory for visiting students.  

Uncle Bill died much too soon, at 71.  I guess because he was so like my grandfather, I thought we’d have him around for a few more years.   He was there for my wedding, but he never got the chance to see my beautiful baby girl.  It’s a great consolation, however, to reflect on the many lives that he touched, with his kindness, generosity and humor.  And I know that now, he and Grandaddy, two kindred spirits, are enjoying peaceful yet lively good fellowship.