It’s Memorial Day Weekend 2012, when we remember men and women who fought and gave their lives, largely to maintain democracy and religious freedom. Each year, I think about my Uncle Sherman, although I think about him lots of other times too, because while he did not die fighting, he made an ultimate sacrifice — losing any quality of life after extreme shell shock suffered in World War II.
These days, as various groups tell people what to believe, how they should worship, who they should and shouldn’t love, and even for whom they should cast a vote, I remember Uncle Sherman, precisely because he went to fight Hitler’s evil world view and the Holocaust. He did this after learning about freedom of religion and persecution of the Jews — in Shelburne Sunday school in Terre Haute, Indiana. He went to war to fight hate.
Sherman had never met anyone of the Jewish faith, but he knew they had a right to live their lives, and were he alive today he would be very puzzled about the many people making hateful comments about Muslims. My uncle was a member of “the greatest generation,” today’s elder-elders who put themselves in grave danger and saw countless friends and family members die in at least one war.
As a child, because of Uncle Sherman’s extreme disability, I grew up hearing stories about the war, the airplanes flown and crashed, and the evils of Hitler. I met people with permanent physical war injuries and men, like my uncle, who were so emotionally scarred that they could never live a normal life. I also knew immigrant Americans with tattoos on their arms. This older generation, today’s elder-elders, taught me that no matter how evil a few people might be, you don’t denigrate a group of people.
My mom lovingly remembers Sherman, a thoughtful and protective big brother who could take apart, fix, and put together anything, so it was no surprise that he ended up working with B-24 planes during the war. Had he not suffered from shell shock (now PTSD), mother is certain he would have worked his way through school to become an engineer.
Sherman was kind and honest, and while he wasn’t great in school, he did amazing things with his hands — an original kinesthetic learner. Idealism — and what he learned in Sunday school and high school made him decide to volunteer to go to war at age 17.
He had also learned a thing or two about the United States Constitution — his generation memorized many parts of it in school. Even today if you start talking to many elder-elders about what’s in the Constitution, they just may be able to recite that part word-for-word back to you — proving how inaccurately you really understand the words in the document.
Anyway Uncle Sherman told his mother that he understood that we were fighting evil, and that he wanted to join up. His mom, my grandmother who had a fifth grade education, made a deal with him. She would sign the papers as soon as he graduated from Gerstmeyer Technical High School. He graduated, she signed, and he was still 17 when he went to war.
In Europe he flew mission after B-24 mission, as a tail gunner, over Germany and Austria. One morning he was grounded with a sore throat, and the crew went on without him. That day his plane and crew went down. My uncle blamed himself for the loss of that plane — experiencing an ongoing emotional disability for the next 60 years — until he died a few years ago.
Uncle Sherman suffered from debilitating post-traumatic stress syndrome, though for the first 45 years no one, and especially no one in the United States military, called it that. My uncle made an ultimate sacrifice — his life largely destroyed. But he knew what he was fighting for then and despite his disability, he could have explained, with an unexpected clearness, right up to the last day of his life why he fought.
I wish I had known Uncle Sherman before his war-time injuries, but I am grateful for his life and for the education, both in church and in school, that inspired his concern for others, fortified his courage, and taught him not to fear people who were different.