The silent survivors | Chuck's World

By Chuck Sigars

 

If you’ve ever erred and written “continental” in a publication when you really meant “contiguous,” you would be like me, I guess.

It’s an easy mistake to make, searching for a term and grabbing the first one that seems reasonable. I’m aware that Alaska is in North America. Some people from Alaska just had to make me more aware, once.

It was kind of funny, and not really embarrassing, just an error. Kind of a typo, really. Readers were on it.

It just occurred to me the other day, when I began to make the same contiguous-vs-continental error. It’s so easy to do. They start at the same place and walk the same way and then, bam. Two different words, with two different meanings. Very unfair to a fast writer.

On May 5, 1945, the only American fatalities as a result of World War II in the contiguous United States occurred in southern Oregon, when a bomb exploded. There were actually no non-contiguous states in 1945, since 48 was all we had, but whatever. I don’t want to get emails.

Archie Mitchell, a Protestant minister, went out for a picnic with his pregnant wife, Elsie, and five Sunday-school kids, mostly teenagers, near Klamath Falls, Oregon. I’ve been to Klamath Falls many, many times. It’s firmly in North America.

It’s a horrifying thing to consider, although it seems to have become tinted by historical filters into an oddity and not the tragedy it was. In the last year of the war, Japan had begun sending balloon bombs over the Pacific via the jet stream toward the United States, filled with hydrogen and typically carrying several small bomb devices.

Some were found very far east, actually, and in Canada.

Archie was unloading the car while Elsie and the kids searched for a good spot for the picnic, which is when they saw the balloon bomb. They ran toward it, and the Rev. Mitchell heard the explosion. All six were killed instantly, young lives entering the history books in a very wrong way.

The youngest would have been 84 now. You bet I think about that.

The whole balloon bomb thing is interesting to me. These were the first intercontinental weapons, for one thing. It was the longest-range attack ever, not surpassed until 1982 and the Falklands battles.

For our part, American military and political leaders didn’t believe the bombs came all the way from Japan; they suspected they were dropped off on the West Coast by Japanese submarines. They didn’t really understand the jet stream back then.

And while we can look at these bombs as desperation moves, the motives were clear – create terror, start fires, disrupt everything. It was a workable plan, although it turned out to be a failure. Nearly 10,000 of these things were released, and maybe 300 made it all the way, few of them even detonating.

Only the six deaths in Oregon. Only.

My mother would have been 8 years old in May 1945. Several of the balloons (which, by the way, were around the size of hot-air balloons we see today) were found in Southern California, where she lived at the time. So I think about this sometimes.

Her stories of the war years are similar to others from her generation, people I’m obviously very familiar with. We’ve come to call them The Silent Generation, born from the mid-1920s to the early 1940s.

They were an unusual demographic bunch, a downward tick, the first generation born in this country smaller than the preceding one. They seemed to be marked by a desire to conform, to get jobs and keep their noses clean, which is where the Silent part comes in.

They’ve also been referred to as lucky, since their chaotic childhoods during the Great Depression and then the war years were followed by the prosperous 1950s. They would bridge two eras, half grayscale and half color, half radio and half TV, half Nat King Cole and half Elvis (I’m not sure which half).

And they are leaving us now. Philip Roth, who passed away recently at the age of 85, was one. John McCain is another.

I spent Memorial Day with my mom at her home in Arizona, only a few miles from where Sen. John McCain is currently undergoing treatment for cancer. My mother is doing fine, at age 81, a few medical issues but not particularly debilitating. We talk for hours on these visits, including much conversation about her childhood.

We talked about the blackout curtains many of our cities on the coasts mandated during the war, not very effective and mostly civil defense exercises, but still a powerful image, I imagine, for a small child.

It seems an apt symbol for these lives I came to know so well, my parents’ generation. Childhood can be a scary time for any of us, full of mysterious events and whispered danger, but the image of a small child, observing the black curtains being closed at night, hiding from imagined enemies above, is striking.

The surviving members of The Greatest Generation are few now, although there are others. There always are, because there are always children. And they are the ones I thought about this past weekend, as it turned out.

They remind me that war has many survivors, even if they are mostly silent, and along with the fallen we memorialize, they are part of our history. And that part was surely never going to be a picnic, anyway.