History’s Hidden Hero: A Tribute to My Favorite Uncle
I only met him once, and that was as a young boy, but I always knew Uncle Bob as Dad’s “favorite uncle.” Though Uncle Bob had lived much of his adult life in Bakersfield, California—quite a distance from our home in Michigan–I knew that he and my dad shared a special bond, to which I had sadly never been nor ever would be privy.
My parents had divorced when I was five or six, and I only spent quality time with Dad on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. I was highly covetous of that limited time and made sure we spent most of it with a family backyard baseball or football game along with my neighborhood buddies. It was during one of those games in the spring of 1972 that we were interrupted by the distant, persistent ringing of our home phone. Against my adamant protests, one member of the family ran inside and answered the call. It was my grandmother. She had news from California. When Dad returned to the backyard game at my insensitive urging, I recall thinking that I had never seen my optimistic, smiling father look so sad. As it turned out, his favorite uncle had died from a massive heart attack at the age of 51.
Decades passed, and while doing some genealogical research, I came across Uncle Bob’s World War II “Enlisted Record and Report of Separation Honorable Discharge.” The date and place of birth that my father’s brother, Hoby, had provided me for my genealogical records several years before were exact matches. I knew I was indeed looking at Uncle Bob’s military records. I never had any clue about his service, and, honestly, I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Even my Uncle Hoby, the family genealogist and historian, was unaware of the incredible information contained in that very brief, formal military document.
Uncle Bob had enlisted in the Army on October 11, 1941. From this limited, yet invaluable report, I learned from the “Battles and Campaigns” section of the document that he had been in Normandy, Northern France, Rhineland, Ardennes (the Battle of the Bulge) and Central Europe. A young man in the prime of his life, he had been thrust into unbelievable terrors. In fact, his birthday was June 7th. He had celebrated his twenty-fifth birthday on the beaches of Normandy.
He completed his service in the Army in September 1945 as a Tech Corporal in the 204th Field Artillery Battalion. During his commitment, he earned five Bronze Star medals and a Good Conduct Medal. The Bronze Star is awarded for “heroic or meritorious achievement” on the field of battle. He was also awarded the American Theatre Campaign Ribbon, American Defense Services Ribbon and the European-African-Middle Eastern Theatre Campaign Ribbon. As with all soldiers during that time, there was no R&R, no holiday time with his family. He spent almost five years on a war-torn continent across the Atlantic, with only limited written contact with his family and hometown friends. The atrocities he experienced first-hand are beyond the furthest reaches of my imagination.
My father died suddenly in 1997 from a brain aneurysm and took with him so many stories that Uncle Bob might have shared with him. But by some crazy twist of fate, I lucked upon a single page military document that told the story of a young man answering the call of duty—and who in January 1942, shortly after the horrific Pearl Harbor attack, was ordered to report to another world, where he would fight for his life and our nation for the duration of the European campaign.
Since my initial discovery, I was able to also locate his obituary and found out the name of his wife, who was my Great Aunt Carrie Jeannette, and her daughter, Cathy. I did a Google search and discovered that Cathy still lived in Bakersfield. So, I took a flyer and called the number. To my surprise, she answered. As it turns out, Uncle Bob was also her uncle, and she had lived with him and my great aunt since the second grade. We had a wonderful conversation during which she told me many previously unknown facts about my family. As it turned out, Aunt Nette, as she called her, had passed in 2019. She had taught school for over 70 years—amazing! I also learned that I had met Cathy as a small boy, along with two other cousins who were traveling with her when Uncle Bob had visited our home in Michigan. Although living with Uncle Bob for several years, she also did not know of his World War II exploits. I suppose real heroes don’t talk about those kinds of things.
My family always speaks about my dad like he is still here, though he passed away over twenty years ago. But his legacy carries on in our hearts and memories. And now, by getting to know and learn about people that were so important in Dad’s life for the very first time, I feel connected to my father on an even higher level. And, after learning so much about the man who was my father’s hero, I now count Uncle Bob as my hero, too.