Chapter Three: WWII War Orphans

War stories teach the living, soothe the wounded and honor the dead. In a war memoir, the storyteller willingly relives trauma and horror in his/her imagination. The telling of war stories is an act of bravery involving reliving emotional pain, suffering and loss. Who is willing to revive the painful memories of trauma and speak of death? When those bereaved by war relate their anguish and loss, who is their willing and engaged audience? Taming ingrained internal fears, risking ostracism for speaking about what makes most of us recoil – why would anyone do it?
The adult sons and daughters of fallen soldiers write their war stories not to establish their own heroism, but to create a healing catharsis that shapes trauma into a tangible expression of identity more beneficial than silence and shame. The impulse to grieve publicly, to mitigate forgetfulness by telling one's own story, and to craft a cohesive narrative out of loss and abandonment provides an alternative to the culture's limiting expectations of the damaged war orphan whose silence indicates patriotic stoicism. Some of the writers of these memoirs claim that they write to establish the legacy and honor of their fathers. Many claim that writing their stories was an act of healing.
Ann Mix and Susan Hadler both lost their fathers to WWII. Hadler is a psychotherapist and Mix a historian and the founder of the American WWII Orphans Network (AWON). They had both grown up in shame and silence about their fathers’ deaths. Both of their mothers had tried to erase any memories of the soldier, and both their mothers died without sharing much information. When they reached their forties, they both began seeking information about their fathers. They met and found they had a shared experience. They discovered that there were no statistics on war orphans and no studies about their lives. So they collected and published a collection of 25 oral narratives, Lost in Victory: Reflections of American War Orphans of World War II. AWON also maintains a website that serves as a repository and guide for those seeking information about their fathers.
In Lost in Victory, almost every individual relates experiences similar to mine. Most of their mothers did not speak about the death and the kids felt ashamed to ask about their fathers for fear of renewing sorrow. The children felt isolated and different at school. Often they were the only fatherless children in their communities. Their mothers had often thrown away material objects that belonged to or referenced their fathers, essentially destroying the child's heritage. Kids were made fun of by their peers, and they were left out of social events that involved fathers. Some children knew what their fathers had done in the war and some knew details of his service, but many did not. Their lives spent without information about their fathers, the youngest orphans were already in their fifties when their stories were published in 1998. All express a longing to hear stories and get information about their fathers. Several claim that they still get suddenly emotional at odd times when they are reminded of their loss. It is clear that the reactions of the widows and their extended families were important in how the orphan dealt with the loss.
The WWII orphans in this text ranged in age from not yet born to 12 years old when their fathers died. Many had never attended a funeral and had no grave to visit since WWII soldiers were often buried overseas. These orphans are now making pilgrimages to Europe to see where their fathers had died and had been buried. They express amazing catharsis, relief, and closure at visiting these places. The adults who answered the call to submit their experiences for this collection share their memories in retrospect; some had hidden their suffering so long that neither their spouses nor their own children had ever heard them speak of it.
Ann Mix’s father had been drafted after the exemption for fathers was eliminated in 1943. He left behind a wife and three children, ages 6, 4, and 4 months. He was killed after only three days in combat and 19 days before the Germans surrendered. Ann was 4 years old. The notification scene she describes is eerily similar to my own experience:
There is no crying in the world like that of someone who has just received such terrible news. It is an ocean. My brothers and I were surrounded and swept up in this ocean of grief with no adult able to support or care for us…Sydney took me by the hand and led me away to take care of me as he had been told to do. He was now the man of the house. We went off to wander in the spring day, not knowing what to think or what to do. He explained to me that our father had died for his country, that he was a hero. His was the only explanation I ever had. (92)
According to Ann, her mother began drinking heavily and eventually remarried a former Marine. Theirs was a violent relationship that lasted 10 years. “Our mother was unhappy, she was lonely, and mostly she ignored us" (92). The children went to live in their maternal grandparent's remodeled chicken coop. In addition, her mother “burned every photo of my father and all the letters he had written” (94). Ann's mother eventually died of cirrhosis of the liver, estranged from her daughter to whom she had not spoken in two years. Their falling out was over Ann making contact with a member of her father's family. The children had been forbidden from seeing their father's family even though his immediate family lived in the same town of Bakersfield, CA and had plenty of money. Ann was in her forties when she visited a paternal aunt in a nursing home. Although she was welcomed with open arms by her long-lost relative, Ann’s mother refused to speak to her again (95).
Susan Hadler's father, David Johnson, died in 1945, leaving behind Susan, aged 3 months and her brother David, 3 years old. She never knew her father. Susan remembers how she felt as a child during a moment of silence on Veteran's Day in her school:
I secretly want people to know that my father is one of the soldiers we were remembering….I want someone to touch me on the shoulder and say "I'm sorry your father was killed." Then I could say, "Oh, it's alright, but thanks." I can be sort of a hero, like my father. But I will never tell. What if people have nothing to say? How pathetic I would feel, needing comfort, attention, and getting none. Or they might tell me that he was a soldier and soldiers die or that I should be proud of my father who "gave" his life. Then I would feel ashamed of myself for wanting someone to recognize our loss. I keep my secret safe and private. (218)
I know from my own experience that people often have nothing to say. Desiring empathy when one should be feeling pride is one underlying cause of the silence and shame. For the Vietnam orphan, desiring empathy when all those around you hate the war, in effect, has the same result.
Another prevailing emotion is guilt. Susan felt ashamed at feeling sad while others were honoring her father’s patriotic sacrifice:
Society, teachers, ministers, talked about WWII in a way that left me feeling that my father's death was something good, something "sacrificial," something godlike. I was confused. Death was sad. It was lonely. It was scary…When I began to feel my loss, I would feel guilty and unable to trust my pain. I felt empty and lost because my father died. Yet his death meant others lived, so how could I be so selfish as to complain or speak of my own loss and hurt? I didn't speak of it. (222)
In all cases, the existing family unit was destroyed by the soldier’s death. One WWII orphan, Connie, revealed her thoughts upon visiting Arlington when she was in her fifties, “there’s one grave marker, but there’s a whole family under that marker, a whole family that’s interred with that one person who died. It doesn’t just affect the person who died” (52). The extended family feels the impact. The family of the soldier, his parents and siblings, often exhibit confusion about how to help the widow and her children.
Socioeconomic status seems to have been a factor in the reactions of the families. Many of them were already living in poverty themselves and could not help financially and did not know how to help emotionally. Jim remembers that his mother was only sixteen when she was widowed, and she had come from a farming community where self-reliance and isolation were the norm (156). Some family rifts occurred over who should receive the survivor’s benefits. In some cases, the couple had married so quickly that the soldier’s parents were still listed as beneficiaries. Joyce’s paternal family lied to the VA by claiming their son was not married so they would get his benefits. It took her mother “a good while” to fix the lie and receive benefits (32). An uncomfortable number of individuals report that the soldier’s parents kept the money and did nothing to help the widow. Many of the 25 orphans experienced financial troubles while they were growing up. During post-war prosperity, such economic trouble was a further cause of the isolation the children felt. Several mothers worked jobs to earn extra income to supplement their widow’s benefits. At a time when most mothers did not work outside the home, this caused additional social stigma for the children.
Frequently orphans report that their mothers and families refused to speak about the father. The silence amounted to a taboo. This confused the orphan and effectively negated any acknowledgement of their childhood suffering. Roberta thinks that “the adults were [thinking,] ‘You’re a little kid and you don’t understand what’s going on.’ So they don’t try to draw you out, they don’t try to explain anything to you. You’re just left alone” (165). Anne writes:
When you are a very small child, you learn there are things you should not ask. I believe there was so much pain that my mother never shared or expressed…it was terrible and it was a time when people didn’t sit down easily with someone who could help them through tough times…I think she just shut the door. (12)
Bill relates the shame he felt: “…the first thing my mother said when my father died was that we shouldn’t tell anybody. We shouldn’t be in a position that we were victims. Don’t make yourself into a victim” (24). Ellen writes that sometimes she wanted to talk to her mother about her father, but “it was embarrassing because it was awkward. Maybe it was just so emotional that it hurt her to discuss it” (77). Ellen speculates that her mother wanted to close that part of her life and look to the future. “A grownup wouldn’t need to remember it…I guess you wouldn’t realize what a child was feeling, that a child wanted to know the answers to all these questions” (80). Joyce, who never knew her father because she was 3 months old when he died, does not know the circumstances of his death. Her mother never remarried and never talked about it, claiming it was too painful. “I used to get aggravated at her because she wouldn’t talk about it. But she gets aggravated at me because she thinks I want to talk about it too much. Almost everybody thinks that. They say I’m hooked on WWII” (32). Some of the orphans in this text relate how the widow destroyed any tangible evidence of her husband. This same experience has been echoed in conversations I have had with members of SDIT. Perhaps the widows wished to start their lives over and to eliminate the sorrowful memories. While photos and personal mementos can be like ghosts in the house for the widow, they can provide solace for the bereaved child.
These widows did not seem to understand how their refusal to keep the father’s memory alive impacted their children. Some of the wives were so traumatized that they did not think about how their children were feeling at all, falling into a pattern of turbulent relationships with men and often alcoholism. The outlook for a happy future for a widow in the 1940’s was bleak. Connie writes: “Back then, another man just did not want a woman who had four kids he would have to take care of or think he had some kind of responsibility for, because she was a package deal” (54). Many women never dated or remarried, choosing instead to develop careers and focus on their children. The reasons for this might have stemmed less from eternal love and devotion to their dead husband and more from their cultural status as damaged goods.
For some widows, the children were constant reminders of the father and speaking about him only made their pain worse. The widow’s silence may have stemmed from an avoidance of painful memories that could overwhelm them during times when they needed to be strong. Gail thinks that she “was a burden because I was there and I was a reminder” (200). What these mothers did not realize is that they already had years of a life lived without the soldier, but their children had not. A child’s father makes up half of the child’s identity, and the loss of that identity, coupled with an inability to recover it, creates an impact that is different and perhaps more deeply felt than the loss of a husband. Many orphans express that they felt distanced from their mothers. The differences underlying their respective grief may explain this.
Anne’s father was drafted while her mother was pregnant with her. She never knew her father. Her comments reflect experiences echoed by many of the orphans:
There was so much of him that was unspoken…We talked a little bit but it was scary at times. I don’t know what is so scary. I’ve talked about many things that were much worse in my life. I don’t know what is so taboo. The questions I have are really about the other half of me and how that comes together. Who I am. I never talked about it at school, because everybody else had fathers. I was the only one. I was so different and I was ashamed of being different. There was a feeling of being insecure and different.” (13)
Several orphans related stories of feeling ostracized by their peers. Joyce claims “When I was a kid, I got make fun of, laughed at…because I didn’t have a daddy” (31). Eric remembers teachers calling roll on the first day of school and including parents’ names. He was forced to go up to the teacher’s desk in front of the class and whisper that his father was deceased. He remembers being the only child at a day camp fair who did not have an adult with him; one family with a young boy his own age befriended him and paid his way for events at the fair. Later, the young boy demanded repayment, telling Eric that “you owe me a lot of pennies.” This cruel comment caused Eric to feel humiliated, so he vowed to keep quiet in the future about his missing father. Clint says he was picked on by bullies who said, “Yeah, your father was a big war hero but you’re sure not!” (85). Ellen states that in her community “We were very isolated and very different and I knew it” (80). She claims that orphans knew that they needed to fit in so no one would notice their position. Twins Clatie and John write “Do you know how many people get really uptight when you say, ‘my father was killed in the war?’ You’re automatically shunned. It’s like a sin, they can’t deal with it” (104). And Anne asks, “Why isn’t it natural to talk about it? Nobody did, and that is why I can’t and that is why I don’t” (18).
However, the internal trauma that these orphans report illustrates that no matter how invisible they kept their pain on the outside, they suffered from intense internal psychological pain. Many report fantasies that their fathers were not really dead and would one day appear. This might be an effect of never seeing the body or attending a funeral. Being buried overseas was an emotional conflict for these individuals. Several of them express that when children don’t know where their father is, they feel as if he could be walking around anywhere. Vince thought that his father probably just had gotten a case of amnesia and would one day remember his family and return. Vince would watch war movies, crying and looking for his father in the background (4). Joyce claims that she believes her father’s spirit visits her. She also dreams about him. Dreams are a common occurrence. Jim claims that he would talk to his absent father while he was outside playing. He hid this from everyone (158).
Many report feeling disadvantaged and traumatized by their father’s death; often they say they didn’t feel whole. Clint wonders, “There was something there that needs to be looked into that was universal. How was it that we didn’t count?” (87). Anne reports feeling extremely self-consciousness, insecure, and worthless (93). Clatie and John both feel forgotten, “…he died for his country, but [no one wants] to be reminded that this happened. We [orphans] were left and nobody knows how many…In the United States we don’t accept responsibility…” (103).
Several expressed conflicted feelings of not living up to their father’s image. Men and women often expressed that they felt ashamed at not being as strong as their fathers. Anne had been told that her father was a hero, so she felt she needed to be a hero too. “My part was to be good and be brave” (93). Clatie and John state “Our father was a ghost figure…[and we knew] this is what he wants us to do…honor, duty and country.” (103). Bill relates that his mother held up his father as a paragon who couldn’t be matched. For Bill, the strong military tradition in his family was reflective of the nation as a whole… “At that time, [we] were a different country. There was a very strong, very enduring military tradition that went with it. We believed firmly in the government…in the military…and we continued to support it and did what we were told to do” (26). However, his father’s name was seldom mentioned at home, so he never really knew how exactly he fell short. “I never had any sense that he existed…there was no connection to his life…I don’t know anything at all about him, nothing, nothing at all” (25). Yet he was expected to be like him.
Many continued to struggle as they grew up. Susan relates an experience that I also share with several other orphans I have met – we did not know what name to call our fathers. Susan writes that the name "Daddy" is too familiar, since she did not really know him. Other orphans repeat similar conflicts. Ellen relates that she felt embarrassed and uncomfortable about what to call her father so she settled on “my father” (77). I remember realizing one day that I was twenty years old and was still calling my father “Daddy,” as if I were stuck in my childhood relationship to him. Others my age had long since referred to their fathers as Dad, so I consciously made a choice to change to Dad. Somehow it felt like a betrayal, like I was changing my relationship to him without his permission.
One striking element of these individuals’ experiences is a lasting aftermath into adulthood. Perhaps the fact that these people were willing to write about their experiences makes them an unrepresentative sample. A common reaction is that no one could understand unless they had gone through it, and most WWII orphans never met anyone else who had lost a father to war until they were in their fifties attending an AWON meeting. Vince writes that “There has not been a day that has gone by that I have not thought of my father and missed him…It never went away” (3). Vince tried hard to live a perfect life. He married, had four children, and attended university on a scholarship, but instead of finding success has battled depression, alcoholism, and divorce. Anne claims that her own marriage suffered from her feelings of being “outside of the marriage” and that her fear of abandonment (another common reaction) caused her to feel that she should go it alone. “I have worked all my life and been fairly successful…that comes from believing you can’t rely on anybody because they will go away” (14). Anne relates that her father’s death is something she can never forget. “I can be trucking along through my life and something can happen and I feel like I’m sideswiped by tears” (18). Bill dropped out of West Point, completed a PhD in history at a different university, and then drifted from job to job. He has weathered two divorces and alcoholism. He claims the trauma will extend beyond his generation, since his troubled relationships impact his own son (28). Connie was in her thirties when she saw a neighbor buying a birthday card for his 40-year-old daughter. She went home and cried, feeling anguish for the first time that her father had never sent her a birthday card (56).
Some had relatives who did speak about the deceased. Ellen’s grandparents and aunts and uncles “talked about him and he was real. So I always felt like he was there" (75). The trauma was made easier when the mother spoke of him often and kept photos, letters, and medals readily available to the kids. Sometimes the widow’s remarriage ended up happy. Sometimes the stepfather provided a good life and understood the child’s need to hear about the father. In most other situations, however, the remarriage caused resentment. It is obvious that those families who spoke often and lovingly about the deceased provided solace for the child. Often it was the grandparents or extended family who did this.
The mechanisms that damaged the lives of these individuals were similar to those that impacted the lives of those orphans from the Vietnam War. In both cases, war created painful emotional wounds and forever altered children’s lives. The two memoirs that follow were both written by women who remember the pain of losing a father to the Vietnam War.


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