I grew up hearing war stories, about the home front and about those who served. The stories ran a full range: My outdoors-loving father hated his time at Fort Hood during the Korean Conflict because, in true nonsensical fashion, he was assigned to work in the mess hall. My Uncle Joe, who had great talent in the kitchen, had a wonderful time all during World War II as an officers’ cook, and never left California. My Uncle William, who served and saw combat in the Pacific Theater, did not have a wonderful time.
I also heard stories about my great-uncle, Edward, who as a farmer could have taken an exemption and stayed home from World War II. Someone had to remain home to feed the country, and that branch of my family tree had raised sugar cane and cows on the same acres of Louisiana bayou farmland for a century. A farmer’s exemption would have easily been approved by the draft board.
Edward was the youngest of three sons, all farmers. He wasn’t married. He’d never left the bayou. He wanted to see the world. So in October of 1942, at the age of 21, he enlisted in the Army. He became a cook. He might have been far away from home, but he was still feeding people.
When I was young, I was enamored with this mysterious uncle who died far away and tragically. My great-grandfather Luke lived next door to us. A photo of Uncle Edward in his Army uniform hung in their hallway, but no one spoke much about him. Despite a strong oral history tradition in our family, growing up, I heard only four things about Uncle Edward:
- He was very shy.
- He wanted to see the world.
- He was wounded in the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
- He was buried at sea.
A while ago, after my father crossed over into his 80s, I decided to “interview” him about his family. I worried that his memories would be lost if no one recorded them. We set up a long phone call. I prepared questions in advance and took quick notes as he answered. Later, I sent the transcribed notes to him, and he marked all the things I got “wrong” and corrected them.
My father was generally a quiet man, but during the interview, Daddy talked and talked. He loved speaking of Grandpa Luke, his own grandfather. Grandpa Luke was a savvy businessman, and he and his brother took on several ventures—a coffin building enterprise, a general store, a bakery with the first indoor oven on the bayou. Daddy spoke a little about my Great-Grandmother Elva, whom I remember from a single visit when I was very young. She was elderly and bedridden, but I recall her long black braid and pretty white bed jacket.
The conversation was in turns poignant and humorous. Daddy laughingly described Grandpa Luke’s war with Social Security Administration after they contacted him, repeatedly, about monthly payments. This was met with great suspicion. Why was the government suddenly trying to send him money? That did not sound right. Luke didn’t need the government’s money, so he sent the checks back. For years. Finally, he gave up and deposited one.
Daddy’s tone grew solemn when we discussed harder topics. I learned my family survived the Great Depression by truck farming, but there was little to learn about the slaves our family had once owned because Daddy’s mother—my grandmother—didn’t like to talk about that. Those details are lost forever, something I will always regret. We should ask the hard questions about our own families. History is not always easy, or flattering.
Daddy also told me what he knew about Uncle Edward, which wasn’t much. He died aboard a ship and his body was dropped into in the Pacific. Someone in the family—probably Aunt Maude, the only living sibling—had his service medals.
Long ago, I wrote a story called “Buried at Sea” which was inspired by the concept of sea burial more than about my uncle’s experiences. Despite the connection, my story was fiction. After my interview, I became interested in the facts.
Do you know how to find the military records of a family member? Do you know how to track information about a soldier buried at sea? I thought this would be difficult. I was wrong. A few minutes using Google, and I had my uncle’s service records. I learned that he was gravely wounded during the Battle of Leyte Gulf and died later, that he earned a Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. I learned that the names of soldiers missing or lost, or buried at sea, were engraved on Tablets of the Missing in the Manila American Cemetery in the Philippines.
No one in my family was aware that Uncle Edward had been memorialized near where he had died. I discovered this through the American Battle Monuments Commission website. Without much forethought, I filled out the contact form with a request for confirmation. I offered to pay whatever fee would be required. The next morning—less than 12 hours later—I received a reply confirming that Edward Guidroz was indeed remembered on the Tablets of the Missing. The response also attached two photos of his name on the memorial wall. There was no fee, and my heartfelt thanks were met with the gracious response that the mission of this small government agency was to treat soldiers’ remains and memories with care and dignity.
I made copies of the engravement. On my next visit to Louisiana, I made arrangements to visit Uncle Edward’s sister, who was in her 90s. We spent a lovely morning reminiscing. I told her about my inquiries to the cemetery in Manila, and assured her that, if the response to my email was any indication, her brother’s name was engraved in a place that was efficient and respectful.
I’d done all I could do. There was no more I could learn about Uncle Edward.
Earlier this year, my father passed away. In the hallway of our house was the photo of Uncle Edward, passed down from Grandpa Luke to my father. I told my mother, “Someday, I want that picture.”
She knew about my search for info about her husband’s uncle. Mom’s response was, “Forget someday. Take it today.”
I packed up the framed photo with enough bubble wrap to protect a newborn baby and mailed it to myself.
Uncle Edward’s photo now hangs in my living room, in Delaware, a place I am certain he never visited. He went off to war because he wanted to see the world. He was never married and had no children, and I wish his story had a happier ending. He enlisted in October of 1942 and died in October of 1944. He spent two years seeing the world, mostly from a battleship.
One of my favorite war poems is Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier,” with the famous line that somewhere in a foreign field, where his body lies, is “forever England.”
My great-uncle Edward Guidroz’s body was buried in the Pacific Ocean. His name is on a wall in the Philippines. His photograph is in Delaware. Someday, I’d like to go to the foreign field in the Philippines and see the Tablets of the Missing, and run my fingers along the name of the great-uncle I never knew. Until that can happen, Uncle Edward’s photo will hang in my home, with my family. It is all I can do.