7 December 1944. A Telegram Arrives Informing the Family of the Death in France Of their Son, Husband, and Father.
It must have been early evening on that December day in 1944. I was then five years old. Mom was getting me and my younger brother ready for bed and dad was also in the living room, likely listening to the evening news on the radio.
There was a knock on our front door. I remember that when dad opened the door, a cold wind filled the room. It was a Garwin telephone operator, a young girl finishing an evening shift at the telephone office. She had in her hand a telegram announcing my cousin Hollis’s death on 27 November 1944. She had come to dad because she couldn’t bear to hand-deliver such terrible news to Hollis’s family.
I can vividly remember my mother bursting into tears; “What will Etta [Hollis’s mother] do?” Mom must have rushed us up to bed and then awaited dad’s return. How dad must have grieved his sad errand, knowing how it would devastate his brother and sister-in-law – Ralph and Etta, Betty – Hollis’s widow, and his young family – Judy and Jim.
There is a family story that Hollis had come to dad in April 1944 when he was trying to make up his mind about whether to enlist or take his chances on being drafted. By 1944 the army was drafting fathers and men even older than 26.
I can imagine that my Uncle Ralph would have urged his son to ask my dad for advice. Dad had volunteered for the Great War in 1917, not quite 18 and so might have had a useful perspective on Hollis’s decision. He advised his nephew to wait. Hollis did not take his advice; he went off for his basic training that same month.
His decision was motivated by both a personal patriotism and a sense of adventure. Both sentiments had stirred my dad into enlisting in WWI. Getting “over there” seemed to be an exciting way to get out of his small Iowa town.
The U.S. had entered the war after Pearl Harbor in December 1941. American soldiers had fought in North Africa and Italy. The Normandy landings were still a few months off. We were now the ‘arsenal of democracy.’ And we still had a reserve of men capable of, perhaps even willing to serve.
Garwin, Iowa was a farming community; farm boys could still obtain exemptions if they were an only son because of their importance to food production, essential to the Allied cause. But Hollis couldn’t qualify for that exemption from the draft. Moreover there was a certain amount of disfavor associated with such exemptions.
Hollis’s army unit, the 315th infantry regiment (though not Hollis) had come ashore at Utah Beach. They fought but mostly trucked across northern France, reaching the Lunéville area, in Lorraine, in September 1944. Hollis was a replacement, a stranger to his unit but also a stranger to the skirmishing that involved deadly German machine gun fire. He was killed by that machine gun fire after less than a month at the front.
There is a story told about Hollis as he departed for France. He received a furlough after his brief basic training in Texas and returned to Garwin to say good-bye to his family. On that occasion he is said to have stated that he couldn’t fire a gun at anyone with the intention of killing him, not an uncommon sentiment amongst those leaving for battle. Like so many young Americans in the War, Hollis was not a ‘warrior.’ Would he have become one had he not been killed so immediately?
We lived only two blocks from both Ralph and Etta’s and the house that Ralph had rented for Hollis’s family while he was serving in the army. Dad first knocked on Ralph and Etta’s door; they weren’t there. He then noticed that Betty’s house across the street was all lighted up. He came upon the family, decorating their Christmas tree.