Mom and Dad – 1940 Courtship

Here’s one of my favorite photographs — a picture of my Mom and Dad (Suzette Schwiers and Bill Whittemore) in 1940 before they married that December.  For me it’s an eerie sight because I am watching a moment that will lead, with other moments, to my birth on 3 November 1941, a month before Pearl Harbor.  They were courting each other, yes?  Elsewhere on this blog you’ll see a PARADE story about life with my mom on the home front while Dad was off to war.  Here they are, on the brink:

They're in the backyard patio of my paternal grandparents' house on Virginia Place in Larchmont, New York.

My dad had grown up in the Manor section of Larchmont in a house with two other families, each with a child.  One of the kids was Dad’s first cousin Claire Wemlinger, who would go on to become the great film actress and movie star Claire Trevor, known above all for her work in Stagecoach and Key Largo.

With John Wayne in "Stagecoach" (1939)

Claire died at age ninety in 2000.  She was a sweetheart of a gal, full of warmth and spunk as well as talent.  Her birthday was March 8th and I plan to post up a blog with a little personal stuff about her on that date coming up.

And here’s another photo…

Published in: on February 28, 2011 at 17:10  Comments (3)  
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The Heroes Among Us – And the Meaning of Courage – On the Anniversary of Pearl Harbor

The upcoming anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 reminded me of an essay I wrote for PARADE in final month of 1979, as the decade of the Seventies was ending and we were still trying to recover from Vietnam. The essay was based on my attendance at a gathering of recipients of the Medal of Honor and it revolved around the meaning of courage.  I think its message holds just as true today, as we look back on a shocking, tragic event of American history that occurred sixty-eight years ago, when our country was suddenly catapulted into World War Two:

An Essay by Hank Whittemore – PARADE – January 1980

Have Americans lost their courage? That question is often heard these days, along with the cynical observation that we’ve grown too soft to produce heroes.

Last November, I decided to attend the Congressional Medal of Honor Society’s biennial reunion in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Perhaps a good place to learn about courage would be among those who had demonstrated it in battle.

First I consulted the government’s list of the 3306 recipients of the Medal since it was first awarded during the Civil War. Under each name a citation tells what the man did to deserve his honor. You can open any page and find a story to match your worst nightmare. It is impossible to read these accounts of courage and not be overwhelmed.

Many of the Medals had been given posthumously. One soldier had “saved the lives of his men at the sacrifice of his life by throwing himself directly on the mine as it exploded.” That’s a typical description, not the exception. For those who remained alive, personal survival was an afterthought, an accident of fate.

“The Medal of Honor is the highest military award for bravery that can be given to any individual in the United States,” I read. “The deed of the person must be proved by incontestable evidence of at least two eyewitnesses; it must be so outstanding that it clearly distinguishes his gallantry from lesser forms of bravery; it must involve the risk of his life, and it must be the type of deed which, if he had not done it, would not subject him to any justified criticism.”

There are 275 Medal-holders still living among us: 10 from World War I, 144 from World War 11,38 from Korea and 83 from Vietnam. Of these, about 160 would be on hand at the Tulsa reunion.

At the meeting place in a downtown hotel, the “national media” were conspicuously absent.  There were no hordes of reporters, no TV crews shoving their way into the reception hall.  The local press was there, but most of the country would never learn that the event was taking place. Those who had exhibited the highest form of military courage while serving America were reaching out to each other in virtual anonymity.

Attack on Pearl Harbor - Dec 7, 1941

Many of the men had brought their wives. They were dressed informally, with sports jackets and ties, and each man wore his Medal draped from its ribbon around his neck. They had name tags on their lapels. At first glance, you might have mistaken the group for a collection of ordinary businessmen. They greeted each other with handshakes, smiles, occasional embraces.

And soon you could feel that there was much more in the room, a more powerful emotion beneath the surface. Wandering around as a stranger, I saw two men who had each lost an arm.  I saw a man who had lost one of his legs. Others were limping.  Several had scars from burns.  Nearly all, I learned, were carrying wounds of one kind or another.

At some point it struck me. The world may forget these men and what they have done, but as long as any are still alive, they will not forget each other – because they know what courage is; because each man knows that the others understand what he went through; because of a common bond, transcending generations and races and all other differences; because they share a secret that is almost impossible for them to express to anyone else.

If I could learn that secret, I thought, maybe then I would have answers for those who worry about our courage. And so I joined the Medal-holders as they took bus tours, attended banquets, listened to speeches. I spoke to dozens of them, in small groups and individually – trying to learn the secret.

Each man openly admitted that he had been afraid. His courage had required an awareness of danger, not blindness to what was at stake. His act was not rash, but deliberate.  What counted was how he had controlled or handled his fear. He had “respected the situation” and then risen to it.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall - Washington, D.C.

But along with fear, I noticed, there had been anger. A man had gotten mad as hell at the course of events and said, in effect, “I won’t submit to that! I won’t let it happen!  Maybe this is the way things are supposed to be, but I’m going to change it!” And so, rather than give in to torture, he had slit his wrists. Or jumped on top of a deadly grenade.  Or stood up and fired at the enemy in the face of almost certain death.  And by his action, he had made all the difference.

Underneath the fear and the anger, however, there had been a dedication to others.  This sort of courage – perhaps courage itself – is not selfish.  It regards comrades’ lives as more valuable than one’s own. It means being willing to crawl back into a flaming helicopter to save the pilot, diving down to a submarine to rescue those who are trapped; instead of fleeing for safety, racing out to treat the wounded and helpless and dragging them away from the bullets.

Courage, I found, is not the result of a contest. You don’t “win” the Medal of Honor.  You have a certain amount of training and experience, but then comes an event that calls for spontaneous action. You either respond in a certain way or you don’t.  You cannot predict, ever, what you will do.  Not a single Medal- holder was aware, beforehand, that he really had the “guts” to be a hero.

And that is part of the secret:  These men, holders of the highest award for courage we’ve got, are just like the rest of us. Among them at the reunion were a college professor, a furrier, a police chief, a real estate salesman. They had come from steel mills, farms, assembly lines and executive suites.

The important fact was not their differences from us, but their sameness. As a group, they represent the diversity, and the ordinariness, of the whole nation.  They reflect the actual and potential courage that exists throughout American life.  They are a national treasure, symbolizing our capacity for valor. By taking a good look at them, it is possible to see ourselves.

For each of the Medal-holders there had been no script to follow. Before they acted, they had been just as “normal” as you or I. If a situation calling for courage arises, will we respond as heroes or will we shrink away to save ourselves?

There is no certain answer.  Which, I believe, is also part of the secret.  Heroism is an individual matter that cannot be “seen” in the absence of a test.  You cannot find it by looking at your neighbors or in a mirror. It is something that happens at the moment. Until then, no one has the right to judge who among us does or does not have courage.

These lessons, I believe, apply to courage in all its forms, not just military. For everyone, crises arise throughout life that test courage – in our jobs, in the family, in relationships with friends and with strangers.

What saddened me at the Medal of Honor reunion was the feeling on the part of the recipients that their courage has so little meaning for the rest of us. “The Medal has a different significance these days,” a Vietnam veteran said. “If I had received it during World War II, I’d be treated differently. I came home as a soldier in scorn, so to speak.  Today, most kids don’t even know that the Medal exists, much less what it means.”

Isn’t it time we distinguished between the traumatic Vietnam experience and those who fought in that controversial conflict?  Isn’t it time we re-learned the Medal’s meaning, for ourselves and future generations?  Surely another war isn’t necessary in order to know that we haven’t lost our courage.

The men who gathered in Tulsa have put away their Medals until the next reunion. They go about their lives with that secret they share. They know what courage is – and so should we.

World War II – Waiting for My Father to Come Home

The story as it appeared in PARADE in January 1985, with a photo of me with my parents in 1942 and another one, taken by the great photographer Eddie Adams, in 1984

When we observed Veterans Day earlier this week, it occurred to me to find one of my all-time favorite articles that I wrote for PARADE magazine.  This one was published on January 20, 1985, at the start of the 40th anniversary year of the end of that horrible war.  It represents a personal memory behind just one of the millions of local announcements that appeared during the war in local newspapers across the country:

FROM THE DAILY TIMES, MAMARONECK, NY: ENGLAND, July 14, 1944 – Staff Sgt. William c. Whittemore Jr. of the Alden House, Larchmont, has recently arrived in England to serve in the Signal Corps.  Son of Mr. and Mrs. William C. Whittemore of 3 Virginia Place, Larchmont, Staff Sgt. Whittemore entered the service in July of 1943 and trained in Camp Crowder, Mo; State Teachers College, Tex.; and at Camp Edison, Sea Girt, NJ.  Staff Sgt. Whittemore and his wife, the former Suzette Schwiers of New York City, have one son, two-and-a-half years old.

WOULD MY FATHER COME MARCHING HOME AGAIN?
After 40 Years, one small story from our biggest war

I don’t think I can recall one thing about my father before he left us to go to war. I was not yet two years old when he disappeared from our lives, vanishing across the Atlantic Ocean’s turmoil of dark water and gray sky on his way to various European battlefields. I can recall, perhaps, the feeling of his presence in my life, but I don’t know that for sure.

What I do remember – vividly – are images formed as a result of looking at photographs and from being told the same stories over and over. Some of them refer to events that happened well before my birth in November 1941, back during the days when my father was growing up to become the handsome, dashing young man who would sweep my mother off her feet and marry her within six months of their first romantic meeting.

Yes, my images of him in those days are illuminated by the sort of glitter and glow reserved for Hollywood stars, and those old photographs only reinforce my conviction that he was a more-than- average fellow. He appears in them as tall and slim, often wearing white slacks and shoes, smiling with confidence and gazing at the camera as if he knew, right then, that he was creating an indelible effect.

The most striking physical fact about him was his bright red hair – wavy, thick, passionate hair that seemed to be perpetually on fire. On a couple of the black and white photographs, his hair was touched up with red-orange paint, and his eyes were given a watercolor blue.  But these were Ineffectual attempts to capture the true flavor of his arresting appearance – or so I was told, at age three, when I would stare at the photos of my absent father and pretend that he was gazing back into my soul.

CLOSEUP OF PIC WWII ARTICLE

He had lived as a little boy on West 150th Street in New York City; later, he moved with his parents out to the suburbs, to the Village of Larchmont in Westchester County, twenty miles north of Manhattan. He met my mother in the summer of 1940, when he was twenty-three and she was twenty-two. She had come up from New York to Larchmont with her parents, who had rented a home for the summer to escape the heat of the city. The house was diagonally across the tree-lined street from where my father lived.

To my mother, the colorful, flowers and green trees of Larchmont were as beautiful and thrilling as the hills and valleys of the countryside. I can only try to imagine the warm summer evenings and sunny weekend days of the courtship that led my mother and father to marry before the year was over.  I think they knew, even on their wedding day in December of 1940, that events beyond their control might soon reach out and pull my father away.

They were married in the city, at the Biltmore Hotel.  They took an apartment in Larchmont (in the Alden House), a short walk from where my father had lived and where his parents remained. I was born eleven months later in New Rochelle Hospital. Just five weeks afterward, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

ALDEN1

The Alden House in Larchmont, on the Post Road, where we lived during World War II

As I say, I have no recollection of my father from the time I was born until he left us. I am told that it took at least eighteen months before he was drafted into the Army.  My mother and I were to stay in the Larchmont apartment while he was overseas, but first he would have to go into training. When he got to Camp Edison in Sea Girt, New Jersey, my mother and I traveled down there by train and took a room in a boardinghouse near the beach and a few blocks from the camp.

The story I like best from that time is about how my father would sneak out of the barracks area at night and make his way to the boardinghouse to be with my mother (and me) for a few stolen hours before racing back, climbing over the fence and slipping into his tent again in time for sunrise and reveille, hen he’d get up and continue, on virtually no sleep, training for war.

I have one other image from that time on the Jersey shore, just before my father was to be shipped overseas. I see myself in a little red wagon. My mother is pulling me on the boardwalk beside the sand and the ocean. I hear the waves slashing and pounding with an angry, threatening force. I feel the wind hurling itself against my mother as she pulls me, afraid but determined.  Her long, dark hair is blowing wildly from the violence in the air, which continues to build as if it were blowing all the way from Europe. Her face is very pale, and she seems so very alone with her willpower and her faith and her fear.

Coming upon the sight of a large crowd on the beach, we can see from the boardwalk that the object of curiosity is the enormous corpse of a whale. The sight of its ugly gray body terrifies my mother, who quickly turns the wagon around and starts pulling me away from the scene. She pulls with sudden, inexplicable strength, as if to save us both from some mysterious danger.  If such a powerful mammal has lost its fight against unchecked brutality, where is safety for a young woman alone with a child in a world whose madness no one, much less she, can fathom?  I see her pulling me faster and faster and calling the name of her young husband, whose vanishing figure she chases in bewilderment along an endless pier beside an endless, churning sea.

Even though I may not remember these things, I feel them.  And I feel my helplessness in being too weak, too insignificant, to protect her.

Back in Larchmont, we lived in the apartment together. It was during this time that my true memories did, in fact, begin to form. In the earliest one, we are on the high rooftop of our building, which itself is on a hill. I am standing on the tar paper, gazing through an opening in the wall.

“Be careful,” she says.

“Don’t worry, Mom.” I reply. Those are the three words I remember speaking most often, taking it upon myself to calm her down, to give her peace. I was acting brave. And, in the same breath, I was also absorbing her fears, her loneliness and her pain, making them my own and trying to reassure myself.

I could feel her waiting.  Always waiting.

One day we entered our building as usual, my mother picked up the mail and we went up in the elevator. When we were in the apartment, she told me to go and wait for her in the bedroom.  I was on my parents’ bed when she walked in, her eyes red and tears spilling down her face.  A letter was clutched in her hand, at her side. In the letter was a small, brownish close-up photograph of a man’s face – like a passport photo.  My mother knelt down, holding it in front of her, and I listened to her sobbing for a long time.

“He’s a prisoner.” she finally whispered. “They won’t let him tell the truth, but he’s trying to send me a message with this picture. He’s a prisoner of war, and he’s never coming home!”

She knelt and tried to pray, and the double bed beneath me became a floating raft set loose from its moorings, carrying me away. I lay face-down on the sheet with my arms spread wide, my fingers clutching but unable to hold on, as she continued to weep, and I felt the inexorable pull of the tide and the roll of the waves, beyond my control.

After that, I could feel my mother’s tension whenever she checked the mail or if someone called. At last, another letter from overseas.  He seemed okay, but the war continued. What would happen to him, and to us, was unknown.     Over the days, weeks and months, we waited.  We shared an unspoken agreement that our most fundamental activity was passing time, dangling, holding on, as if the beginning of our lives had been postponed.

In my grandparents’ house on Virginia Place in the winter of 1945, there is a large gathering of adults. I am playing off to one side, on the rug near the piano, with a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces show the jagged features of men in battle. The house is stuffy and warm from the radiator, the tobacco smoke, the body heat. From my vantage point on the floor, there is an ebb and flow of milling pants, dresses, legs and shoes accompanied by a loud, continuous babble.

I am concentrating on the puzzle when I feel a blast of invigorating air sweep through the forest of legs.  I hear a clamor of cheering. The congregation moves toward the open front door. There are shrieks of laughter and delight.  I remain on the rug, staring at the chaos.  The throng backs up into the living room and, after more commotion, the congestion breaks apart to reveal, in the glow of an amber light, a handsome man wearing an overcoat and a cap with a visor.  He is standing there with a confident smile, greeting people with hugs.  He takes off his overcoat. He is dressed in a uniform of the U.S. Army.  He removes his cap. In the warm, brown- yellow circle of light, his hair is fiery red.

As he puts his arm around my mother’s waist and gives her a kiss, I look away and shut my eyes; in this self-imposed darkness, it seems that my breath has been taken away. I hear his voice distinctly. He is calling my name.  “Where is he?’ I hear him say, and the conversation ceases abruptly, as if all the sound in the world has been shut off.  In the hush, my eyes are still closed; yet I can feel him staring at me from across the room. I wait – in fear, in resentment, in hope, in a darkness stretching away to the ends of a silent universe.

When I open my eyes, he is taking the last strides in my direction.  He bends down in a squat and gazes directly at me. The red hair is a ring of fire around his face, and I stare into his blazing blue eyes, which are familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. I feel his harsh breath and the scraping of his beard stubble on my cheek as he kisses me with strange, scary roughness.

So here is my first real memory of him, with his strong hands gripping either side of my chest under my arms, slowly lifting me off the ground as the scattered pieces of the war puzzle recede far below on the rug; and I soar, weightless, higher and higher, into the amber sky, gliding without effort above his head, looking down at all the faces and at the face of my mother, who is smiling up at me with glistening eyes, with the expression of a little girl being transformed suddenly into my father’s wife, and some terrible burden of the spirit, some unbearably oppressive weight, softly slides away.