"The beginning of Michelle Cahill's Journey"; She found WWII letters; met her uncles...........
By MICHELLE CAHILL / FOR THE REGISTER
I admit Memorial Day used to be mostly just a cool day off work.
I'd give a few thoughts to service people who've honored our country. I'd also think about my two uncles, young Cahills who died in World War II, and regret that I knew them only as pictures on the wall.
Tommy and Jack, both flyers, died in Europe a few weeks apart near the end of the war.
Over the years, I didn't learn much more about Tommy and Jack. But I do remember my mother saying how good-looking they were. Engaged to my dad, Bob, then married into the family, my mom knew Tommy and Jack for several years. She loved them both and said they were characters, jokesters; always teasing.
The end. Or so I thought. And then, recently in fact, I met Tommy and Jack.
Two sons, just boys really, such a loss for a family. But after the war the remaining five children stayed close to their mother, Mary, who had been widowed years prior. She would later become my grandmother, a.k.a. Nana.
Over the decades, my parents, along with my dad's three remaining brothers and their wives, multiplied. The result was my brother, myself and 11 cousins. Holidays, parties, music and humor kept our family close over the years.
In January of this year, while looking for pictures to create a family tree for a reunion, three cousins and I found some letters, old ones from the five young Cahill men who served on active duty during World War II. Letters home to their dear mom.
Busy with reunion planning, we set the letters aside. But questions percolated in my mind.
The letters were 70 years old; why didn't we know about them? Where had they been all this time?
And how did they survive the fire?
After the next reunion meeting, I took the mishmash of fragile paper to my home.
I separated the letters into piles written by each of the five brothers. I looked through the letters written by the uncles I had known, Frank, Jerry and Mark, and gave them to their children, my cousins.
I kept Tommy's and Jack's letters for myself, relishing the idea of hearing their voices.
I started with Tommy's letters, over 300 pages. He was more prolific than Jack, in part because he was away from home longer. But as I read them, it became evident that Tommy also was a natural writer, a wordsmith; observant, lyrical and funny.
I could tell he wrote them as much for his own amusement as he did to reassure his worried mother.
I was glued, time-traveling as the letters felt like a good novel and allowed me to become immersed in their stories. And as I read, I felt like I was with the boys — studying aviation theory, memorizing military code, learning to fly and land; dropping practice bombs over Albuquerque.
In Tommy's later letters, as he flew more than 60 bombing missions from an airfield in France, the tension became real.
Still, even in the midst of war, Tommy always seemed uplifted, seeing beauty in nature and his surroundings. In one Dear Mom letter, after a morning flight, he added this P.S.:
"Today we flew through a rainbow. Up in the air they appear as circles."
Jack was excited to learn code and interested in languages. Reflecting that, perhaps, he addressed some letters to "Dear Mamasita." And in some of Nana's letters responding to Jack, she signed off in kind, "Love, Mamasita."
Money was tight for the family, and Nana managed a common account that was funded, in part, by the boys. They'd send some money home to her and, in some letters, ask for a few dollars back until payday.
But the letters also revealed a recurring plea: "Mom, please use part of this money to buy something for yourself." She rarely did.
But Nana was an artist, as was Tommy. And when he wrote with a specific request – "Please use this money to buy some pastels. I want to picture you painting a landscape" — she did. I still have the painting.
Their sister Patricia was a concert level pianist, and sometimes the brothers would request that the money they sent home go toward her music. "Use this to help pay for Patricia's piano."
They eventually bought her a Steinway baby grand, a treasure that would be the heartbeat of our family for decades.
The letters also show Nana sending cookies and brownies in five directions, while juggling specialty items like stationery, stamps and pens. Artist Tommy asked for a drawing book.
There were other requests as well. At one point, Tommy wanted a trap to evict a mouse that kept breaking into his stash of candy bars. He clearly was exasperated. "This mouse has the brains of Mickey and the strength of Superman."
Tommy's squadron had a dog, a cute little guy named Jocko, which was rightly included in their formal crew photo. When Jocko's owner went on extended leave, Tommy cared for him, even taking Jocko on a bombing mission:
"Why not? I heard Jocko already had eight or nine missions."
I was impressed but not surprised to see the boys' devotion to each other. They asked Nana about their siblings and said they missed their company. Jack, a radioman, told Nana that he wished Tommy could be the navigator on his crew.
Though it was wartime, our letters reveal a charming slice of life, of my family, the '40s and the war. I didn't realize anything was missing until I read them, but now that I have my life feels more complete, even though the people and events I read about happened before I was born.
And before the fire...
In the mid-1960s, the home that Nana and Patricia shared in Corona del Mar was ravaged by fire.
Thankfully, they were uninjured. But my aunt's cherished piano, the gift from her brothers, was destroyed. My generation will never know how the letters survived; where they were that they escaped the flames. Though it took decades for the letters to resurface, the voices of my uncles have finally been heard.
I'm happy to say I know my uncles who died in the war. Tommy and Jack.
Michelle Cahill recently retired from Disneyland Resort, and lives in South Orange County. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Placed by 57th BW Historical Researcher, Barbi Ennis Connolly PRINCESSBARBI_B25@msn.com