BY JUNE TUTHILL BASSEMIR
In 1944 my brother Bruce W. Tuthill gave “the supreme sacrifice,” his life for his country in World War II, some 67 years ago. It was supposed to be the last war. We lived for about a month with the Missing in Action notice until the final dreaded telegram, Killed in Action, came. As hard a blow as it was for us to bear, Mr. Miller, the taxi man who delivered it, had a hard time, too. He tried for as long as he could to delay the news of the telegram, for, you see, he was the husband of Bruce’s first-grade teacher. It was a dark day in November when we received the news. Its devastation is no less potent today than it was then, but there are fewer and fewer folks still living to remember him. Gone are his mother, father, his oldest brother, both grandmothers, the only grandfather he knew, uncles and aunts. Gone are his two closest buddies, his first girlfriend and his admiring cousin in Florida who thought so much of him that she named one of her sons after him.
He was born April 18, 1924, and died 20 years, four months and eight days later. He was very proud of his birthday and never failed to let people know that it was the date of the ride of Paul Revere. My brother graduated from high school in 1942 and, after working at Grumman Aircraft for a short time, enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1943. His basic training was at Camp Upton, N.Y. and from there he went on to Miami Fla., Tulsa, Okla., Las Vegas and Sheffield, Tex. In Tulsa he met “Billy” Emmons, a nice girl whom I am sure he was planning to see when he came home.
Finally, he was ready to be shipped out and the Army gave him a “ten day delay en route” to visit family in the spring of ’44. The pictures of that time are curled and yellowed now, but oh, how the memory lingers. All four siblings lined up in profile for that picture – first the tallest and oldest brother, then the second oldest brother, then Bruce, then me, his only sister. That day he showed off his bulky, brown shiny flight suit and his khaki uniform with the Staff Sgt. insignia on the sleeve. At one point he noticed I was wearing the gold-plated locket he sent me. Someone snapped a picture of us just as he said, “Oh, you’re wearing my locket – and my picture is inside.” I still have that picture with the locket attached to the outside of the frame. I look at it and see two young people unaware of the photographer, absorbed in the joy of the moment.
He loved his family and his home town and wrote frequently from the day he enlisted to the days while stationed in Italy. We didn’t know then where he was, but afterward we learned that he was part of the bombing raids that targeted the Ploesti Oil Fields in Romania. I became the recipient of all his letters and tried to put them in a book. But reading them — with his hope of what he wanted to do when he came home, expressed in all the letters — caused my heart strings to stretch and the tears to flow. I put them aside thinking that time would ease the sorrow.
My life went on; I married; children were born; houses were built; moves were made – and still the letters came along with me. Two years ago, my oldest son. in his 50s, became interested in his Uncle Bruce when he learned that a restored B-24 plane was going to be on display in Austin, Texas. They were offering rides to anyone with the money to pay for it. Richard went, using his tax refund. I dug out the letters to read and to supply the information my son wanted. What was his position in the plane; did the plane have a name; what was the number of the bomb squadron; how many missions did he fly? I found that even though tears flowed again, the more I read of Bruce’s familiar handwriting, the closer I felt. My brother lived in a tent and frequently would write his letters as “the candle is getting low” or “I’m writing this by flashlight.” How he longed to “eat Grandpa’s roast corn down at the bay,” and “What was dad growing in the garden this year?” He had adopted a dog, a mutt really, and the guys called the dog Elmer. Elmer slept with Bruce on his cot. At one point he and his crew went to the Isle of Capri and he thought it was “the most beautiful place [he] had ever seen.”
When servicemen wrote home they only had to write “Free” where the stamp would be. V-mail was another method of receiving mail. One sheet of writing was photographed and sent in a small envelope. While it was good to receive those letters, it was less intimate than a regular handwritten one. Quite often the letters were censored if something was said that would imperil the safety of the soldiers or give information to the enemy. He said, “After fifty missions, we get to fly to Miami Beach for a 21 day rest.” I don’t know if that was a rumor or if it was really true. Fifty was the magic number. He was on his 35th mission when his plane was hit. All but two of the crew were able to parachute to safety, but Bruce was not one of them. He occupied the top turret gunner position on the B-24, having proven himself to be a good marksman. One of the crew, who lived in Brooklyn, came to visit us after he was sent home. He told us more than we wanted to know of that last flight. He said my brother’s chute failed to open.
I have come to the end of this writing. My eyes are swollen again but this time it has been comforting to share my brother’s thoughts and activities with my interested son as sort of a visit with my brother, “Bru,” my son’s uncle. Maybe some day wars will cease but I doubt it. There always seems to be another generation in the wings that has not learned that hatred, revenge, envy, greed, dictatorships and fighting only lead to bloodshed and heartache for those left behind. Of course, they say that WWII was “an honorable war” but really in the end “honorable” or not, if you have lost a loved one in any war, they are never forgotten.
And the void is never filled.
Ms. Bassemir is a Jamesport resident.