By Lawrence J. Phelan, Captain, Infantry
A grey watery dawn was breaking over the bleak buildings of the Brooklyn Army Base when I reported there for a new and unaccustomed duty. I was taking a soldier home—a soldier now incapable of finding his own way, incapable of speech, incapable of action. A soldier who had given his life for his country and was now on the last lap of his melancholy journey to occupy a scant six feet of soil in his native and beloved Maine. I was a military escort for one of America’s returning war dead.
I went to the briefing room to receive my envelope of papers and the musette bag containing an extra flag, black armband, and blank ammunition. A dozen or so enlisted men of various grades were there before me, all quiet, all serious, examining their papers to be sure they were in order. They were all veterans in this strange new service and had, in fact, volunteered for the duty. And though this group was composed of only army personnel, the escort detachment included volunteers from the air force, navy, coastguard and marine corps; each deceased serviceman was accompanied by a member of his own service, of equal or higher rank.
I noticed that the men, despite the fact that none had made fewer than five trips, were still grave and meticulous. I realized later that this was a job that couldn’t become routine, and that would lose none of its significance no matter how often repeated. It was, as the training film shown all escorts was entitled, “Your Proudest Duty”.
My envelope gave little information I hadn’t already known. First Lieutenant Ralph Hanson, Springvale, Maine. I looked at the map on the wall. Springvale was hard to find even in a state where a town of 5,000 people was considered a city. Lieutenant Hanson was a stranger to me. I didn’t know his age, where he had gone to school, what he had done in civilian life (if, indeed, he had worked before entering the army)—only that he was from a small New England town and was one of the many that had died. At 7:00 several army hearses were waiting to take us and our charges to the station. After one final check with the officer in charge I signed a receipt for the remains. Lieutenant Hanson was now my sole responsibility.
We drove to Grand Central in convoy, arriving at 8:00—two hours before the train time—but no one complained about “hurrying up or waiting”. There was still plenty to do and, if an hour would cover it, the extra hour for contingencies was not begrudged. This was a time when no train must be missed, when no excuse or alibi would cover a mistake.
After the remains had been removed from the vehicles and lined up in the baggage room under special guard (not for a moment in their long journey from battlefield to home were they unaccompanied or unguarded) we descended to the main station to exchange our Government Transportation Requests for our tickets. When the New Haven Railroad agent handed me the one round-trip ticket between New York and North Berwick, Maine, and one one-way ticket, I felt, for the first time, the full poignancy of my mission. Lieutenant Hanson was going home for good.
At the baggage room I presented the one-way ticket to the baggage master who gave me a check and a tag to be affixed to the head of the flag-draped outer case. I then went back into the baggage room where forty or more similarly draped caskets were lined up under guard. The soldiers were going from one to another, lifting up the end of the flag to see the stenciled inscription at the head of the case. It was not enough to check only the name—there could be two Ralph Hansons. I found the proper case and checked the name, rank, serial number, and destination. They all agreed. I brushed some flecks of lint from the flag.
When each man had found the soldier he was to escort, motorized trucks were brought and the cases were carefully lifted on to them. Slowly, they were lowered to track level and rolled forward along the platform toward the baggage car. I walked behind Lieutenant Hanson’s case and watched the railroad men as they lifted it aboard. They had done this before.
When the doors of the baggage car were closed I went to my chair. It was number one, the closest seat on the train to my companion. I settled myself and picked up the morning paper as the train pulled out. There wasn’t much new. The Hagenah had alerted its entire force against an expected Arab invasion; 73,000 Chrysler auto workers had walked out on strike; Pravda screamed imprecations at the United States and the U.S. press screamed back; Congress was still debating about selective service. And buried deep in the back pages of the paper was a small item stating that the United States Army Transport Barney Kirschbaum was arriving in New York the following day with 2,530 more war dead being returned to their homes at the requests of their next of kin. This brought the total returned to nearly 42,000. The task was less than one-sixth finished.
I looked up as the Connecticut landscape, fresh with spring and drenched with driving rain, rolled by. Drowsy, I wondered about my charge in the forward car. Lieutenant Hanson was already beginning to assume a personality for me and I tried to picture what he had been like. Sometimes his face would be that of one or another of my own friends—officers and other servicemen who had died in Africa or Sicily—who were also possibly approaching the last phase of their long voyage home (the Barney Kirschbaum was bearing bodies from Casablanca, Tunis, and Oran.) And sometimes I saw myself, mute and unseen in the flag-draped casket, while Lieutenant Hanson sat in seat number one and mused over my identity. It was only a thing called chance (some call it fate, some Providence) that this was not the case, and this thought almost more than any other gave me a strong sense of kinship with the lieutenant whose luck had gone the other way. ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I,’ I thought. No, this job could never become routine.
In Boston, we lined up outside the baggage car to supervise removal of the caskets. The escorts were careful and solicitous, watching to see that their charges were handled gently, that each casket, with the blue field over the left shoulder, always moved feet first. They adjusted the flags and pulled them taut. They carried themselves with dignity and reverence, visibly conscious of their responsibility. When all the caskets had been moved onto their individual trucks, the escorts stood on the left side and the solemn procession moved slowly down the platform of Boston’s South Station. As we turned toward the baggage room, hundreds of passengers leaving trains on various tracks paused and watche; men removed their hats in deference to the dead. (That was for you, Lieutenant Hanson, and your silent companions—a small tribute, but a sincere one. Perhaps those people knew what you had done for them.)
I went to North Station by truck, alone, except for the driver and Lieutenant Hanson, whose presence—the more eloquent by its silence—I felt throughout the trip. In fact, by the time we boarded the Boston train to Maine, I had mentally dropped his military title and was thinking of him as “Ralph.” In two hours’ time we would arrive in North Berwick, Maine, just a few minutes’ drive from his hometown of Springvale. I knew I would be met there by the funeral director, Mr. L. H. Carll, and possibly by Ralph’s family and friends. And I knew that would be, perhaps, the most difficult moment of the entire trip.
The train made several stops. At each station I went into the baggage car and stayed there until the train pulled out again. It would be virtually impossible for a baggage master to mistakenly put off the remains at the wrong station, but that 1,000–1 possibility was guarded against by the escort remaining in the car at all station stops, whose presence would also ensure respect on the part of employees who may be loading or unloading baggage.
At Dover, Maine, just a few miles from our final destination, I moved into the baggage car in order to be ready to supervise upon our arrival in North Berwick and, now, the full importance of my mission was clear to me. To the family and friends of Lieutenant Ralph Hanson I was the sole representative of the United States Army, the government, and the people of the nation for whom he had sacrificed his life. I placed the black band on my left arm. The train whistle sounded its nostalgic call for a crossing and then I felt the pull as the train slowed for the stop. I thought, ‘This is not just happening to me. Across the width and breadth of the country, in large cities, suburbs, small villages and towns, at tiny whistle stops on the vast spider web of rails that spans the mountains, valleys and prairies of our land, this is being re-enacted almost daily—the unbelievable price of our unpreparedness. Perhaps at this same moment a sergeant is straightening his tie as his train slows down at Waycross, Georgia, or a sailor stands at attention in a little station in Iowa while a mother who has never seen the sea weeps, with a mixture of grief at her loss and happiness over his return, by the side of her seaman son.’
The train had barely stopped when six men wearing American Legion caps climbed aboard to carry Ralph Hanson to the car that was waiting for him. The funeral director approached me. “I’d like you to meet Lieutenant Hanson’s family,” he said, and led me to a small group of people who stood watching from the station shed. I met Ralph’s wife first, a serene, handsome young woman in a simple gray suit; his mother, a woman whose indomitable character showed in the lines of her face where grief struggled to take possession; his brother, sister, and brother’s wife. There were no tears, but I could tell that the tears were there. I felt that they were bearing up for me, and my heart went out to them.
I went back to the long sleek car that was taking Ralph home. As the procession wound over the rolling green hills of Maine, the driver gave me my first glimpse of my charge’s background. “Ralph was fine boy,” he said, “one of the best-liked young fellows around here. It was a real sad day for Springvale and Sanford when the news came in he was killed.” “Where did it happen?” I asked. The driver replied, “South of France. It was, in, oh, September-October of ‘44. He was in a tank battalion, I think they called it, and his jeep hit one of those mines. Fellow with him was hurt pretty bad but he pulled through. Ralph had fought all though Africa and Italy and got hit once, but went right back when he got out of the hospital.” “I noticed his mother was alone. Is she a widow?” I asked. “Yes, she is,” he said, “and that’s mighty sad too. Mr. Hanson just died here this winter and the funeral was just a few weeks ago. You see, in Maine the ground freezes solid and when a person passes we have to keep them in a vault until spring. This is going to be pretty hard on the Hansons, coming so close afterward. Still it’s a comfort to them, knowing he’s home again.”
We came into the town of Sanford, of which Springvale is a part. It was an old town, quiet and dignified, with old houses, large trees, and spacious lawns. It was a sturdy town, as typical of Maine as oven-baked beans, as typical of America as the people who make it up—hard-working, industrious, honest people who are conscious of their heritage. Those on the streets paused and watched our procession as we passed.
At the funeral home, a handsome white building of simple colonial style, the casket was removed from the outer case, placed on a bronze catafalque in the chapel, and then covered with the flag again. I stood at attention at the head as Ralphs’s family came in. Now his mother wept, not bitterly nor hysterically, but from a heart that was too full to contain her tears. Ralph’s wife took her hand. “Mother,” she said quietly, “this isn’t really Ralph. He’s somewhere else, watching us, and he’s content; remember, he told us that.” They stayed a few moments after that and when they had gone I consulted with Mr. Carll. He signed the receipt for the remains and I explained that from that moment on my official responsibility had ended but that I was to remain at the pleasure of Mrs. Hanson and to give all the assistance I could to the family and to him.
Mr. Carll told me the funeral was to take place on Saturday and that the Hansons were anxious for me to stay. I asked about hotels. “No hotels in Springvale,” he said. “There’s one over in Sanford, but Ralph’s brother and his wife want you to stay with them. They live nearby in Alfred and have lots of room.” “That’s very nice of them,” I replied, “but our instructions are very explicit. We’re to help the family as much as we can but should stay out of the way and not be a burden to them.”
My explanation was worthless when Ralph’s older brother Carl came back. “My wife and I have planned on having you with us until after the funeral. You won’t be in the way at all because Betty’s staying with Mother and my sister. Besides, my two boys expect to find you at the breakfast table in the morning.” Even if I had wanted to, I couldn’t have refused their generous hospitality. And so, in place of a cold hotel room I went to Carl Hanson’s home—a simple white house with small porches and gables, a huge old-fashioned kitchen with a coal range side-by-side with a spotless new electric stove, and a great square bedroom (for me) filled with old and lovely furniture. It was this sort of house that Ralph had grown up in, that sort of kitchen in which he had watched his mother bake pies or fry doughnuts during the long Maine winters.
That night, before retiring, I sat with Carl and Harriet (Mr., Mrs., and Captain sounded too formal in such a homey atmosphere). We ate homemade cake and talked. They showed me pictures of Ralph, a handsome second lieutenant with a square jaw and winning smile, fresh from officer’s school at Fort Knox. Then there was another picture of him with Betty, whom he had met when they were both in college, taken after their marriage at Fort Knox.
We talked for an hour or two, mostly about Ralph. We talked about the things he enjoyed, like clam cakes and boiled lobster, hiking and lake swimming. We talked about his enthusiasm for building, architectural drawing, and his post-war plans. Before he enlisted he had taught high school in Bangor and, in the short time he was there, had built up the manual training shop into an important department of the school. He had been a popular teacher too, and they had held the position open for him. He was going to go places with it—after the war. “I was counting on Ralph, too,” Carl said. “I’m a builder, and he liked to draw up plans for me. We lost so many houses in the fire last year.”
I went to bed thinking about young dreams, young ambitions, shell-burst and oblivion.
The next morning I had breakfast in the large kitchen with the two boys—Teddy was nine and Earl was five. They accepted me as a friend of Uncle Ralph’s and, as such, a friend of theirs. They were bright, talkative, and inquisitive. They both thought they’d be soldiers when they grew up. (‘If you are,’ I thought, ‘may you be soldiers in a strong army of preparedness, and not—like your Uncle Ralph—in an army made strong by bitter necessity just a shade too late.’)
That day we concluded most of the plans for the funeral and I met many more of Ralph’s family and friends. I had often heard of the reticence of the state-of-Mainers. It applies, perhaps, to their control of emotion in deference to others. It does not apply to their friendliness and hospitality, which are boundless.
The funeral took place the following day at 2:00. The chapel, where Lieutenant Hanson lay surrounded by banks of flowers in the colors of the flag, was filled with friends and representatives of the American Legion. The family sat in a smaller room to the side. The minister read the funeral service and said a few words of comfort to the bereaved. He also spoke significantly of the debt that we, the living, owed to Lieutenant Hanson and the thousands of his comrades.
The two-day rain had stopped when we left the chapel. We marched the half-mile to the cemetery though the streets of Springvale—the American Legion escort, the color guard, and the firing squad from the Maine National Guard accompanied us. At the request of Mrs. Hanson, I preceded the hearse, which was flanked by Ralph’s boyhood friends. The sun glimmered momentarily as the bugler sounded taps and Lieutenant Ralph Hanson sank slowly to his final resting place. The folded flag which I presented to his wife was just a symbol, a few square yards of colored bunting, but I felt I was handing her the gratitude of a nation. I told her so and hoped she knew the truth of it.
The rain had started again when I returned to North Berwick and it slashed against the windows of the coach as we slid rapidly towards Boston. In looking back over my trip my strongest feeling was that I had made several friends, not the least of whom was one whose voice I would never hear.