Monday, May 25, 2015

My Cousin, WWII, and Weeping Willows at Arlington National Cemetery

When I was a little girl I loved to pour over the family photo album. Something about reliving the past set in sepia tones pulled my heart strings even then. My mom would tell me about every family member page by page. On one page were some pictures of a certain young man in a WWII uniform. (Here is a copy of my mom's photo that she scanned for me.)

WWII Kenneth Chatham, cousin

Byron Kenneth Chatham, Jr. was always known to my mom as Junior. My mom was a baby when he fought in WWII as a tail gunner on a B-29. Sadly, he never came home. His plane was shot down over Japan on June 5, 1945. He was later buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

My husband began a new family tradition this year by marking a flag for those of our family members who died while in service to our country. (Then on Veteran's Day we'll put out flags for all of our family members who have or are serving.) My husband said, "This flag is for Kenneth."


Sunday we arrived at Arlington  National Cemetery on a beautiful breezy, yet slightly humid sunny day.  Every grave had been devotedly marked with the American flag last Thursday.  Here is a great post by one of the Old Guard who participated in "Flags In." I follow them on facebook and it was touching throughout the day to watch them post the flags.


By Sunday roses also marked the graves.  Memorial Day began in 1868 to honor those who died in the Civil War. Originally it was called Decoration Day...the decoration of the graves being flowers.


In my hand I held the numeric information to help us find Kenneth's grave.  Plot 12 was bordered by Eisenhower, McClellan, Grant and Bradley Drives.  Since Eisenhower is near the entry point from the visitor center, that is where we began our journey.

I have been to Arlington National Cemetery many other times. This time looking for someone in my family was intensely personal. Humbled I walked by the seemingly endless rows of graves...of the many who offered the ultimate sacrifice so that I could be free.

As we came to McClellan Drive, we saw the large arch, an original entry gate. Here we made our turn.


We were at plot 12...a massive piece of ground with thousands upon thousands of graves. Where do we begin?  I had other numbers on my slip of paper. We walked slowly to the first grave on the corner and noted numbers on the backs of the graves.  We had many thousands to go before we found Kenneth's section.  Which way? We weren't sure. Numerically though, we walked further up McClellan Drive. I suppose I could have asked...but I wanted the journey.  As I walked slowly up to various graves to check their numbers, we were getting closer to Kenneth's section but not by much. We were still thousands away from his. I noted the names and dates of those laying near me.  I was surrounded by pages of history books that now put names to battle statistics.  These were real people with real lives from real places who fought real battles. I quietly reflected at each grave as we walked closer to Kenneth's.

We came to one end of the plot on the corner of McClellan and Grant Drives. We turned left on Grant Drive where we were now only hundreds of markers away from Kenneth.  We walked up the hill, more graves. Some family  members are buried with the soldiers.  One baby only lived 6 months. Did the soldier ever get to hold his baby or was he overseas serving his country during that time? My heart ached as I read stories on each tomb. Stories contained only in names, places, dates, wars, honors, family...the details of which are stories lost to time.

We came midway down the plot on Grant Drive when the next set of graves marked a new set of numbers. We walked down a trail between the markers, down, down, down the hill, past soldiers of  the Spanish American War, WWI and WWII. Surrounded by heroism, bravery, sacrifice makes one most humble, indeed.

At the bottom of the hill we turned up the next section of graves. At this bottom portion of hill, row upon row, I sensed that we were nearing Kenneth's grave.  My pace became more deliberate.


In this sunnier section of the cemetery we came upon two weeping willows near a dry creek bed. I slowed my steps.


Teardrops blended with weeping willows as a tombstone came into view...


I found Kenneth. Named after his great uncle whom I met  many years later with his wife, Aunt Mary, when I was a little girl visiting my mom's hometown. My mother's mother and Aunt Mary were sisters. Everyone called Uncle Byron and Aunt Mary's son Junior. That's how my mom remembers him. I've called him Kennneth.


Kenneth enlisted in the Air Corps three days after Pearl Harbor in 1941.   All I know of Kenneth's active duty service is that by 1945 he was a tail gunner on a B-29, stationed in Guam. He wanted to see his wife by September for their wedding anniversary, but needed extra missions before he could do that. Therefore he volunteered for this particular mission. On June 5, 1945, PFC (Kenneth) Chatham climbed into the B-29 fortress dubbed "City of Burbank" or Old Soldier's Home with ten other crew mates. Mission: Kobe, Japan with 30 other bombers in a total armada of 473 planes. In the bombing attack, Japanese fighters snared "City of Burbank" causing it to veer out of the formation. After a spin and barrel roll it regained level flight when Japanese fighters pressed the attack. At 30 feet one of the eyewitnesses noted a wing had come off. While the bomber spiraled down 6 parachutes were seen ballooning into the air when the plane crashed into a dry creek bed.

Later Commanding Officer Frederick M. Hopkins, Jr. wrote these words to Kenneth's wife:
On Memorial Day, May 30, 1946 - services were held for those who paid the highest price and those miss-ing in action.  It is our desire that you should know that we have a more personal appreciation of the heroic deeds of your loved one.  He was a man of the Twentieth Air Force. His every flight, and his every mission was a personal act of service in the highest tradition of the Army Air Corps.
Kenneth's body was not found for another five years.  When they were, he and four others from the B-29 fortress known as "City of Burbank," were buried between the weeping willows near the dry creek bed...among many others who too risked their lives so we could be free.


1 comment:

  1. What a touching post. Thank you for reminding us what Memorial Day is about.