He was 19 when killed in action. It was more a diplomatic mission than combat. The crew was dropping leaflets over Papua New Guinea. The Fifth Air Force was bottled up in Australia and the Japanese controlled most of East Asia and the surrounding Pacific Ocean.
This week mark’s 74 years since the arrival of a telegram informing the family of Harold Kuhn he wouldn’t be coming home. I keep it in a special case along with a letter from Gen. H.H. “Hap” Arnold. There are other assorted personal mementos, a publication resembling a high school yearbook. It’s filled with politically incorrect cartoons about the enemy, portraits of men standing by their planes and many moments of leisure. A personal letter is folded inside the back cover of the book, signed by a dozen other young men who greatly missed their dead friend.
A yellowed photograph I also keep shows two men standing in uniform outside a modest home. On the back of the picture my grandmother wrote “Easter, 1943.” Two of her brothers were home one last time before shipping out.
Harold Kuhn, known to family as Barney, was my Grandmother Colley’s youngest sibling. He was much closer in age to Dad and Uncle Louie. Barney grew up more as a playmate and big brother. Great things were expected from him in life. It was cut short when the plane carrying his crew slammed into a mountain. I don’t know if it was a mechanical issue, pilot error or enemy fire. Years would pass before anyone reached the wreckage.
During some research two years ago I found an old newspaper clipping. After the war a priest and an island guide located the remains. The priest wrote a letter to my family in belief it would bring some closure. The military collected what it could recover and sent everything to Hawaii.
In 1965 the remnants of proud young Americans were laid to rest at a national cemetery in St. Louis. This confused me as a boy. Why Missouri?
Two weeks ago an aunt reached out and explained Barney was coming home. Burial is scheduled for Sept. 23 and my name is on the list of family the Army will fly in for the ceremony. This is happening in 2017 because of science. An older aunt submitted a DNA sample in 2008 for Army review. Then silence for almost a decade was broken in late July by news of positive results.
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Even the most hard-boiled personalities can understand the bittersweet reaction. My Aunt Ruth is the last person remaining alive with any memories of Harold “Barney” Kuhn. He twirled her over a table before he left for war. She was just 6 years old when they said farewell. He was 19 when his life ended. My birth came 19 years later. My sadness is for all the members of the family who died without an answer.
And yet here is a message stretching across three-quarters of a century. A message of hope. His last full measure of devotion reminds us there was a time when Americans were overwhelmingly unified. I grew up in a house where he was a constant presence. He dwelled on a living room wall, a portrait of a handsome young man in uniform and frame. In the very same room there was always a large television console where we would watch the news of the day. Cities burning, terrorist attacks and arguments over distant wars. Throughout the years there was one steady impression. The optimistic teenager looking out from the wall never changed.
There are few general agreements in life today. Among the few we’ve got is a belief the last real unity in this country ended with the Japanese surrender. I’ll make the judgement of the amateur historian. In the 241 years since the Declaration of Independence, the country may well have only been near total unity over a four year period battling the Axis Powers.
The New England states talked secession in the early days of the Republic. The South went beyond the talk. Was there ever serious agreement about wars with Mexico and against the indigenous tribes? In school I received the survey course and never doubted the public was overwhelmingly on board. More serious reading brings me to opposite conclusions. Ethnic tension has always been a part of the national story. Regional and religious differences remain. Warring political camps seethe with resentment.
Then what united Barney Kuhn and his generation? The mainland was never seriously threatened, but we come to that conclusion because we’ve got decades of history as evidence. Two massive oceans didn’t look so large to the people of 1941 when enemies were developing modern warfare of industrial proportions. And when you send millions of men and some women to other continents, they do discover they share a heritage of language, culture and common ideals. The Kuhn’s arrived on American shores in 1841 from a part of what later became modern Germany. They owed no allegiance to any other state because it hadn’t been created when they left.
They also wanted to be here. Life was difficult but offered promise. Today I meet people from all backgrounds who believe the promise is either expired or broken. We’re spoiled. The greatest generation suffered the Great Depression and still found the will to believe in a better future. Last week I asked if we could learn any lessons. It’s my wish Barney’s story be remembered, forever.