According to the Veterans Administration, 680 U.S. veterans of World War II die every day. Too often, their stories die with them. The men and women who served from 1941 to 1945 were not encouraged to talk about their experiences. Perhaps that’s why, when Edie Clark asked her father about his service, he would reply, “There isn’t much to tell.”
It wasn’t until after both of her parents had died that Clark started reading the letters and diaries they’d left behind. In them she found a mystery, and a photograph of a young man,
buried in her mother’s blanket chest.
“My father longed for my mother and my mother longed for a man named Tom,” she writes. “Tom has been with us always, the dream of a man, the epitome of potential, the handsome face at the bottom of the blanket chest.”
Tom was her father’s rival for the affections of her mother, whom they both called Dee. After both men enlisted and were sent overseas—Tom to the Pacific, Clark’s father to Africa—Dee made her decision and wrote to Tom, agreeing to marry him. The letter was returned unopened, marked “Deceased.”
To heal her grief, Dee enlisted in the Marines. After the war, she married her other man, who would become the father of the author and her sister. But she kept Tom’s photograph, which she would show to her girls, saying, “We mustn’t forget him.”
“Maybe that is all war ever is: the death of one man—your man—the one you know and the one you wait for to come home,” Clark writes. “For us, that one man was Tom. So what happened to Tom? How did he die?”
Her search for answers beckons her through a labyrinth of rumors, blind alleys, and bureaucratic roadblocks. But she follows every thread to the vast military cemetery in Hawaii, the place where the war began and Tom’s story ends. There she hears a Marine chaplain say, “We are all soldiers unknown until our stories are told.”
Of the many lessons of love and war to be drawn from this haunting book, this may be the most urgent: If you are a veteran of World War II, or any war, tell someone your story.