Neglected gravestones over Memorial Day. No flowers, no one to remember.
This would never happen in our family. So I thought.
Growing up, I knew that my mother’s five brothers had served in World War II, and that the three youngest lost their lives. Their sepia-toned photographs, all in uniform, were a familiar part of home. Those same pictures sat for decades on the chest of drawers in Grandma’s bedroom.
I grew up with women who observed every Decoration Day, as it was called then. I could have asked for details about those young brothers, but knew the answers would bring tears. So I didn’t.
In fact, Memorial Day was a wonderful time for me as a child, as it meant an outing to the big town of Perry for lunch and shopping with Grandma Leora, Mom, sis Gloria, and usually Aunt Darlene.
Either Mom or Darlene would pick up the other, both toting pails of pink peonies, coral bells, and blue iris from their gardens. Carried in the trunk of the car, these spring blossoms were for the cemeteries. We’d drive the dusty gravel roads of Madison County, Iowa, then the hills of Highway 25 to Grandma’s house in Guthrie Center, where she would be waiting with her best flowers, including what she called “little yellow buttons.”
Grandma’s parents and some siblings are buried there at the Guthrie cemetery, so we’d leave flowers there to remember them before heading east on Highway 64 (now Highway 44) to Panther Corner.
Perry is north from Panther, where now a memorial marker remembers the old store and garage. We’d skirt Perry’s downtown toward our main mission, Violet Hill Cemetery in the northeast corner. Grandma’s husband is buried there, and their three sons who were lost in the war.
Or so I thought.
The Wilson stones are in the east section, with stately evergreen arborvitaes just beyond. We three generations would solemnly deliver the flowers from the car to the Wilson stones. Everything seemed hushed.
Before the four names–Dale R. Wilson, Daniel S. Wilson, Claiborne J. Wilson, Clabe D. Wilson– we would secure metal vases with wires cut from coat hangers, then fill them with our pastel bouquets. How nice they look, Grandma would mention.
I remember her shedding tears there only once.
The mood lightened on the drive towards downtown. I don’t remember what the grownups ate, but we young sisters were treated to hamburgers and Cokes in a real cafe east of the library. Then shopping and visiting. For young girls from a farm near the small town of Dexter, this day was a yearly treat.
When it was time to start back home, we’d always drive by the old Wilson acreage, a mile south on 16th Street, to see how it looked after so many years, how much the trees they’d planted in the 1940s had grown.
Through the decades, different family members would make the annual Memorial Day trip to Perry with Grandma. One or two of Aunt Darlene’s sons went along, and later on even my own young son.
Grandma died in 1987, leaving a cedar chest full of old postcards, letters, pictures, and telegrams. After Mom and Aunt Darlene read through them, they shared them with me. I realized for the first time that only the youngest son, Junior, is buried in the Perry cemetery.
Danny Wilson, a P-38 pilot who was killed in action in Austria, is buried in France. Dale Wilson, the copilot on a B-25, was lost off the coast of New Guinea. Only God knows where his remains lie.
I was determined that when Mom and Aunt Darlene (Dale’s twin) got to the place that they could no longer make the trip to Perry to remember their brothers and parents for Memorial Day, I’d always get it done.
So I thought.
My health got to the place where I could no longer make the trip. One day my husband and I stopped by to see the stones once more. I realized that because Dale’s date of death is listed as 1946 (the official declaration date), no one would know he’d been a war casualty.
A few additions to all three stones would tell more of the story of what this one family had endured. Mom and Darlene agreed and the information was added.
One stone commemorates Dale and Danny, making clear that they were both killed in action. The center stone marks the grave of Junior, whose P-40 exploded in formation training in Texas at the very end of the war.
The brothers were ages 22, 21, and 20.
Their father, Clabe, died in 1946 of a stroke–and a broken heart, surely another casualty of the war.
Even though no one has recently remembered the Wilson family for Memorial Day, we must never forget the price that our freedoms cost this one Dallas County, Iowa, family.
Our American Stories, aired September 10, 2018.
Leora’s Letters: The Story of Love and Loss for an Iowa Family During World War II is the story of the family during WWII. It’s also the story behind the five brothers on the Dallas County Freedom Rock. All five served. Only two came home.