By Barb Arland-Fye
As a kid, I snooped in my Grandma Irene Arland’s dresser and found a typewritten letter from 1945 regarding her oldest son, Tom, lost at sea and presumed dead a few months before World War II ended.
The memories of my quest for Uncle Tom stirred when I read Tim Walch’s piece on the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II that appears in this week’s Catholic Messenger. Grandma Arland kept a framed photograph of Tom on the TV set in her living room; he seemed so alive to me with his “Arland” smile and wearing his sailor’s uniform.
I dreamed that Grandma Arland would receive a call about Tom being found alive, on an island. An unrealistic dream, maybe, but not out of the realm of possibility. Two years before Japanese planes bombed the carrier he served on, the USS Bismarck Sea, Tom returned home to a hero’s welcome in St. Paul, Minnesota, after surviving an earlier ship sinking. I have a photocopy of the newspaper clipping about his harrowing experience.
The newspaper reported that Tom, an 18-year-old Navy seaman first class “has spent a lot of time at sea since that April day (10 months earlier) he joined up, including sixteen days in the lifeboat of a torpedoed American merchant ship in the Indian Ocean.”
Tom and his crewmates (64 altogether) were on a ship with cargo headed for Russia when the second of two torpedoes led to the ship’s sinking. The crew bailed out and made it into four lifeboats, striking out for the coast of India, 750 miles away. “In Arland’s boat were several kegs of water, some hard rations and sixteen men,” the newspaper reported. “In addition some provident sailor had dumped 50 cartons of cigarettes in — all of different brands, to suit all tastes.”
Still, the men struggled from thirst. Finally, they reached a low coral island with palm trees. The island’s natives helped them ashore, appreciated the gift of cigarettes, fed them, and three days later took the sailors to the Indian mainland on an old sailing ship. Before returning home, Tom developed malaria. Later, he visited the high school he left to join the Navy. His class would graduate that spring, but the newspaper reported Tom “will probably be at sea again.”
When his mom and eight siblings learned Tom was missing in action the first time, my dad, Ray Arland, recalled the anxious wait. “You’re a 10-year-old kid and you think you’re not going to see your brother again.” Tom’s return thrilled the family and community. “He was kind of like a hero and they made a big fuss over him,” Dad said. “It was almost like he was coming back from the dead.”
Tom and my dad exchanged letters during the war. Dad loved receiving the small “V-Mail” letters from his big brother and both included drawings in their letters. Tom encouraged dad’s talent. “Whatever talent I had, it came from the same genes,” my dad said. He thinks Tom could have been an artist. “He never had a chance to find out.”
Two years later, Tom was reported missing in action, again. “His body was never found.” Dad remembers attending the funeral Mass, but few details about it. Tom’s name appears on a war memorial in Hawaii that my parents visited years ago.
My mom, Mary Arland, once asked Grandma Arland, a devout Catholic and gracious woman, how she dealt with the loss of her son just eight years after the death of her husband. Grandma Arland responded, “What can you do?” “I could tell she was sad,” my mom said.
I am reflecting on Luke’s Gospel through Christmas. Chapter 2 moved me, especially as I consider Mary in her role as the mother of a son, fully human and divine. Luke tells us twice that Mary “kept all these things in her heart.” Mary loved her son like my Grandma Arland loved her son. Grandma bore her sorrows as Mary did, with faith and trust in God.
(Contact Editor Barb Arland-Fye at firstname.lastname@example.org)