Sunday, September 29, 2019

The Gift of a Lifetime

1954 Lincoln Capri superimposed over VA Form 350

Why would a teenage U.S. Army inductee in 1949 buy life insurance?  This is exactly what 17-year-old Philip Hughes did in November of that year. He accepted the Veterans Administration's standard life insurance policy offered to all new recruits. By signing his name to the VA Form 350, Philip agreed that a premium of $6.15 would be withheld from his $70 gross monthly pay. The policy's redemption value was $10,000. His adoptive mother, Wilhelmina, was the beneficiary.

The U.S. Army instituted the National Service Life Insurance program in 1940, anticipating the onset of what would be World War II. This insurance product would be accepted by millions of men during the ensuing war years.  The same basic insurance deal was offered to post-war enlistees.  Hundreds of thousands of beneficiaries still receive policy payouts to this day.

As fate would have it, PVT Philip Hughes would become engaged as a rifleman in the opening weeks of the Korean War.  While serving in that capacity, he was killed in action on September 12, 1950.

Philip and his younger brother Frank had been adopted by Wilhelmina. She indended for both boys to become priests. Neither boy wished to comply. Philip's resistance precipitated his Army enlistment. His death forced her to reconsider her motherly role. She essentially diverted Philip's life insurance proceeds so that they accrued to Frank's benefit. In short, she was making amends for the family dysfunctions of her own making. This story is shared in The Battle of Turkey Thicket.  

Ten thousand dollars went a long way in the early 1950s. Wilhelmina saw to it that Frank received a car upon his high school graduation.  She encouraged Frank to travel the country on his own - in effect, allowing him to "find" himself.  Frank would criss-cross the U.S. for two years, wearing out two cars while covering all 48 states. He made connections that jump-started his academic career, and his ensuing pursuits as an executive. It all began with the payout of Philip's life insurance policy.     

Friday, September 20, 2019

St Francis Xavier's Triumphant Return

Photo by Carl Mydans
May 1949.  Nagasaki, Japan. The Vatican ensured that a venerated relic - the right forearm of St. Francis Xavier - would be present for a mass celebrating the 400th anniversary of Xavier's arrival in Japan.  Francis Xavier, born in Spain in 1506, was a priest whose vocation led him to evangelize across the far east, including Portuguese Goa, India, Indonesia, and Japan.  Communities of converts - the legacy of Xavier's work - exist to this day in these countries.

The relic employed in the 1949 Mass in Nagasaki was Xavier's mumified arm. This was the arm he used to conduct blessings and baptisms.  Some 60 years after his death, church leaders detached his arm for preservation among other saintly relics archived by the Vatican.

Fast forward to 1949. Most of us know Nagasaki, Japan for its fate in 1945 at the dawn of atomic warfare.  But were it not for that event, Nagasaki may have been noted primarily as a bastion of Catholic faith in an otherwise Buddist society. That the Vatican would take extraordinary measures to transport a venerated relic to the other side of the world demostrates calculated reflection. On one hand, Nagasaki remained largely devastated by the atomic blast of 1945; people were still dying (slowly) from radiation poisoning. But the 400th anniversary of Xavier's missionary work loomed, thus opening a potential gesture for reconciliation.

May 1949.  The St. Francis Xavier relic is physically present for Mass conducted in the ruins of a Nagasaki cathedral. 
Along with Life Magazine's Carl Mydans, the Mass attracted a fair number of curious American military personnel from their occupation billets. Among them was U.S. Arny CPL Lacy Barnett of Alabama.

Not present was PVT Philip Hughes, who at the time was only 16 and had yet to join the Army.  He would not step foot on Japanese shores until May 1950, too late to witness the ceremony in Nagasaki. But he did pass through the city on the way to his billet in Sasebo.  Philip - once an orphan and unsuccessfully groomed by his adoptive parents to be a priest - witnessed in Nagasaki only the devastation of man's propensity for war. He missed the modest attempt at reconciliation offered in Japan by the Catholic Mass on St. Francis Xavier's anniversary.  He missed seeing the sinewy relic of Xavier's arm - withered much like the human remains of victims from the atomic blast. Philip, however, would not be spared the sights attributable to his role as a combatant in the early weeks of the Korean War. It was there that Philip found his mortal destiny. 

Friday, September 13, 2019

Date Night in Japan

Photo by Joseph Jowell from the Doug Price Collection
Sasebo, Japan, 1953 or 54.  I share this image because its time and place largely coincide with the atmosphere encountered by PVT Philip Hughes in May-June 1950 during his brief billet in Sasebo, Japan, immediately prior to the Korean War.  The U.S. occupation facilitated large scale interaction of American servicemen with Japanese civilians.

The humanity captured in a photograph sometimes speaks volumes.

The young man depicted here, dressed appropriately for off-duty leisure, relaxes with a local companion. He was born during the great depression. Odds are that he was not from a wealthy home. He grew up at a time when Americans were quite clannish, preferring to settle in communities with people of kindred ethnicity or nationality.  Yet here he is (caught?) with a Japanese companion, enjoying a smoke while reclining on a tatami mat. Does his facial expression betray some embarrasment?

His companion looks like she could be a bit older. The young woman is on the front line of Japan's economic reconstruction, testing cultural boundaries with this gai-jin (western foreigner). Their pose suggests intimacy, but the facial expressions are devoid of... joy.  Seriousness prevails. Fatigue may be an explanation. The woman's posture as she hovers over companion suggests dominance, or at least a sense of purpose. She is old enough to have survived the horror and deprivations of World War II, up close and personal.  It's very likely that her family was irrevocably affected in some way by the war.  But that was in her past. Her current agenda is more relevant and enduring.

Both individuals have compromised their respective cultural boundaries for more expedient needs. This is a scene that was replicated hundred of thousands of times in Japan during the late 1940s and 50s. It is really not fair to draw a one-size-fits-all conclusion for this couple. Their relationship might have been ephemeral... or maybe not.

Walk through a national cemetery for American servicemen sometime.  Read the tombstones. You will see a lot of Japanese spouses resting with their gai-jin husbands.  Just sayin'.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Road-bound Soldiers of the Korean War

An excerpt from "The Battle of Turkey Thicket."

Philip Hughes and his colleagues scrambled aboard the cargo beds of the regiment’s GMC deuce-and-a-half (2½-ton capacity) trucks. Each truck typically held ten fully-equipped infantrymen, seated on fold-up benches on either side of the cargo bed. In a pinch, with the cargo deck’s gate down, one or two more men could perch on the trailing edge with their legs dangling off the rear. Canvas covers for the cargo beds were removed due to the summer heat.

Noise added to the motoring experience. Like many military vehicles without mufflers, the GMC trucks alternately growled and whined as drivers shifted up through the gears. Passengers had to shout at one another to be heard. A convoy of these vehicles was preceded by its own din.

Despite the improvement efforts of Army engineers, the Korean roads remained narrow and maddeningly choked with civilian refugees on foot. Paved with broken rocks and pulverized by heavy military traffic, the roads coughed up a fine, calcified powder that coated vehicles and the men in them. The trip to Kyongsan could require up to half a day’s driving time.