"Sandra Merrill Visits Donald's Gravesite"Written by Mike Aiello
She could see the cemetery in the distance from the hotel that she and her daughter were staying in in Margraten, Netherlands. It's rows of white crosses looking like a blanket over the green of the grass. She couldn't help feeling a deep sorrow for the boys that lay below those crosses and the occasional Star of David. She felt the deepest sorrow though for one in particular, the reason she'd come half way across the U.S. and an entire ocean. There were so many dreams there that wouldn't be fulfilled. So many wonderful experiences never to be. These were young men who were from different parts of America. They came from every background imaginable. Here though, they were united forever, as stark in their homogeneity in death as was their diversity in life. Soldiers of a war that few but the old remembered or even cared about now. The men that lay here and the families and friends they left behind knew what they had fought for. They knew why there were places such as this to honor those who had fought and those who had fallen.
She'd come to see her uncle, Captain Donald R. Emerson USAAF. She hadn't known him growing up. In fact, the one time that they'd met, when he came home on leave from the war, she was just a baby. Her mother told her that when Uncle Donald had picked her up that she had kicked and wiggled to get out of his grasp. To her, he was a stranger and she reacted as babies do. She always felt badly about that, like she had blown a wonderful opportunity. Even if she had given him a hug or shown affection, she wouldn't have remembered. She was just too young. Logically she knew that but it still saddened her.
Somehow she'd become drawn to this life that had been snuffed out at the tender age of 21. He'd only been a photograph, an old letter, a story told by her parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. She'd gone through countless letters and photographs and spoken to those who knew him and had come to know him almost as well as they had. She couldn't explain the grip that he had over her. It was almost as if he were calling to her from across the chasm that separates this life from the next:
"Don't let me be forgotten Sandra."
She had devoted so much time and energy into finding out everything about him. He was almost alive to her. In her mind's eye he was perpetually 21 years old. Looking smart and every bit the warrior in his flight suit, sitting in his P-51 Mustang with the fighting Donald Duck painted on it. It was amazing, looking at the photographs, how his countenance had changed. He looked like a large child in his cadet pictures. A boy on a great adventure. Near the end of his life he looked almost middle-aged. It was easy to forget that these were little more than boys that had won the war in the skies over Europe. To be over thirty was to be deemed too old for combat. Don Blakeslee, the 4th Fighter Group's Commanding Officer was only twenty-six at the time and he was the "Old Man".
As they entered the big iron gates and passed into the cemetery, it occurred to her how ironic that her own daughter was the same age as he was when he died and that today was his birthday. It hadn't been planned that way but it was one of those coincidences in life that makes you think that there really is a higher influence guiding our lives. Where that influence was on the day Donald died she didn't know and couldn't speculate. Why so many had been called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice was a question that couldn't be answered by any amount of reasoning. It happened. There was nothing now that could change that. Why her Uncle Donald had been called upon to join so many of his friends that had gone on before just didn't seem fair. None of it was fair.
They entered the Visitor's Center and were greeted by a cheerful young Dutchman. He asked them if there was anyone in particular they'd come to see and they told him for whom they'd come. He went back into an office to look up the location and came back with a piece of paper. Plot B, Row 15, Grave 21. He explained how each of the families in the area had adopted some of the graves to keep them well cared for. In fact there was a waiting list of families that wanted to be included. It had been that way unabated for the previous 45 years.
The women thanked him and walked out to the place where he lay. Her daughter, with youthful exuberance, ran to find the spot. She, with a mixture of sadness, excitement and nervous anticipation came along more slowly. She was carrying the flowers they'd bought in town. There were three ribbons on it. Two from her mother and Uncle John said "Brother" and the other from her said "Uncle".
"Here he is!" cried out her daughter pointing to a cross.
She walked closer and fixed her gaze on the cross:
Donald R. Emerson
Capt 336 Ftr Sq 4 Ftr Gp
North Dakota Dec 25 1944
She'd come so far and had searched so long for her uncle, for who he was, what he and others like him had done and sacrificed. Now she'd come as close to him as she could in this life. Tears started trickling down her face. He was so young. He was so young.
Images raced into her mind. The picture of Donald looking so proud in his cadet uniform, him standing by John Godfrey's Mustang with the cream of the pilots from the 336th Fighter Squadron, Donald in his Mustang after the Russia Shuttle mission looking completely exhausted. Then came images that weren't on film. The image of his friends "Swede" Carlson, Joe Joiner and Don Pierini frantically searching the skies to find Donald after he'd radioed for help on that last mission; Donald's crew chief "Weck" Wechbacker, who refused to take part in that evening's Christmas festivities. He would sit on a box of ammunition searching the sky and listening, in vain, for the sound of the Mustang that would carry Donald home safely. The image of a disconsolate Carlson who blamed himself for allowing Donald to be shot down and who brooded for days afterward because of it even though Donald had been brought down by ground fire and there was nothing Carlson could have done to save his friend.
She placed the flowers at the foot of the cross and knelt down beside it. Her daughter asked her to pose for a picture. "What a mess I am" she said to herself. Self-conscious of the tear streaks on her cheeks but not wanting to waste the opportunity, she did her best to look presentable and smiled for the camera.
Finally, she did what she'd come to do. She delivered the message that her mother, Donald's older sister, had asked her to deliver. "We miss you."