Noel Wayne McVay
Sergeant, United States Army Air Forces
Sergeant, U.S. Army Air Forces
Service # 38522387
570th Bomber Squadron, 390th Bomber Group, Heavy
Entered the Service from: Louisiana
Missing in Action or Buried at Sea
Tablets of the Missing at Netherlands American Cemetery
Awards: Air Medal, Purple Heart
We attended a memorial service for my father, Noel Wayne McVay, on February 14, 2005, on the 60th anniversary of his death. He was killed during World War II and his body was never recovered.
The service was a moving tribute for a soldier who lost his life at a very tender age, and for whom there had never been any official ceremony. Only my mother and I were able to attend this service. Because of the emotional nature of the service I can no longer remember how many young men were in the flag folding ceremony. I am writing about this experience for other relatives too elderly or sick to have attended.
A Valentine For My Father
(The Noel Narrative)
By Angela Bonin
past Valentine’s Day I attended my father’s funeral at Arlington National
Cemetery in Washington DC, sixty years to the day after his death in World
War II. The military funeral was a tribute to a man I never knew, with
a marker for a body never recovered; to recall a life that was never really
lived, and provide closure for a death that was never officially marked
nor ritually grieved.
My 80 year old mother flew into Reagan National from her home in Houston, put on the plane by my half brother who generously flew down from his home in Manhattan to get her to the airport and back, and to care for my stepfather, who has Alzheimer’s. My mother is understandably afraid of flying and has only flown a few times in her life, never happily. But this time she set aside her fears and flew the 1400 miles with surprising acceptance, if not eagerness.
Rain fell in sheets the morning of the funeral, which was scheduled for 11:00 AM. The day was gray and somber and raw, in the 40s. We were prepared, of course, with woolen sweaters under our suits, and umbrellas. I could not think of a worse day for a funeral.
We drove along the George Washington Parkway in silent and nervous anticipation, intent on not missing the cutoff to the entrance, which was, after all, well marked for the thousands of annual visitors and tourists. The long impressive drive led to a security checkpoint guarded by armed uniformed soldiers. One crisply inquired to the nature of our visit. Our names and the time of the funeral were already on a list, but still were verified electronically by the officer at the gate with someone, somewhere, who confirmed our status yet again. We were directed to the Administration Building which we found with ease, a low, non-descript, single-story government building.
The rain was relentless. I parked and eyed the distance to the doorway; then decided to drive my mother closer to the building. I parked momentarily in front, and with umbrellas and instructions, got her inside. I parked a second time and made my wet way across the lot. Inside a sign with removable letters announced the date and Morning Funeral Schedule. Five funerals were scheduled from 9:00 AM to 11:00 AM, each assigned a bereavement room and a representative. My father’s name was last on the sign. So this was actually going to take place. The sign made it official, made it real.
I entered the first room on the left and found my mother sitting alone on a small sofa in a cavernous room, which would easily hold 100 mourners or more. We were two. I joined her on the sofa next to long windows that looked out onto the day’s deluge. Neither of us had much to say. Neither of us knew what to say, or what to expect. Soon a uniformed chaplain entered the room and greeted us with quiet dignity. I had spoken to him by phone from Boston, and was expecting a much older man. He was young, 30s, younger than my own children, and seemed slightly nervous. Maybe he didn’t know what to expect either. Perhaps he had never conducted a service for a soldier from a war over half a century ago. What could he say to us? He tried. His earnest bespectacled eyes met ours, and he spoke gently with a soothing soft Southern accent. His presence opened a door for my mother, who took from her pocketbook a large gray envelope. Inside were a few scraps from my father’s brief life…and death. A handful of faded snapshsots, a death notice from the Department of the Army, a couple of fragile yellowed newspaper obituary notices. She tried to make my father real for the young chaplain, and perhaps, after all these years, also for herself. He listened with solicitous attention and was kind.
My mother and father married in 1943, when they were both 18. They were children of the south, where the poor married early. It was wartime. Enthusiasm, patriotism, and hormones trumped fear and common sense. Thousands of young couples pledged love and fidelity to each other and to their country. They married and separated soon after, the girls, often pregnant, staying home with parents; the boys going gloriously off to war. None could predict what lay ahead for them, separately or together. Like all young people they were fearless, invincible, or they could not have traveled the road they did.
My father was the oldest of 4 children, born when my grandmother was fifteen years old. After my father joined up, she became pregnant again with her fifth child, a child who would live only a few days, beginning her endless mourning. My father was handsome as only healthy young boys his age could be. His Army photo shows him dreamy-eyed, with thick brows and full sensuous lips. He was blond and athletic, a football hero in a small town. And he was a musician. He played “the fiddle” like his father, plus the clarinet, the saxophone, and the piano. He wrote music (including a piece for a complete orchestra) without formal training or lessons. He even had his own radio show on a country station, with another boy, when they were both 14. But he was from the wrong side of the tracks, from one of the poorest families in a poor north Louisiana town. A relative eventually told me that the children in the family were always dressed in rags, a scandal in the small southern town.
Years later a great aunt told me my grandmother’s story. She was the oldest daughter of a comfortable family, from a small hamlet in western Arkansas comprised mainly of farms and a sawmill. Her father owned some land, and the village’s only grocery store. He grew prize roses, and built a huge Sears and Roebuck two-story house with a columned front porch, an impressive floor-through foyer, a wide graceful stairway, double parlors, large dining room, big kitchen, and 4 bedrooms upstairs. My grandmother had a brother and a sister, and an idyllic life, until her mother died when she was eight. Her father remarried his brother’s widow soon thereafter, not uncommon then when women needed protection and men felt responsible for their siblings’ families. She brought her own two children to her new home and expected my grandmother to help raise all the younger children, also not uncommon in those days, in that place. My grandmother did not share her stepmother’s ambition for her. She missed her own mother and became quietly rebellious. She never confided in her father, although she was known to be the apple of his eye.
A handsome 7-years-older stranger came through town soon after she turned 15, driving a beat-up jalopy, and heading for the oilfields of north Louisiana to work as a wildcatter. My grandmother told him she was 16 and that she wanted to visit relatives in the same area. She packed her bag, never told her father goodbye, and set off with the young man whom she married a few towns away on that same day. Her father was frantic, then heartsick when he found out she had eloped. He never forgave her, although she visited him a few times over the next decade. He never helped her or her children, even though he was financially able to do so, and she was destitute much of the time. She was too proud to ask for money. She and her family lived as best they could, hand to mouth. Her tall, slender husband worked hard over the years, as an oil field worker, and eventually as a pipe fitter. The work was sporadic, sometimes seasonal. On days off he went fishing and brought home catfish. He kept bees and provided honey for his family. And he played the fiddle like a man possessed, smiling at his bride and children, and teaching them the pleasures of Scottish folk music, country music, and simple harmonizing. My grandmother did her part, raising vegetables and quilting and sewing clothes, as was the custom for the southern poor of the time. She never complained, and sang to herself often, content if not comfortable. Their’s was an envied love story.
Years passed. The depression came and went in some parts of the country, but hung around the rural south way too long, like a poor relative with no place else to go. Their children grew up. World War II crashed the gates of their lives, and dented the solidarity of the family. My parents announced their marriage, and then my father’s intention to join the Army Air Force, pretty much at the same time. The marriage was greeted with joy, but my grandfather begged my father not to join the Army Air Force. This was a new branch of the service. My grandfather was afraid of airplanes. He could not understand what kept them in the air, and did not trust his oldest son to them. He begged my father to join the regular Army or the Navy, but my father was seized with romance on every level, and wanted to “fly in the sky up to God.” Despite numerous family discussions he would not be dissuaded. When he finally joined up, my grandfather took him aside and gave him serious advice. With a grave face he told him, “Son, if the plane starts to go down, bail out. No one can survive a plane crash. If it starts to go down, bail out. At least then you’ll have a chance.” These words would haunt him the rest of his life.
My father was stationed in Texas, Arizona, and Nebraska for training, and then left from Boston, Massachusetts on his way to England. He was stationed in Framlingham, England, a base used by the United States Army Air Force, for bombing missions to Germany. (Strangely, I moved to Boston when I was in my 20s, and now live in Framingham, Massachusetts, [mis]named for it’s English counterpart. I only learned of this coincidence a year ago). On my father’s second bombing mission, Valentine’s Day, 1945, his two-engine plane got into trouble midway to their target. One engine conked out. The pilot could not restart it, but continued the mission anyway. Closer to their destination they were engaged in enemy fire. The second engine was shot out, and the plane began to go down. The pilot ordered the men to bail. Six men bailed out, my father among them, his father’s warning no doubt ringing in his ears. Moments after the 6th man bailed out, the pilot somehow was able to restart the conked-out engine. He turned the wounded plane around, and limped back to base. A search and rescue plane dutifully tried to find the young soldiers and their parachutes in the North Sea. But it was mid February, a cold day in hell. The water was close to freezing. The men were lost at sea. One body eventually turned up on the coast of the Netherlands, but it was not my father. The Army’s official letter said “missing in action.” They must have known he could not have survived. My mother did not give up hope for another year, until a letter came officially changing the “missing in action,” to “presumed dead,” and then just dead.
My grandmother never completely recovered from this dire time. She took up religion with what really was a vengeance, and went down a path most of her family could not follow. My grandfather became an old man in that year. His soft voice became softer. He began to lose his hearing, blocking out the sounds of my grandmother’s grief and her prayers. They who had loved with pure love were distanced, although they continued to care for each other with tenderness. Grief slept in their bed with them, tossing and turning them mercilessly.
Fast-forward 60 years. It was time for the service. The chaplain left before us…to prepare, he told us. The funeral representative instructed us to go to our car and follow him in his car to the funeral site. The rain blew around us as we drove slowly, slowly. We made our way down street after street, past row after row of solemn white stones, each one like the others. How many? Over 268,000 soldiers are buried in these green acres. The land dipped and rolled, down one hill, then up another. The only sounds were the windshield wipers, rocking back and forth in their small pattern, and the falling rain they could not chase away. Finally the front car led us up a higher hill and made a wide turn to the right, and slowed even further. The driver put out his left hand and motioned for us to stop, and so we did. He continued on another thirty feet and pulled to a stop in front of a small detail of seven soldiers in dress uniforms. The rain slowed to a drizzle. My mother and I watched and waited.
We shut off our engines.The representative departed his car, and walked a few feet to a young soldier in charge of the detail. They spoke briefly. Then the representative returned to his car and climbed back inside. Time passed. From inside our car the world outside was soundless, misting, dream-like. A muffled command called out and the soldiers, in dramatic deliberate slow motion, walked in lock step, three rows of two, around the rear of the lead car and to the right side, commanded by the young leader. They stopped in unison and waited. Slowly, slowly, the young officer opened the back door of the car in front of us, and…what? Withdrew something. With exaggerated formality and solemnity he presented….a triangle-folded American flag, red stripes showing, to one soldier in the detail. This young man clasped the flag to his chest, as if carrying a great treasure. The rain suddenly stopped. The detail turned crisply, and walked back to where they had stood, then turned and faced a hilly trail I had not noticed before. In lock step, two by two, they ascended the trail, carrying the flag. The funeral representative got out of his car again, and walked back to where we waited.
“Please assist your mother and follow the detail up to the burial site,” he instructed. I held onto my mother as we made our way up the muddy hillside trail. Our feet made sucking sounds as we passed huge rhododendron bushes, buds tightly coiled, on our left. I wasn’t sure we could make it up the hill without falling. This thought dissipated into a cool damp breeze that sighed from surrounding trees. At the top of a rise I saw an open green tent to our left, with a few chairs set up on bright green Astroturf. Under the tent the soldiers with the flag stood in formation. My mother and I made our way to where they waited. The young chaplain stood to one side, and motioned us into two chairs.
Once seated I noticed another detail, another seven soldiers, a few hundred feet away, standing in a single line along a ridge. An eighth stood to one side, their leader.
And twenty feet in front of us I saw the stone. A white tombstone, like all the others around it, only whiter, newer. My father’s name engraved on the stone. His rank, his squadron, the dates of his birth and death. In Memory of. Behind the stone stood the brilliant red flowers in a heart-shaped wreath I had ordered for the ceremony. For what? My father’s body was not there. Why this ceremony? Why now? For the ritual. This is how it would have been if his young body had gone home. There would have been a grave marker, flowers, a ceremony, prayers and tears. For my mother. Who had no ritual to mark the finality of her short union, her young love, her lost dreams. For my father. Who gave all he had: his young life, his unique talents, his future; and to whom the country gave only a few cheap medals and a small sum of money in recompense. For me. A fatherless child; a little girl who once looked at every man in every crowd all during her childhood, longing to see the familiar face of a man who surely lived, but somehow had amnesia and could not find his way back to her; a now late middle-aged woman looking for closure.
From the ridge came a command. Seven soldiers brought their rifles to attention. Another command. They brought their weapons into position. Another command. Shots range out in unison. I jumped at the sound. Another round of shots. A final round of shots. Seven soldiers, three shots each. A 21-gun-salute. The soldiers were commanded back to their position, their guns silent again.
The air was still again. Then a strong clear keen of a bugle began. The familiar mournful Taps rang through the damp gray morning. A young soldier I had not noticed stood a hundred feet away, halfway up the hillside, down in a small hollow. Even the dripping black trees stood at attention, solemn and sad, as the long notes slowly came to an end. It became very quiet. A silent breeze breathed down from the hill and brushed our tears.
A dramatic movie scene: in what surely was slow motion the flag detail formally unfolded the flag, with unfailing precision, and tight side steps. Then they proceeded to refold the flag. My mother and I sat and watched. What were they doing? The red stripes were gone. Refolded, the flag showed only the white stars on a blue field. Oh. The flag of a fallen soldier. I examined the faces of the boy soldiers. Details at Arlington National Cemetery are awarded to the top, the crème de la crème. Could this be so? They looked to be children, perhaps 15 years of age. No. They were older than my father at his death. They seemed thin and frail inside their grown-up formal uniforms. Their hats were set upon their shaved heads just so. Their slender necks look tender and fragile. Their faces were handsome, closely shaven. They were soldiers, trained to use their weapons, trained to kill. Did they know what this meant? Did they know the risks they faced? Did their mothers weep that they were in uniform, or were they proud? Or both?
The young soldier in charge of the flag detail walked with the chaplain toward my mother and me, and presented the flag to my mother. She would rather be receiving my father, alive or dead, in her 80-year-old arms, but she gratefully received the flag. The flag was better than nothing at all, after all these years.
The chaplain took my mother’s hands in his. He spoke to her in soothing tones. Then he took my hands and looked into my eyes. I don’t remember what he said. My heart brimmed with grief for the man I never knew, for the idea of my young father forever lost to me. A therapist once told me that a child can indeed grieve for a father whom she never knew. The chaplain’s need to comfort us was palpable. I felt the need to comfort him. How often must he deal with newer grief than ours? How could he do this, day after day after day?
The soldiers marched away. The flag detail went in one direction, professional, crisp, beautiful to behold. The rifle detail marched away from the ridge and disappeared in the distance. The bugler was there one moment and not the next. The chaplain said his goodbyes, as did the funeral representative. My mother and I were left alone under the tent. The silence returned. I felt empty. My mother was very still. Time passed. My mother and I made our way among the graves to my father’s stone. He was not there. But this stone meant that he had been. That he had lived, and died. This had been a good thing to do. I thought about my father’s parents, who would have been so moved and proud of this ceremony if they still lived to see it. I breathed deeply and took the moist air, and earth and pines smells into my lungs. For a long moment I held that breath. And then I breathed out peace.