On Memorial Day 2013, I wrote a post regarding my uncle, Gilbert N. Caudle, Jr. My uncle, a Master Sergeant in the Marines, died in a helicopter crash in Korea in 1953 before I was born. My mother always referred to her brother as "Don," which, as the original post noted, was a family mystery. We could not figure out how you get "Don" from "Gilbert, Jr."
As the original post explained, I had been able to piece together more about my uncle's life from the Internet--including the fact he had been married shortly before his death--than we had learned from family history. The blog post concluded by asking anyone with information about Gilbert, Jr. (or Don) to contact me. However, that request felt much like putting a note in a bottle and casting it into the Pacific Ocean.
Much to my surprise, several months after writing the post, I received an email from a young Marine, Greg Holt. Greg had seen my post and it had prompted him to write. Greg is the great grandson of my mother's much older sister, Mildred. Greg had grown up hearing his grandfather Jerry (and to some extent Mildred) tell stories about my uncles Gilbert, Jr. (or Don) and Bill, especially involving their service in the Marines.
Greg is currently posted in Germany. I'm not exactly sure what the job title is, but Greg and his unit essentially serve as a concierge for injured U.S. service men and women being treated at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center near Kaiserslautern. Greg helps our injured soldiers get the care and benefits to which they are entitled, and also helps make travel arrangements for the families of those who are so seriously injured they cannot travel. Interestingly, many more injuries occur in regular day-to-day activities than in combat.
Greg and his wife Amanda just had their first child, a daughter named Harper. Amanda and Harper are not able to live permanently with Greg in Germany, but are able to make frequent visits.
I happen to do a lot of work for clients from Germany, and try to make a business trip to Germany at least once a year. This May, I traveled to Germany, flying into Dusseldorf. Greg, Amanda and Harper made the trip to Dusseldorf from Kaiserslautern and we spent a very enjoyable afternoon in the "Altstadt" (old part of the city), which happened to be be during a quirky event called "Japan Day."
Greg told me some stories about my uncle and even had some memorabilia from my uncles. It felt like the proverbial "message in a bottle" had been answered in full. Well, almost in full. Greg had no idea why my mother referred to her brother as "Don."
This is a photo of Greg, Amanda and Harper in Dusseldorf.
I had been meaning to post an update regarding my uncle since returning from Germany in late May. The fact that it waited until the Fourth of July seems appropriate, as was the fact that our family reunion of sorts in Dusseldorf was just before Memorial Day.
Not only is it appropriate to remember my uncles' service, it turns out that just about everyone in Greg's family (including his sister) serves or has served in the military or has been a military spouse. Thank you to all of them, and thanks to all our service men and women on our Nation's birthday.
Having just about given up on the "Don" mystery, I received an email from Greg this week. Greg had spoken to his grandfather Jerry (my first cousin) and Jerry knew the answer. When Gilbert, Jr. was stationed at the Marine Air Station in El Toro south of Los Angeles, Gilbert, Jr. apparently had quite a social life, including going out with some Hollywood actresses. Thus, the family began calling him "the Don Juan of the West Coast." My mother would have only been thirteen at the time, so maybe she didn't get the joke. Or maybe Gilbert, Jr. took to the nickname. In any event, mystery solved.
This story helped bring the uncle I never knew to life. It was good to hear there were good times before his untimely death. Greg's family has other photos of my uncles, including some photos of Don clowning around with his Marine buddies in the Pacific. When Greg gets back to the States, he can hopefully get those scanned and emailed.
At the time of the original post, no one in my immediate family knew where Don was buried. We had assumed he was probably interred in Korea. Greg told me Don was in fact buried at Arlington National Cemetery. A photo of Don's grave marker is available on the Arlington National Cemetery website.
I'm glad that my uncle was brought home. It is sad that my mother apparently did not know where her brother was buried, but I think she would be happy that her brother's remains were interred on American soil at the Nation's best-known military cemetery. I think she would also have been delighted about the small family reunion in Germany with such a nice young man and his family.
As I reflect on this somewhat remarkable--at least to me--series of events, the one thing that stands out is how little my part of the family knew about my uncle. It is so easy to keep in touch now with cheap long distance, email, and social media. It was not easy to do so in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and for much of the rest of the 20th Century. As my parents raised three boys in the Leave It to Beaver and Brady Bunch era, moving us around the country as Dad chased his dream job, it was difficult to keep in touch, and ties to the past faded.
Still, family history is important, and I'm so glad that Greg saw my post and reached out. It has been great learning more about my lost uncle, as well as about Greg and his side of the family. Although one mystery has been solved, another has come to light. I'm not sure why "Tennessee" is on Don's grave marker. Maybe Greg can help unravel that one, too.