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Remembering Is Too Easy
by Charles Lewis, The Ottawa Citizen Sunday, November 10, 1991

I'm glad my grandmother wasn't alive when the remains of Lt. Winslow Gardner were found.

Gardner's body was discovered earlier this year in the wreckage of a B-17 bomber, found 48 years after it went down in the jungles of New Britain. He was the only member of the 10-man crew who had never been fully accounted for.

What they found of Gardner was really no more than some pieces of bone and part of a boot. But by some miracle of forensic science a positive identification was made.

If my grandmother had been alive she'd have been wondering if they'd found another body among the wreckage, the body of her boy. All she ever really knew is that her son, and my uncle, Lt. Charles Lewis, went missing in action somewhere in the South Pacific in 1943.

I knew something about that plane. I'd been hearing about it all my life.

My grandmother always talked to me about the war and the son she lost; probably because I was named after him but also because I was interested in listening to her talk about ''my Charlie.''

The bitterness that ran through that woman was never far from the surface. She hated the Japanese and until the day she died could never understand why we were now their friends.

''Not after what they did to our boys,'' she would say.

It didn't help that I was born on December 7, 1950 -- exactly nine years after the Japanese attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor -- the anniversary of the day that changed her life forever.

If December 7 happened to fall on a school day, our teachers would always start the lesson by asking the obvious question: ''Does anyone know what day this is.''

I knew the answer.

On December 7, 1941 my father Benjamin Lewis was 15 years old. That Sunday morning he was sitting in the front room of my grandparent's home in Brooklyn, listening to the radio and acting as a lookout.

In the back room, his older brother Charlie was running a poker game. The lookout probably wasn't necessary. My grandfather was one of the few people I knew who actually approved of gambling. But I suspect the idea of having a younger brother ''watching the street'' just added to the artificial mood of danger.

It was very much a Brooklyn scene -- a bunch of the boys acting out the tough-guy image while the kid out front kept an eye on things.

Years later, a family friend who was sitting at that poker table remembered my father bursting into the game yelling, ''Hey! Where the hell is Pearl Harbor?''

What little I know about those next four years I learned from my grandmother and the little bit of investigation I did on my own. No one else spoke very much about the war. Certainly not my father.

My father is not one to tell war stories. During all those years I can remember him speaking about the war on maybe a half dozen occasions. And even then it was in bits and spurts, not really a conversation.

And except for once that I can remember, he never spoke about his brother. That time we were sitting together in a restaurant. I'd been away from home for two years and I had just turned 23.

''You're the same age my brother was when he went down.'' And that was that.

My father and his brother were close. I learned that from my grandmother. He still keeps a picture of his brother on his desk and on his night table.

Shortly after Pearl Harbor my uncle enlisted in what was then the U.S. Army Air Corps. It was an odd choice considering that as a child he was terrified of escalators. He was sent to navigator's school in Georgia and by the end of 1942 he was in the South Pacific.

My uncle's squadron was based in a jungle airstrip in New Guinea. I've seen only a few pictures of him from that time. He looked proud and full of purpose. He also looked like he was having a hell of a good time playing the part of the valiant young officer.

Lt. Charles Lewis, flew 14 missions. On one of those early missions he was wounded but still managed to return fire at enemy planes. For that, he was awarded the Silver Star for bravery.

But on June 1, 1943, on a reconnaissance mission over the Japanese stronghold of Rabaul on New Britain, his plane was attacked by more than a dozen Japanese fighter planes.

The lone survivor of the mission was taken prisoner by the Japanese and after the war he filed a report about what happened that day.

''They hit our gas tank, which caused our plane to catch on fire. The fire could not be controlled. Lt. Naumann, our pilot, ordered us to abandon the plane, but before we could do so the plane blew up. I was thrown out by the explosion. So were Lt. Lewis and Lt. Alvin. They did not have their parachutes on...'' That last part my grandmother never knew.

A short time after the plane was shot down, she received her first telegram of the war. It simply said that her son was missing in action.

The next telegram they received came around Christmas, 1944. By this time my father had survived fighting in France, Belgium and Holland. But just after breaking into Germany he too went missing.

There's a picture of my grandmother taken in 1942. She's smiling on the front steps of her 65th Street home. The most remarkable thing is that her hair is dark. It's remarkable because by the end of 1944 her hair had turned completely grey.

She received two more telegrams before the war's end. The first told her that my father was in a prisoner of war camp. The fact that he had been wounded in battle and then wounded again during an attempted break-out was kept from her. I think that by 1945 she was better off without that news.

The last telegram came just after the end of the war. It was to tell her that her eldest son had been killed in battle. There were no details except to say his death had been confirmed by the surviving crew member. The telegram offered the deepest of regrets. And that was that.

Just over two years ago, shortly after my grandmother passed away, I got a chance to look over some of the correspondence she had saved. It was mostly from my father and uncle from overseas. Their letters were purposely vague and full of forced cheer.

The letters, along with the telegrams, were in chronological order. The last letter of the bunch was written in 1946. That letter came from Paul Cascio, the only survivor of my uncle's plane. He was writing from Baltimore to say that he knew her son and he was sorry for her pain and if there was every anything he could do, just to let him know.

Until I discovered Cascio in the Baltimore phone book about two years ago no one had bothered to get in touch with him.

We ended up spending the day together. He told me what happened that day over Rabaul and showed me the report -- the one about my uncle blown out of the sky -- that he filled out when he was liberated from his prison camp.

Cascio really didn't know anyone on the plane very well. It was his first, and as it turned out, his last mission.

He told me that there were two other survivors. All three were taken by the Japanese. Cascio ended up being shipped to Japan, where he worked in slave labor for two years. His two comrades were taken somewhere else and were never heard from again. It was concluded at the end of the war that these two men were probably executed. He knew that my uncle was killed instantly because he found his body just after the crash.

The only crew member whom Cascio never saw was Lt. Winslow Gardner.

Just after my visit with Cascio the strangest thing happened. A bush logger in New Britain discovered the wreckage of my uncle's plane. The story made news for a couple of days. Even CNN picked it up. Cascio sent me some clippings from the Gardner story. As the only surviving member of the crew, he was interviewed for several of the news stories.

When I heard about this discovery I decided to contact Gardner's relative's in Utah. I'm not really sure why I did this but I thought it would be worthwhile letting them know what I had learned.

I managed to reach Gardner's sister by telephone in Salt Lake City and we spoke for about half an hour. At the end of our conversation I mentioned something about how it was to imagine all those young men having gone through these terrible things. And then she told me this story:

The girl her brother was to marry was now, of course, an old woman who had married, had children who in turn had children. But when she heard about the body being found it was as if the 48 years had vanished into a single moment. The disbelief, the anger and the terrible loss were all happening again. And the agony of it all almost caused her a nervous breakdown.

Time hadn't really healed anything, just buried it.

It wasn't so much a case of remembering, as never being able to forget.

Charles Lewis is an Ottawa Citizen feature writer.

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