Memories of fallen hero I never knew

By Ed Sherwood

With the approach of Memorial Day, I have been thinking a lot about my uncle who died in World War II. I was born in 1945 and do not remember learning about his death until I was 10 years old.

In my young mind, the war was ancient history. My uncle’s death was too painful for my mother to mention, though her big brother lived on in her memories. Learning of his son’s death, her father had a heart attack and soon died. We never learned much about our uncle.

Thirty years ago, my brother Tom named his only son “Peyton” in honor of the uncle we never knew. I entered the Army and during a long career, seldom thought of my uncle. I regret that Memorial Days came and went with little remembrance of him.

Two decades after my own military service ended, I have more insight, perspective and appreciation for that “greatest generation.” They fought for our freedom with the will to win despite great sacrifice, lasting heartache and the horror of war.

The dedication of the WW II Memorial in Washington on Saturday, May 30, 2004, heightened my awareness of their sacrifice. I saw with my own eyes, tens of thousands of aged, venerable veterans — including my wife’s father, Dr. V. Jackson Smith. Each had a story. More than anything else, they talked of their comrades who did not return from far-flung battlefields.

My uncle was there, too — at least in my wakened memory. His story was untold and nearly forgotten. I have proudly spoke of him since, sharing with WWII veterans and others: “My uncle Peyton was a navigator on a B-17 Flying Fortress flying out of England. He was shot down over Germany and is buried in France.” I didn’t know much more than that — and what I thought I knew was not quite right.

With Memorial Day drawing near, I began an Internet search to rediscover the uncle I never knew. I learned that 2nd Lt. Leslie Peyton Turner was a navigator on a B-24 Liberator with the 783d Bomber Squadron, 465th Bomber Group (Heavy), Fifteenth Air Force. They flew out of a massive airbase, Pantanella Airfield in Southern Italy, and made a major contribution to bringing the war to an end. Sixty-three years later, Pantanella, Italy, is once again a peaceful, rural river valley with little evidence or memory of its important war-time role.

Uncle Peyton died on Feb. 16, 1945, just a few months before the war ended. He was 28 years old. Enlisted in 1943, having finished four years of college, he received training and a commission as a navigator in the Army Air Corps before joining his bomber squadron. When killed in action, he had completed his full quota of combat missions. He was eligible to return to America and to pursue his dream of entering law school.

That fateful day, he volunteered to fly in a bomber crew that was short a navigator. Every plane was needed to destroy an aerodrome near Regensburg, Germany. German fighters from the base had wreaked havoc on earlier bombing missions. He was willing to go. Duty and honor required it. His buddies needed him.

Uncle Peyton, I learned, is buried in Lorraine American Cemetery, Row 10, Plot G, Grave 5 in St. Avold, France. He is there along with thousands of other nearly forgotten or hardly known heroes. I want to know more about Uncle Peyton and am continuing my search.

In the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, Moses gave Joshua and the Israelites a warning. After they had fought and settled in the Promised Land, living in prosperity, drinking from wells they had not dug, eating from vineyards they had not planted, and living in cities they had not built, Moses said they must not forget the Lord their God whose blessings had prospered them.

With World War II a distant memory and our nation living in prosperity unequalled in world history, we, too, are in danger of forgetting God’s providential blessings so evident during World War II and still at work. We are a forgetful people.

This Memorial Day, let’s pass on to our children why we remember and honor men and women who saw their duty to fight — and if need be die — to preserve our nation’s freedom, heritage and blessings.

I will be remembering my Uncle Peyton, the fallen hero I wish I had known.

[Ed Sherwood of Peachtree City, Ga., served with the 101st Airborne Division in 1969 as an infantry platoon leader during the Vietnam War and was wounded in action. This article appeared last week in the Washington, D.C., Times and is copyrighted by that publication.]

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