A couple weeks ago, my daughter, Sophie, came home with an assignment for her AP U.S. History class that required parental intervention. The project involved the sharing of a story from her family’s history through the use of primary source documents.
Given that both my father and my husband’s father served in W.W.II, that was an obvious choice.
But still, I knew it would be a tall order.
Primary source documents may be common in many people’s homes, but not ours. My husband, Adam, and I both lost our fathers when we were still in our teens. Neither of our mothers are living, and as the youngest children of large families, we are not the keepers of the ancestral memorabilia.
So I tried to recall my own father’s stories of being in Europe during W.W.II. to see if there was anything there she could use. My only memory of him talking about the war came during a visit to Wright Patterson Air Force Base Museum near our home in Dayton, Ohio when my dad pointed out the plane that he had served on. I couldn’t identify the plane today, but it was fairly large and I remember his vivid description of how a fellow soldier was killed by the spinning propellers when he came too close while disembarking at an airfield. That sort of thing sticks with you when you’re an adolescent.
As far as actual documentation, the only photo of my father that I ever saw from the war was taken somewhere in England. He was in his army uniform and holding up two giant pints of beer with a huge grin on his face. Admirable, but hardly the stuff of military legend. Who knows where that photo is today.
The only other primary source material I remember was an old record that my dad recorded somewhere in Europe as a letter home to his family. I heard it just once or twice in the 1970s, played on the oversized hi-fi console which boasted an 8-track player, AM/FM radio and a turntable. It was a giant piece of furniture that performed three basic audio functions that any iPhone can accomplish these days. I remember being fascinated by the fact that the record played in reverse — the needle moved from the inside of the disc to the outside, unlike all the albums we had in the house. It was a scratchy recording of my dad’s voice, circa 1943, talking about how well the war was going and expressing hopes that he’d be home by Christmas.
To this day, no one else in my family recalls knowing of the existence of that recording. Like so many of my family’s memories, it’s been lost to both time and space and sometimes I wonder if I imagined the whole thing.
Which is why the arrival of three big plastic storage bins to our house two weeks ago generated great excitement. The tubs were filled with family photos — not mine, but that of my husband and they were delivered to us by my sister-in-law so that we can scan them in the months (or years) ahead, thereby preserving the Flax family legacy for all to share.
Here is where we thought we might find AP U.S. History gold in the form of photos of my husband’s dad, Sidney Flax. He was a W.W.II fighter pilot stationed in Okinawa who flew P-47 Thunderbolts and later, P-51 Mustangs.
We opened the bins and soon found ourselves sifting through dozens of photos, not of W.W.II fighter pilots, but pets from the 1980s and 1990s. My late mother-in-law loved her cats and she had obviously documented their lives with great care and downright obsession — especially one particularly nasty animal with an inbred lineage and bad attitude. It was a Maine coon cat named Rebecca DeBonice (I kid you not) and it was as nasty a piece of feline fur as you’d ever hope to meet. It met its demise some 20 years ago after it attacked my mother-in-law and her home visiting nurse and cornered the two of them in the bedroom. 911 was called, the police arrived, and so did animal control. The cops informed my mother-in-law that if the cat turned on them they would be forced to shoot it.
Rebecca went away that day and was heard of no more. But there are plenty of pictures of her … Rebecca on the bed with cat treats, Rebecca on the counter, Rebecca glaring nastily at the camera. What there weren’t was any 1940s primary source documentation of Sidney Flax’s time as a W.W.II fighter pilot — until we got near the bottom of one of the bins.
There we found them — three photographs taken somewhere in the South Pacific. One photo was of Sidney in the cockpit of his plane, another was of the plane itself, and the third was the money shot — an image of a P-51 Mustang with Sidney, we presume but don’t know for sure, at the controls, flying in front of Mt. Fuji in Japan.
It was as good a primary source document as we could hope to find, and along with the photo came a story from Adam’s older sister. On August 6, 1945, the fighter pilots in Sidney’s division were instructed not to fly beyond a very specific set of coordinates. Something big was happening and they all knew it. So naturally, the story goes, the pilots took to the sky and flew as close to the edge of the permissible zone as they could.
From the air, they saw the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima, witnessing a moment in history that ushered in the nuclear era and set in motion a series of repercussions that continue to reverberate to this day.
But Sidney’s own part in the tale was short-lived. Within weeks of the bomb being dropped, he was stationed on the ground near Hiroshima where he stayed for another year. No one knew much about the effects of radiation in those days, or if they did, they weren’t talking about it.
Which is probably why in 1976, my husband’s father — the P-51 Mustang pilot who witnessed the first atomic bomb being dropped on a civilian population — died from an aggressive form of brain cancer. He was 52 years old and to my way of thinking, remains the ultimate primary source document.
I very much hope Sophie gets an “A” on her presentation.