GENDUSA COLUMN: Keep the soldiers in your heart

Published 10:30 am Wednesday, May 25, 2022

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Byron Woodrow Durham kissed his newborn infant, Bobbie Jean, before leaving to combat the enemy in December 1942. Agnes, his wife, and one-month-old daughter remained in Cairo, Georgia, anxiously waiting for his return one ambiguous day in an unknown future.

Over 16 million men and women tearfully watched as loved ones departed to defend our nation during World War II. Sadly, over 400,000 of these brave warriors were killed in action. Some remained on foreign soil, buried in graves where white crosses rise from hillsides, while others returned home to rest in family plots and military cemeteries. And then there are those like Byron.

On July 1, 1944, 32-year-old Army Air Force Private First-Class Byron Durham was one of four passengers and five crew members who boarded an air airplane in Papua New Guinea on a courier mission. The plane disappeared, and Byron and all aboard were lost. They became nine of the 79,000 soldiers missing in action during WWII. 

Numbers from any tragedy or war are not merely statistics. Each digit represents a human being with stories, history, and family, including babies, spouses, fathers, and mothers. Each account illustrates heartbreak, grief and countless prayers. Statistics are numbing, but reality should bring us all to our knees when attaching a soul to each number.

Bobbie Jean never knew her father except through pictures and others’ memories. She grew up happily in South Georgia and earned a degree in Early Childhood Education, teaching children until she retired in 2000.

However, Bobbie’s father was never far away from her heart, even though neither his remains nor his aircraft was located. Byron had given his life for his country, and his daughter began to contemplate what she could do to honor his brave sacrifice.

She began by finding the names of soldiers from her hometown who died in battles while defending our country. Bobbie Jean petitioned the Grady County Commissioners for permission, businesses to donate money, and a local high school shop class to turn her dream into reality. Once she raised funds, she went to work purchasing wood, American flags, and supplies.

On Memorial Day 2001, Broad Steet in Cairo, Georgia, was lined with 73 white crosses topped with an American Flag furling in the wind. Each cross displayed the name of a lone soldier who one day waved goodbye to their loves only to never return. Bobbie Jean’s father’s name was among them.

The day after Memorial Day, Bobbie received a call. “Ma’am, we call about your missing father, Private First-Class Byron Durham. We found the wreckage of his airplane in the hills of Papua New Guinea. Our team worked for almost two years to identify the remains of those who perished that July day. We will need you to verify Private Byron Durham is your father through your DNA.”

Shocked, Bobbie realized that just a few days before, she had installed her dad’s cross on the street where he roamed as a boy and who now was no longer lost. The rest of the soldiers who perished with her father were also identified.

Today, these brave comrades who lost their lives in 1944 are interred beside each other in Arlington National Cemetery.

Bobbie Jean finally, peacefully, waved goodbye to her father.

This is only one story of countless others whose lives ended or are lost because they defended our freedom.

And it is one account out of millions of children who never had the pleasure of knowing their mothers or fathers because of an enemy.

When I talked to Bobbie Jean, she told me that she watched as folks celebrated with backyard cookouts, trips to the lake, and perhaps enjoyed a baseball game each Memorial Day throughout her life. However, for her, the day meant so much more. Her life was entirely altered by the events after her father’s last kiss. He was not a number in the record books; he was her dad who once played in the park in a small American town in the south. 

Our freedom was earned on the backs of those who fell, who fought, and who sacrificed so much.  It is maintained by those who serve and who cherish our land.

Today, out of the 16 million who served in World War II, about 240,000 are still living. They will be gone soon as age takes them away. But they and all who gave so much should never leave our thoughts and hearts.

Our brave soldiers exemplify the best of who we are, and we, who enjoy our freedom today, should honor them with the utmost respect by living thankful lives.   

Don’t you think it is odd Bobbie Jean found her dad once she raised his cross? I don’t. You see, old soldiers never die … If you keep them in your heart.