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Missing In Action

Based on the true story of my Great Grandfather Jack Swain Harrison who died in battle in World War II.

© Getty Images

© Getty Images

Shawn Latulippe

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1943

My wife was driving me crazy. They were drafting for the war, but I wasn’t drafted. At first, I thought I was the luckiest son of a bitch alive–but then me and my wife Peggy started fighting again. She left and went to her parents leaving our 1 year old daughter Joyce and me behind, and I left for the war leaving Joyce with my mother and sisters. I thought our last fight was maybe a sign, a sign I was supposed to leave, fight for my country, and get the hell out of that house. I’d never believed much in fate or destiny, but the idea of returning home a hero drove me away.

Since then I’d learned to field-strip, reassemble, adjust the head-space, oil buffer tube and change the direction of feed on a gun blindfolded, but I couldn’t remember Joyce’s face. My sister Beryl woulda never forgotten, she could remember what she and everyone else ate for dinner 10 years ago. Part of me wished I had stayed for Joyce, I left her with only my mother and sisters to take care of her, Peggy would never be around, but I knew they’d take good care of her. At least one day she’ll see me and know I was courageous in fighting for my country.

We were finally off to s’more action. The kind I hoped might distract me from my life’s previous woes. Me and my crew were fast friends and a great team, so I was confident in our ability to accomplish this mission and go home in one piece. We had had nothing but successful missions before, but it was 1943 now and I feared this mission more than the others. We were in a b-17 and I was the top turret gunner. I climbed into the tiny space that would cause anyone with claustrophobia to die of fear and hoped for everything to go smoothly. There was one of the brightest sunrises I had seen in a while and before we took off, we all took a moment to let the warm, sunny orange and red colors blind us and lend hope to what lay ahead of us. I smiled like an idiot, checked the gun, took a deep breath, and braced myself for takeoff.

“We gotta plane down on the left!” Jimmy screamed.

“Son of a b***h! My gun’s jammed!” Tommy yelled.

“Why the hell am I shaking?” I mumbled to myself. I’d been an artist before the war and my hands were usually perfectly steady, but right now they were shaking more than ever as I tried in vain to hit any targets. C’mon breathe…s**t we’re outnumbered…another plane’s down…I held my breath.

“Pull up, they’ve gotta clear shot of us!” I screamed.

“Dammit Jack it’s too dark up there!” Cap screamed back.

BABOOM!  Electricity ran through my body as the plane took a small dive down.

Someone shouted “Tommy fix your f***ing gun or we’re dead!”

“I can’t goddammit!”

“We’re too vulnerable on the left!”

“PULL UP!”

CRRRACK! “WE’VE BEEN HIT!”

Ding ding ding ding ding ding–the alarms were loud but the blood thumping in my ears was louder still, “s**t!” I screamed as my head hit the gun and then snapped back against my chair. Screams filled the air like music and my eyes shut for a second. I have to make it back. I opened my eyes to red flashing and shimmied out of the tiny encasement, grabbed a parachute, and prayed to God I’d make it.

Boom! I sank and sank as the icy water it enveloped me, was I dead? No. I have to make it back. My eyes burned as I opened them to see the flashing water from above. I gasped as I reached the top and saw Tommy floating nearby. My arms smashed into the water as I fought against a current to reach him. I shook his limp body, feeling a lump in my throat after he didn’t move as I slapped his face. Planes were firing all around me and I realized our plane was gone, as if it had never existed.

A mirage of land lay before me and I swam through the morning to reach it. There I lay laughing on a bed of sand staring at a red sky above and closed my eyes. I have to get back. My eyes fluttered open and I summoned the strength to walk and took off my shoes to feel the earth beneath me. I began to run and didn’t stop till I found a town where I could find my way back.

The sun got brighter as I grew closer to the door. I couldn’t stop smiling and imagining the looks on their faces. I had made it. Finally my red cottage loomed over me and I prayed they were all there. I cleaned up before seeing them and I couldn’t wait to tell them of my time at war and how I survived against every odd there was. I knocked at the door and waited. Peggy opened it and dropped the mail she held staring at me with her mouth open as though I was a ghost she’d summoned.

“Jack?” she questioned timidly.

“Miss me?” I answered.

“Oh my god, oh my god, I can’t believe you’re alive, they said your plane went down, I love you so so much please forgive me Jack, oh god, I just can’t believe it’s you!”

She jumped into my arms and I swung her around me and then saw my mother and sisters walking over with Joyce. I ran to them and grabbed Joyce and swore I’d never leave her again. The sun seemed to shine brighter and brighter illuminating the red house we all stood outside of laughing and smiling. “I love you all so much” I choked out as the sun became more and more blinding. And then– darkness.

Present Day

“Mimi, what happened to your daddy?” the young girl questioned, as she examined the black and white picture of a man with dark hair and a smirk on his face in an old looking uniform.

“His plane was shot down over the Baltic Sea in World War 2, he was the top turret gunner, which means he sat in the top part of the plane. My mother, your Great Grandma Peggy, got a note in 1944 telling her that his plane was lost and Jack and his crew were presumed dead” Joyce replied to her granddaughter.

“But weren’t there parachutes, couldn’t they have jumped and landed in the ocean?” The young girl asked as she crawled into her Mimi’s lap.

“Well sweetie, there was a story from a few guys in another plane that there were 2 parachutes out of your Great Grandpa Jack’s plane, but we searched the Prisoner of War camps and we could never find anything more on what happened to him or any of the men in his crew.” Joyce replied as she stroked her granddaughter’s blonde hair.

“Why did he go to war, why did any of them go?” The young girl questioned, trying to make sense of why anyone would choose to go to war. 

 “He wasn’t drafted, but him and your Great Grandma Peggy fought a lot and he needed an escape from her and his life and a lot of men felt it was a good cause to fight  and die for ” Joyce answered a little shakily, because even she would never know exactly why he had to leave.

“So he died because of her?” The young girl’s green-blue eyes bore into her Mimi’s large, dark brown eyes as she waited for an answer.

“No, no it’s never that simple.” Joyce paused to take a deep breath. “My mother was broken when she got the note from the army in 1944 that said Jack had been declared missing in action and presumed dead, but yes she could’ve been a better mother and wife, but she was young and naturally selfish. She regretted it all in the end of her life and I forgave her for it all a long time ago. People make mistakes, often not knowing the pain those mistakes will inflict, but I know your Great Grandpa Jack has forgiven her, because we always forgive the ones we love, and he loved us very much.” Joyce smiled and hugged her granddaughter tighter. 

The young girl teared up and asked, “What do you think he thought of when the plane was going down?”

Joyce thought for a moment, “I like to think he got closure. I think he saw all of the people that loved him and I’d like to think he was happy.”

“I think he was too.” The young girl said and smiled with watery eyes as she thought of what it would be like to have her dad leave for war and not come back.

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Missing In Action