In 2016, as I was turning fifty years old and heading to Paris on a one-month fellowship, my mother told me offhandedly that her uncle had died over France on August 8, 1944. My mother, who had paid for the model warplanes I built, had never before mentioned that her uncle flew as a B-17 gunner in World War II. Harry Dale Park was the brother of the grandmother who had given me a book about this very aircraft and who had taken me to visit the Air Force Academy. My grandmother never once mentioned her brother—my grand-uncle—to me. For my whole life, I have been an aviation nerd and a history buff, and I was already directing digital projects at the Center for American War Letters when my mother dropped the memory of this missing family member into my adult life.
I’ve spent time doing what I call the homework of memory for Harry Dale Park and for myself. I returned to reading World War II history books and memoirs of flyers like Harry Crosby. I’ve become a member of the Hundredth Bomb Group Foundation, attended their gatherings, and talked with men who flew planes like my uncle’s over targets my uncle bombed too. I’ve flown in a B-17, stood in his flight engineer’s position behind the pilots and in his top turret position to the front of the bomb bay. Most importantly, I’ve made two emotional trips to Thorpe Abbotts in England and Périgny, France, where I discovered much more to the story of my grand-uncle than the monument to the crew of this B-17. Part of my research led to a cover story for Aviation History.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what it meant for him to come of age in the same small Midwestern community where I grew up, go to Europe to fight the war his country would ultimately win, and die at the age of twenty. I’ve been thinking a lot about his erasure from existence in my family and how difficult it has been for World War II veterans to talk about and make real for the rest of us their experiences then. I’ve also been thinking about what it has meant for me to come of age in the 1980s, to consider a military career at the age my grand-uncle joined up, and to make choices about my life and my career that Harry Dale Park never had the opportunity to discover. Had he survived the war, Harry Dale Park might have been the most likely role model for a kid like me. Instead, I’m piecing together his story now.
As we commemorate the 75th anniversary of World War II, I’ve been writing about this homework to figure out why Harry Dale Park’s life matters to me and also why doing the homework of memory is important in the larger sense of who we are and who we want to be, individually and collectively. I’m doing the homework of memory because individual and collective memory are connected and because we must do the hard work of remembering my grand-uncle and a generation whose surviving members are in their nineties.