My Uncle Neyland, me at age 3 or 4, and my Uncle Troy. Much against his parentsí wishes, my Uncle Troy joined the Navy, but the war was over right after he was trained. He didnít see any combat.
I always think about my uncle Neyland Compton on Memorial Day.
On this past Monday, Memorial Day, I spent the better part of the day searching for a snapshot of myself with my uncles.
I remember him on Memorial Day because he is the only member of my immediate family who was killed in combat. And every year I am reminded about the human toll that war takes on families.
My uncle’s death affected several generations of my family. My grandmother never got over it until the day she died at 92 years of age. I suppose that is the way it is with most families who lose someone in a war.
My uncle Neyland Compton graduated from high school as the valedictorian in 1941. It wasn’t a very large high school but he was smart, as well as a handsome devil. He was an athlete, lettering in football, basketball, and track. He was also incredibly shy, according to my mother.
He entered Texas Tech in 1941 majoring in electrical engineering. My grandparents were so proud of him because he was the first child to go to college. He was on the Tech freshman football team until a knee injury sidelined him.
He joined the Air Force in 1942 and trained in multi-engine aircraft including the B-24 bombers.
He went overseas to North Africa and then to Foggia, Italy in 1944 and was assigned to the 727 Bomber Squadron of the 451 Bomber Group of the 15 Air Force as a B-24 pilot. This was a young man from west Texas. Don’t you know he was wide-eyed.
His plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire on his ninth mission over Linz, Austria on February 15, 1945. Five members of his crew were captured by the Germans and returned to the States after the war. One of the waist gunners who survived said the plane was on fire but under control as it was going down. He thought that Neyland was still trying to get it under control so all the crew could get out. Neyland was declared missing in action for a year before he was declared dead. We would not have known about it if a high school friend had not been stationed at the same base. He wrote my grandmother two days after Neyland was shot down.
The Army supposedly identified the body by dental records and part of the uniform. The only problem the family had was that Neyland had never had any dental work done. His grave site is in the American Military Cemetery in Ardennes, Belgium. I don’t think my grandparents ever accepted the fact that he was dead. I think they held out hope that he had been injured and suffered amnesia. Really.
I was just a kid and I hung out with my grandparents a lot. They ran the local telephone company which was located in their house and was the center of a lot of activity in that little hamlet.
I remember when the Air Force men came to visit to convince my grandparents that Neyland’s body was discovered (I think they wanted my grandparents to accept the body back home and bury it.) So in order to accomplish their goals, they split my grandparents up. I remember going for a ride in the car with my grandfather and one Air Force man while the other Air Force man stayed and talked to my grandmother. I was quiet as a mouse in the back seat and heard my grandfather tell the Air Force man that Uncle Neyland had no dental records and was much taller than the body that was found. I remember the Air Force man saying, “Well, if you don’t want him, we will take care of him.” In an effort to shame my grandfather to accept the inevitable. He didn’t.
Neyland’s wife, whom he had met at Tech and who had his child after he was killed, eventually changed the cousin’s name to the last name of her then-current husband. It broke my grandparents heart. But she brought the boy to spend time with my grandparents every summer which mitigated some of the pain.
When he himself had children, they all looked exactly like my uncle Neyland. I almost cry every time I see them, thinking of what might have been. All three of my cousin’s children are incredibly shy.
One last thing: My grandmother received my uncle’s Air Force insurance. They asked her if she wanted a lump sum of $10,000 (I think). She decided to take a monthly payment to save it for Neyland when he returned. She lived 50 more years, saving $100 per month (I think) for 600 months. I don’t think she ever spent a dime of it.