Fallen soldiers remembered on Memorial Day

wcrenshaw@macon.comMay 25, 2014 

James “Tex” Bentley Jr. spends each Memorial Day thinking about a man he never met.

On a June day in 1945, his 17-year-mother was eight months pregnant with him when she got the news that his father, James Bentley Sr., was killed during combat in Okinawa, Japan.

In response to a Telegraph notice seeking people who had lost someone in war, Bentley wrote in an email: “I remember my dad daily, but Memorial Day seems to offer a special remembrance, of pride and of tears for a dad I never met. I have the flag that covered his casket and the Purple Heart that honors him, but they are but poor substitutes for a young Texas man who my Mom said many times was so much like me.”

Bentley is originally from Texas but has lived in Middle Georgia most of his life. He currently lives in Dodge County.

His mother remarried after his father’s death, and Bentley grew up knowing another man as his father. It wasn’t until he was in the second grade that his mom started telling him about his biological father.

At first, he said, it didn’t faze him because he had thought of his stepdad as his real father, and he continued to think of him that way.

But as he grew older, he gradually began to want to know more about his biological father and gained a greater understanding and appreciation for the sacrifice he made.

Bentley has been told he bears a remarkable resemblance to his dad and has a similar personality.

“He had a dislike for bullies, and we had similar ideas of right and wrong,” Bentley said. “He was gentle unless provoked.”

But no matter how much he has learned about him, there is still a hole left.

“My curiosity has just increased over the years,” he said. “I would love to have heard him laugh and seen him and mom together.”

His father was 20 when he died. He was killed on May 10, 1945.

His mother and father had married two years earlier, and she became pregnant just before his father shipped off to war.

She was out working in a field on her father’s Texas farm when the news came about his dad. The mail was delivered that morning, and her father knew something was wrong when he saw the mail truck coming down the road again that afternoon.

The truck brought a telegram that informed his mom she was a widow. She had been praying for her husband’s safety every day since he left.

“She was a Christian all of her life, but she had a hard time with God there for a while,” Bentley said. “She went through one hell of a time.”

Memories of a lost brother

World War II was over when Mary Eva DuBose and her family learned her brother had been killed.

They were originally told that Tech Sgt. Jennings Bryan, a radio operator on a B-24 bomber, was missing in action. His plane had been shot down over Germany on Sept. 13, 1944.

Three of the crew members had been taken prisoner, but the fate of the others was unknown. It wasn’t until about a year later that the military confirmed the rest of the crew died in the crash.

That news was a huge blow to the family. Even though the war was over, they were still thinking he might have escaped and had not been found yet.

“I had lots of dreams he would come back,” DuBose said. “We never gave up hope until they told us he was dead.”

They grew up on Tybee Island, and she has fond memories of playing with her brother and sister on the beach.

“We absolutely adored him,” she said. “We had lots of fun growing up.”

When he joined he was working at a local shipyard, and the importance of that job to the war made him exempt from the draft.

“He said all of his buddies were going, so he was going too,” she said.

She isn’t sure how many missions he flew, but she believes he was close to reaching the maximum in which crew members were allowed to return home.

DuBose lived in Macon for 60 years before moving to McDonough six years ago. Her husband, Wayne “Wink” DuBose, was emergency management director for Bibb County in the 1970s and early ‘80s.

In a email to The Telegraph telling about her brother, she wrote, “Writing home to mama and us sisters, he said that the war was tough, but if it meant that we would live in a free and peaceful world, it would be worth any sacrifice he could possibly make. The pain of losing him has never completely gone away, but the memories of him are ever more sweet. He is my hero as he was a true patriot!!”

In a recent telephone interview, even after all these years, DuBose choked up talking about him.

“I think it’s important for me to really reflect not just what he gave but how many people, even from the Revolutionary War, have given their lives for this country,” she said. “I’m thankful to my God for people who were willing to give their lives. Every Memorial Day I celebrate the life of my brother and all of those who are brave enough to go and risk their lives.”

World War I soldier remembered

First Lt. Joseph Neel gave his life for his country 96 years ago in World War I, but his sacrifice is still remembered in Macon.

On the closest Sunday to Veterans Day ever since his death, his family has placed red, white and blue flowers on the altar at First Presbyterian Church.

His nephew, Joseph Neel Jr., was named for him. Neel Jr. was born after his uncle died but has learned a lot about his namesake.

“Joe Neel never told a lie,” he said. “His men thought so much of him.”

He died as the war was about to end. Neel said the military knew the war was ending but launched his uncle’s unit on an assault anyway to test out a new tactic using smoke to obscure the advancing troops.

According to Neel, a Swiss newspaper reporter got wind of it and wrote a story about the plan a week before. With the enemy tipped off, they just fired into the smoke, and his uncle was killed.

“He was a treasured mentor,” Neel said. “He had a girlfriend and hoped to marry her. It was just so cruel the American brass wanted to try something that never had been done when they knew the war was ending.”

Neel said he thinks about his uncle and others each Memorial Day.

“I honor all of those who have given their lives so that we can be one nation under God and have the freedoms that we have,” he said.

Combat veterans remember the fallen

Probably no one appreciates the meaning of Memorial Day more than those who served in combat.

Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Rick Goddard, a fighter pilot awarded the Silver Star for actions in Vietnam, said he had many friends who didn’t come home alive.

He wonders if people really understand the purpose of Memorial Day.

“It seems like it’s just another day off,” he said. “If you go down to Andersonville, you get a real sense of what Memorial Day is all about.”

He was referring to Andersonville National Cemetery, where 13,000 Union soldiers who died in the notorious prison camp there are buried.

Ralph Brown is a Navy veteran of Vietnam who lives in Bonaire, but he did not just view the war from a ship. The Seabees are a construction battalion that builds such things as bridges and runways.

He was severely injured when a landing craft he was on struck a mine on a river. His face still has scars from the explosion. Two of his fellow sailors died.

He knew many others who died in the war and regularly attends the annual service held at Warner Robins City Hall each Memorial Day.

He also is troubled by the way many people think of Memorial Day.

“Everything’s gotten so commercialized,” he said. “We have completely gotten away from what it was intended for.”

To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.

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