Americans celebrate the Fourth of July as the date we won our independance from England. But to keep our nation free, American soldiers had to fight our enemies and put themselves in harm’s way. The last big war we fought, known as World War II, was with Germany and Japan. Many Americans were injured or died fighting in that war. My Uncle Woodrow Dunlap and my father-in-law Robert Lane fought in that war. Both of them were captured and held prisoner, my uncle by the Japanese and my father-in-law by the Germans. Terrible things happened to them as prisoners of war. My Uncle Woody had red hair when he went to war; it was solid white when he escaped from the prison camp.
I’m very proud of my relatives who served during war time, which includes my father, who served in World War II, and my son, who served in the first Gulf War. They served to keep us free.
Another of my uncles, Eugene “Jeep” Hardin, fought in World War II as a fighter pilot with the 345th Fighter Squadron. Uncle Gene was nicknamed “Jeep” after the character “Eugene the Jeep” in the Popeye comic strip. Everyone in his squadron called him Jeep. His commander, Captain Orvil Y. Reece, told my grandparents, ” Gene was one of the most universally liked persons the squadron had.”
Before my Uncle Gene flew his last mission, he wrote a letter to my father, Robert Hardin, instructing him on what to do with his belongings. My father felt his younger brother had a premonition that he wouldn’t be coming back from an extremely dangerous mission. The mission was to destroy a German tank-repair facility in Bologna, Italy. My uncle and several other pilots died in that attack. His commanding officer reported Hardin released his bombs on the target with “devastasting effect.”
My uncle was born and raised in Rome, Georgia, and the Rome News Tribune stated, “Lt. William Eugene ‘Jeep’ Hardin was already a hero when his P-47 Thunderbolt dive bomber was gunned down by anti-aircraft fire on Sept. 5, 1944. Hardin,23, had won the Silver Star and Bronze Star for outstanding combat service while flying air support over Anzio beachhead in the previous winter.” On his final mission he earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and a Purple Heart.
My uncle was buried by an Italian in his flower garden. His body was moved after the war to a military cemetary in Mirandola, Italy, and later shipped to Rome, Georgia, for burial in East View Cemetary. In 1949, Father Bacilleri wrote to my grandparents asking to name a community center after my uncle. He wrote that the community center would be a place, “where school boys will learn to live in love and destroy hate.”
My grandparents had a stone obelisk erected at my uncle’s grave with a large bronze plaque at the base of the obelisk that details my uncle’s wartime activities and further states “he was prepared and unafraid.”
I have visited my uncle’s gravesite several times. Above the larger plaque is a smaller plaque with a poem that always touched me. It reads:
We have buried our sons beneath fig tree and myrtle,
The desert, the tundra, the snow;
Their blood, their valor, their faith, have made fertile
A world they will never know.