Finding Uncle Irving

When I was a kid I hated my middle name – Irving. What a burden to be saddled with a name that drew instant smirks and snide guffaws. How was I ever going to get a date? I lied about it if asked. “Bruno,” I used to say. Then there’d be some kid who could read. “Yeah? Then how come it starts with an ‘I’? Tell me that. Maybe it’s Idiot.”

In my 20s I began to think it was cool, signing my name James I. Olsen. I no longer apologized but bragged. How often did you meet a guy named Irving? There was Washington Irving and Irving Berlin, but no regular ordinary Irving’s hanging around the drug store smoking cigarettes. Some chick told me once it sounded like a writer’s name. I am a writer, I told her. She probably didn’t believe it, but pretended to.

I actually got the name because of World War II. After fighting for his life on Iwo Jima and earning the Bronze Star for heroism, my mother’s elder brother – Irving Birkemeyer – was killed by the Japanese. He made the front page of his hometown newspaper twice in the same week – for heroism and for dying. He would’ve been my uncle if he’d lived. I was born the following year and my mother christened me with his name.

I loved my parents. They were good people, but apparently never read a comic book. Like Superman, for example. Who doesn’t know that Superman is Clark Kent, and his sidekick is a simple-minded, poor excuse for a man, cub reporter Jimmy Olsen? Add Irving to that and you might just as well go out somewhere and drown yourself. All my life I’ve endured the obvious jokesters – “Hey! Seen Superman lately?” “Ever date Lois Lane?” and my favorite, the so often repeated “Did you know Jimmy Olsen was Superman’s pal?” What can I tell them? “No. It never occurred to me. You’re the first person who ever mentioned it. You bonehead.”

Not that I’m complaining really. I got my first newspaper job because the Assistant Publisher wanted to have my byline on the pages of his six newspapers. They loved me there in Alabama, where just about everybody is named Jimmy, or Billy Bob or Cindy Lou. I finally created a weekly column – Jimmy Olsen’s Planet. A place populated by the smart alecks kicked out of your junior high study hall. After all, they had to go somewhere.

My life might have gone on that way forever – same old Jimmy jokes and Irving jokes. Gritting my teeth every time somebody started in again. Then I read a book. Flags of Our Fathers by another James – James Bradley. It’s a fascinating and horrifying account of U.S. Marines fighting on Iwo Jima in 1945. Dying by the thousands, their corpses bulldozed aside to land more troops who would soon be dead themselves. The war was nearly ended, and these Marines fought like it was brand new. Many fought on for weeks, their uniforms nothing but rags, without enough food or water. Hand to hand. Vicious combat and one of the deadliest battles in American history.

I was stunned. The name Irving was no longer a burden, but an honor. Didn’t do anything for the Jimmy, but what the heck.

When I was in the service myself, the U.S. Navy, and on my way across the Pacific headed to Vietnam a second time in 1966, my mother wrote me a letter. In it she told me to ask the captain to swing by Iwo Jima so I could take a quick picture of her brother Irving’s grave. No one in the family had ever seen his grave and it would be a comfort. Knowing my mother quite well, I didn’t answer the letter. I could never have explained what the captain would’ve said to Seaman Olsen if he’d ask him to swing his warship a couple thousand miles over to Iwo Jima to take a picture. My mother would’ve thought him just plain rude.

But at the end of Flags of Our Fathers, Bradley sums up some of the details of those Marines killed there. He said by 1949, all had been repatriated to the United States, to their families. And I stopped reading and my mouth dropped and I realized that Irving’s wife, son, daughter, sisters, brother, mother and father had no idea where he was. Certainly, it wasn’t in a grave on Iwo Jima, since there weren’t any. The Japanese where there. We gave them the place back. (We do dumb things like that.)

At first I thought the author might simply have made an error, but I soon discovered he hadn’t. So where was Irving? He’d been missing now for more then 60 years. His mother, father, brother, and oldest sister (my mother) were all dead. He had a younger sister in her 80s, a daughter we couldn’t find, and a son nearing 70. Somebody should tell them he disappeared. But I was the only one who knew, and if I kept quiet this was forgotten history, and maybe best left in the past to rest alone with its secrets.

I’ve never been very good at that, so I decided to keep my mouth shut but find out what happened to him. After all, I am a mystery writer and love a mystery. This one was close to home.

A side benefit of writing, is researching, either by talking to people who know or witnessed things, witnessing them yourself, or reading about them from a trusted source. One of my favorite historical authors is Bernard Cornwell, a Brit who turns history into fun, while at the same time getting it right – or pretty close. I had to find somebody who knew something about the U.S. Marine Corps and how they would have handled their honored dead.

St. Cloud has a great bookstore – Books Revisited – and the store employs one of the best Marine and military historians I know, an ex-police captain named Bob Thyen. I called Bob, explained my problem and asked for help. He asked for my uncle’s full name. I gave it. We hung up.

When the phone rang less then 24 hours later, I was shocked how easy it had been. Bob found Irving and gave me the web address so I could “see” his grave, which was in Hawaii. And so, as they say, the plot thickened. What was he doing there? He had and ex-wife and another new wife when he died at age 34. Children, family, friends and a prosperous business in Minneapolis. What happened to all that? We didn’t know anyone in Hawaii who would claim his body and have him buried there thousands of miles from his family, all of whom were alive and well in 1949.

The Hawaiian cemetery is one of the most beautiful in the world, called the Punch Bowl, not far from Honolulu. His grave is the simple marker that lines so many green acres of lonely soil at home and abroad. No reason on earth, I thought, he couldn’t remain in that hallowed ground if his family approved, but why was he there?

Few things in life are certain, but death is one. We prepare for it. Buy a plot or instruct our survivors to cremate us and spread our ashes someplace like the ocean, some lake, river or forest. And like there’s a beginning, there’s an end. We all understand this. But I didn’t understand what happened to Irving. Who decided where to place him? Why Hawaii, thousands of miles from home? Somebody made these decisions but my mother knew nothing about them. If she had, she might very well have taken the next flight to Hawaii. At the very least, since I’d been there often, she would have sent me to that grave for the picture.

The mystery hinged on the U.S. Marines and our family. The Marines knew what they did with him, and must have done it with the blessing of his next of kin. So it seemed simple. Ask the Marines. What did you do with Irving? To whom did you give him?

Divorce wasn’t as common in those times, but there were still plenty of them, and the results about the same as today – bitterness, anger, lawyers and broken families. Regardless of who is at fault, divorce is rarely a thing for families to celebrate. And so it proved in my own family. The more I learned the less I liked it. Irving was divorced not too long before he joined the Marines, leaving two children with his first wife. I refused to dig deep enough to find out why, since it could hardly matter now and was none of my business anyway. I just needed the name of his second wife to verify that she was next of kin at the time of his death, and the person the Corps would contact about repatriation.

And so it proved.

She must have instructed the Marine Corps to bury him in the National Cemetery of the Pacific, near Honolulu, Hawaii. And so there a former Marine named Bob, found him – my  uncle Irving and former member of the 28th Marine Regiment, 5th Division was safely at rest on U.S. soil. I was pleased with myself and called those in the family who needed to know. I was thankful to James Bradley for writing a book that sparked my inquiry. I regretted that my

mother never knew the truth.

Then I read the small print. The asterisk behind his name.

In the 1990s the United States wanted to move all these death records to computer, and so began a process to verify them. Records were not always accurate, lost, or too old and poorly written or copied to be sure if they said what someone thought then that they had said. By last year only about 30% had been verified. The project continues but seems endless.

So did I find Uncle Irving?

Maybe.

But more important, does it matter?

It matters to me because he’s my namesake. But most of the others who cared are now gone. And really, when I thought about it, why should it matter to me? I’m who I am, and he was who he was, and none of it can be changed. According to family legend, Irving earned his Bronze Star by attacking and killing five Japanese single-handed. He died some days later when a Japanese soldier rolled a hand grenade into his foxhole.

So, was he properly identified? Is he resting in the National Cemetery of the Pacific? Or does the mystery remain?

Well, life itself is a mystery sometimes and we spend far too much time trying to figure it out instead of living it well. So I’m comfortable with letting this one remain unsolved. But I have decided to make one change in my own life as a result – I will never again deny my middle name or apologize for it, but sign it proudly and remember I am named after a man who fought hard, lived life, and died in the service of his country. That’s a lot to live up to.