A peaceful experience in wartime

Posted: 13th November 2012 by Keith MacKenzie in korean war, remembrance day, veteran's day, war, Woburn

Korean War veteran Paul Cunniff and his wife stand in front of the new war memorial in Woburn, Massachusetts, November 12, 2012. (KEITH MACKENZIE PHOTO)

Yesterday, on an unseasonably warm day in Massachusetts, I went to check out the brand-new war memorial in Woburn centre that had been unveiled on Remembrance Day – or Veteran’s Day as they call it here – and had a great conversation with an elderly couple there.

As it turns out, the husband was a part of the design of the new memorial. He told me that some 10,000 tonnes of granite went into the whole thing. The names of some 11-12,000 war veterans – all from Woburn – was etched into the long granite walls that took up a huge chunk of the town centre. Veterans who had been to the front of every war that the United States had been involved in – the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, Spanish-American War, First and Second World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan… and even the smaller conflicts including Grenada and Panama.

To me, the whole sight was quite sobering. Thousands and thousands of names were there, many with the same last names, a telling statistic about the numbers of brothers and cousins who must have fought together in the same wars, and a distinctive star next to the names of those who didn’t make it back. There were quite a few names for a town that sports some 38,000 inhabitants.

When I asked the elderly couple whether they knew anyone whose names were on the plaques, it turned out that the husband was an Air Force veteran in the Korean War from 1951-1954. His name was on the plaque under the Korea section.

Only he never did go. He never saw action there, and in fact, had never been to Korea even to this day.

How was that possible, I asked? The reply: He was stationed in England for the entire duration of his service in the Air Force. It was an entirely peaceful service for him. He even took vacations to Ireland and Italy while there, and loved it.

When he returned, he was considered a veteran of the Korean War. He talked to his Woburn buddies who told him all their war stories, but he could not relate.

Turns out that during the Cold War, it was imperative that the United States have an Air Force base in England, in the case that the Soviet Union launched a nuclear attack on America. This way, the retaliation would be swift and through the “back door” of the Soviet Union, as he put it. Of course, this never did happen, and this man’s tenure in the military was totally, wholly peaceful.

“He was very, very lucky,” his wife told me.

I nodded in agreement. And then I told them my own grandfather’s story. As family lore goes, my paternal grandfather was in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War, but never saw any action himself. There were no glorious sorties over Normandy or deep into Germany or any of the sort. As it turns out, he was assigned to fix airplanes. The reason for this? He apparently was a fantastic pitcher in softball, and they wanted him around for the team.

Two stories of peaceful military experiences during wartime. They liked that, and so did I.