My father in law often spoke of his favorite Christmas gift ever–a box of shrapnel pieces from Army Air Force bombs.
During World War II, the United States’ industrial base kicked into high gear to supply bombs, bullets, aircraft, tanks, jeeps, ships, and GI helmets to the war front. Aside from supplying basic wartime needs for the over twelve million US servicemen, the American factories supplied all of the above for British, Soviet and other allied forces to help defeat the Axis powers. And it worked.
In a steel mill in Pennsylvania, hot molten steel was formed into everything needed to win the war. Part of that steel was formed into bomb bodies, weighing anywhere from one hundred to two thousand pounds each. The steel was scored to ensure an effective fragmentation pattern upon detonation, inflicting the most damage on the enemy. Many of those bomb bodies made their way across the country by train, to then be loaded into shipping containers for a trip across the Pacific to help liberate Asia from the tyranny of the Japanese Empire.
Upon arrival to the forward bases, the munitions experts loaded the bomb bodies with some form of explosive, then sealed each one with a fuze and tail for immediate use on a bomber or fighter going into combat. Many of those steel shapes made their way to bases around the Philippines for the liberation of our great ally and the thousands of civilian and military POWs held by the brutal forces of Japan.
One of those POWs was a young boy named Lee Allen. Taken captive with his pregnant mother at the age of 3, he knew only hunger, mistreatment at the hand of his captors, and the worst of living conditions. Lee, his forty-something mother and younger brother Hendy had few pleasures in life, spending each day hoping to survive long enough to enjoy the liberation of their camp that they knew would eventually come.
As the allies drew closer to Manila and their camp, the ground forces were preceded by American bombers and fighter raining bombs on all of the known Japanese positions. The explosions were both terrifying and exciting for the Allied prisoners, praying that the crews found their targets and missed their camps. For a young POW like Lee whose sense of hope and mortality were so distorted, the sound of those big flying machines and the devastation they brought with them was a thrill that he wanted to witness first hand. And the biggest prize of all was to score a piece or two of that precious Pennsylvania steel meant to destroy the Japanese forces.
Much to Lee’s disappointment, his protective and wise mother would not let him out during the bomb raids, and refused to let him scavenge for shrapnel. His disappointment was overwhelming, but his mother Buelah did not budge. She had treated too many victims of shrapnel to let one of her patients be her son. But she did hear the desires of his heart.
Buelah Allen, mother of two, widow of the war, and a woman who understood deep sorrow, was also the camp doctor. Having saved many lives, she set as her ‘payment’ for care, pieces of shrapnel. Over the months preceding Christmas 1944, she collected a small treasure for her son, then turned an old cigar box into the greatest treasure chest.
Christmas 1944, only a few months before the liberation of their camp, Lee awoke on Christmas morning to that greatest of gifts. A box full of shrapnel, founded in Pennsylvania, shipped to the Pacific, and delivered to Manila courtesy of the Army Air Forces, represented the efforts of an entire nation to liberate those POWs, even the six -year-old ones who had never seen the United States. They represented the wonder of machines he had only seen from afar as they rained death on his captors. And, most importantly, they represented the love of his mother and his realization that she had listened to his deepest yearnings.
On days like Memorial Day, we use symbols to remind us of the goodness of others, of greatness, and of sacrifice and commitment. Flags, images, statues, pendants and colors all can have special meaning that help us reflect on things that matter to us. For our family, a small box of metal shards remind us of the resilience of a six-year-old, the love of a mother, and a war effort that ensured our freedom for a few more generations.
Lee lived for more than seventy years after that Christmas Day, but that one was always his best.
Happy Memorial Day, and Thank God for the entire effort that has made and kept this nation free. Hard work, Sacrifice, Loss, and the Love of a Mother. Many Mothers.
The Story of the Allied POWs in the Philippines is a remarkable story of loss, resilience, and of many made significant contributions to the world after the war. A few examples of books detailing the history are: