Saving Private Ryan includes so many devastating, unforgettable moments that, at least seem to, give us some glimpse into the emotional horror of war. One scene about halfway through the movie almost appears to offer a needed drop of comic relief. The small group is on a mission to rescue the last surviving Ryan son after his brothers were all killed around the same time. They think they’ve found the guy and Tom Hanks’ character breaks it to him that his brothers were all killed. He absorbs this news and then asks how this could be because his brothers are all under 14 and safe back home. This soldier’s middle name didn’t match. They had the wrong Private Ryan. The guys on the mission groan and the mix up is almost a light, funny moment, until the soldier starts asking about his brothers. Tom Hanks’ character tell him he’s sure they’re fine but he doesn’t know. And suddenly this guy is terrified that something happened to his younger brothers. They tell him, Don’t worry, it’s just a mix up, and he says, “Maybe the mix up is that this other guy’s brothers are okay and mine aren’t. How do you know?”
The focus returns to the characters resuming their search for the correct Ryan, but you still hear this soldier pleading that he has to go home and make sure his brothers are okay. You realize, here is a guy stuck in the middle of Europe surrounded by death and dying. His communication with his family back home is probably letters that find him even less frequently than my grandmother’s letters got to my grandpa who was always, at least, on the same ship. His solace must have been knowing his family was safe back home and now his trust in that has been shattered. He would have to return to the business of war with this not knowing weighing on his mind for however many weeks until another letter found him. How or if he managed this the movie doesn’t tell us.
The telegram my grandfather received on page 82 of Letters Home is meant to be the one surprise in a book I didn’t feel right about filling with surprises. The telegram, announcing his baby’s death instead of birth, “scared the socks” off my grandpa even with him knowing, because of letters announcing her (my mother’s) birth that arrived previously, that the telegram had to be a mistake. The telegram was meant to arrive weeks earlier. I don’t know if anyone else who’s read Letters Home wondered, as I did, What if it had?
The telegram would have arrived around the same time he was hit over Kure and had to crash land in the Pacific. Right during the period my grandmother refers to him as feeling “so bitter” in his letters of the 28th and 29th of July. In this “alternate history” he would have also been mourning the loss of his baby. What would have happened? I’m almost certain nothing would have changed from our perspective. He would have remained focused on his job despite mind boggling dejection and, in a week or two, would have gotten a letter that his wife and baby were both fine. He might spend another nightmarish week wanting confirmation. Which should he believe the telegram or the letter? He had a scientific mind and would likely have figured out how close “birth” and “death” are in code, as he describes in a letter home on August 30th (page 82). and believed the words in my grandmother’s handwriting. Though frazzled and dejected as he must have been feeling, how sure could he have felt about anything. He would have needed to see them, but wouldn’t have gotten that chance until the war ended and he got to come home.
That telegram arriving late is on par with the miracle he describes of surviving the explosion in his cockpit when he was hit over Kure, in my mind. I even wondered, Did they hold it up because the news was bad? A miraculous coincidence seems more likely, but I’m not sure we’ll ever know, for sure. I consider that a miracle because we know now that the trauma of war inflicts emotional damage that doesn’t vanish when the war ends. And for these men, that damage went undiagnosed, because then PTSD didn’t have a name. These men simply came home and went back to living as best they could. What they were dealing with they dealt with alone. And I don’t know what my grandpa dealt with, but my guess is that it would have been exponentially worse if that telegram had arrived on time. (Miracle #2)*
*For people who haven’t read the book, in his description of getting hit he marks the explosion breaking the lenses out of his goggles but no shrapnel getting in his eyes as Miracle #1. He doesn’t number the next events that led to him crash landing in the Pacific and being picked up by a destroyer, but he must have considered them a series of miracles.
If you’d like to read the book, you can follow the link below and purchase an Ebook or paperback from Amazon. Feel free to contact me and I’ll get a copy of either one to you. My goal is to gift copies to interested readers, and if you made it this far, you qualify. Thanks for your interest in my grandfather’s story.