MY DAD'S DOGTAG and DYERSBURG

73 YEARS LATER, DAD GETS HIS DOG TAG

 

 

Russ Kendig, opening the mail

THE CALL

It's Sunday night, the phone rings at 190 Perry Drive in Canton, Ohio which has the same phone number it's had since 1949 when my dad built the house. Some woman leaves a message: she's looking for Russ Kendig--does she have the right number? Her voice is so hesitant and sweet, she can't be a telemarketer, and I phone her right back and say, well sort of. I am his oldest daughter: how can I help her?

Diane Seat is calling from Halls, Tennessee to tell me her family has found my dad's WWII dog tag in a soybean field near what used to be the Dyersburg Army Air Corps base. Rather, after much sleuthing, she thinks it is my dad's. She asks,
Diane Seat
"Was his mother's name Bessie? Did they live on Tenth Street?" Yes and yes. We talk a fairly long time, for two strangers. I tell her about all the trouble Dad's crew got into at Dyersburg before shipping out for Europe, and she tells me about going on Ancestry and there, finding Grandpa and Grandma Kendig and their thirteen children, among them Russ, whom she figured would be 91 and probably not alive. She has tracked down two other dog tag owners and found one had died in the war and one had died in his early 80s. She'd be glad to mail the tag to us-- she knows if someone found her dad's tag, she'd love to get it. We trade addresses and phone numbers and emails and friend each other on Facebook, and then I wait.

Telling Dad

I drove over to Dad's senior residency to tell him. I have to drive over because he is never in his room, so reaching him by phone is impossible, and he never checks messages. He is sitting out front, and laughs at the news. He had another tag when he returned from the war; it's in our files, and it doesn't have Grandma's name and address on it. He has no memory of that first dog tag. My dad does have some dementia, but many of his WWII memories are crystal clear (he can still recite a lot of accurate numbers and co-ordinates for firing from a B-17), but only one really from Dyersburg.

My cousins say that they have two tags of their dad who is my Uncle Les and Dad's deceased big brother: one tag with Grandma's name and address and one without. Maybe stateside tags were one way, and then soldiers got new tags when they shipped overseas? I've asked a few vets. None recall, which is no surprise because there was much much much more to recall once you arrived "over there." Uncle Les survived the Battle of the Bulge and came out with purple hearts and bronze stars, and Dad survived many missions and earned several medals that are now in the files with the dog tag. Who remembered the stateside base? Well, actually, my dad does remember one story and The Canton Repository files hold the story too.

Backstory: Dyersburg to Canton and Back in the Dark of the Night

Russ Kendig in 1943, 18 y/o
This story has nothing to do with the dog tag, but it does have to do with the Dyersburg Army Air Base, where the tag was found, and it is such a good one, I am sneaking it in here.

My dad had started in training to be a pilot at a base in Lincoln, Nebraska, but as the war heated up, the army didn't really need any more pilots and sent him and many pilots in training to gunnery school from whence he ended up at the Dyersburg base, assigned to the crew of pilot Robert Ellis. That was the setup for one of those lifelong friendships the war cemented for some lucky men. Uncharacteristically for the makeup of a crew, both men were from Canton, Ohio. Bob was the only child of a sometimes single mother (when she wasn't married, which she was, five times) who was a flamboyant character. Dad was one of thirteen children of two loving and fairly strict, religious parents. Bob, an officer, was son of a fairly famous army officer who did not approve of his son's friendship with an enlisted man. Bob didn't care. My dad, who had six older brothers, really adopted Bob as another big brother in his life. Bob went on to live in Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Columbia, and the United Arab Emirates, but whenever he got back to the U.S., he visited Dad, who never wanted to live anywhere but Canton, and they'd stay up late talking and talking.
Ellis Crew at Dyersburg

While they were stationed in Dyersburg, the crew was assigned to fly a night mission for practice on a Sunday evening. I don't know where exactly they were supposed to fly to, but I know where they were not supposed to fly to, which was Canton, Ohio and where Bob decided they would fly, to see the hometown once more before they left for who knew what, but it wouldn't be easy. What anybody else on the crew thought, I have no idea, but they did fly to Canton, and then they flew low over it. My dad says that his family, yes, living on 10th Street, near the Fairgrounds, came out on the front lawn, and that Grandma knew exactly who was in that plane and waved as they dipped the plane and flew up.  They then headed up Tuscarawas in Reedurban, where Mrs. Ellis lived and dipped again.

Canton Repository story from that night
Keep in mind they were flying a BOMBER and this was WWII. Three police cruisers were sent out to shine spotlights to help the plane land because the pilot had flashed his landing lights (in helloes to the moms out there, but the police thought he was looking for a place to land). It was all in the Canton Repository  the next day, noting it would go down in the police records as "The Mystery of the Low-Flying Bomber," and ends, "The pilot gunned the engines, all four roared and he climbed into the darkness and sped on his way."

Only, as Dad tells it, they did not have enough gas to get back to the base, had to stop to refuel and were busted. He says they were court-martialed, and the morning of sentencing, he received a letter from Grandma Kendig, with a copy of the clipping from The Canton Repository, which Dad says he burned immediately. The army was more anxious to get the crew to Europe than to punish them for a few gallons of gas, and they were shipped out shortly after.

The Tag Wends Its Way Home 

Yesterday, my mailman came up to my back porch and yelled at me as I worked in my garden,
Dad with the new tag and the old and Dyersburg reading
"Diane, I have certified mail for you!" Diane Sheets wasn't taking any chances on the tag getting lost. I signed and drove over to take the package to Dad.

He opened the small envelope with the tag and we studied it. The thing I love most, after seeing my grandma's name and address, is that a tiny bit of Tennessee dirt is still clinging in the metal fold around the edge of the tag. Dad immediately took his current tag and chain out of his pocket, took his nail clipper tool out and cracked the chain open, added the new tag and draped it around his neck.

Then we looked at the rest of the material in the envelope. Diane Seat had sent us the brochure from the yearly air show at the base, a pamphlet on the base, which is now a veterans museum, and a history of the base 1942-45. She and her family are the heroes of this portion of the story.

I have a trip planned to Louisiana in the fall, and I am hoping to visit the museum along the way.

What did Dad have to say about this latest episode? He's a storyteller, but not much of an emoter or chatterer. (That was my mom.) When asked what he thinks, he just chuckles, shakes his head. He has no idea how the tag got in the field, no idea when he last took it off. Like much of the rest of his 91- year- old life, this provides another interesting tale, a small mystery with a happy ending, or as he does say, smiling, "I get a kick out of it!"


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