My father’s occupation is listed on my birth certificate as the VA Hospital. His Death Certificate lists ulcerative colitis. I received benefits as a “Designated War Orphan” from 1953 through 1968. Everything else is silence or speculation.
Then yesterday, another googled discovery! Researching Post WWII Veterans Benefits, I came across an article published in The Journal of Trauma and Loss, entitled “The Childhood Experience of Being a War Orphan: A Study of the Effects of Father-Loss in Women Whose Fathers Were Killed in WWII.” The work of Professor Sharon Estill Taylor, it was published in 2010 and is based on her extensive research interviews with these daughters who had lost their fathers in infancy or early childhood. Have you, dear reader, ever encountered a description of yourself that fits almost exactly? In the data collected from these women, I found my strengths and weaknesses, the same fears and fantasies, and the same life-long yearning and curiosity to know our fathers.
Consider the denial of our existence. Even though our mothers received benefits for us throughout our eligible years, no record of our names has been kept by any agency of the US Government. Once the benefits ended, we were erased from the records. The VA estimates that orphans of fathers who died while service-connected amounted to 186,000. That number does not include those who did not apply for benefits or who were illegitimate. One source writes that “the cultural ignorance of the existence of war orphans in this country goes so deeply that even those of us who are these orphans are surprised by this designation.” It is interesting to note that the designation “orphan” goes back to Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address in which he defined an orphan as a child who had lost a parent in the Civil War. Dr. Estill Taylor comments that “Lincoln’s words were cold comfort to the post-war children who were unknown, unnoticed, and disenfranchised in their grief.” Instead of grieving, everyone just got busy. Understanding of child development in regards to death was only beginning to interest scholars in the postwar period. Ordinary people did not “dwell” on death in the presence of children. Children were often excluded from funeral ceremonies. In the case of men dying overseas, there was seldom a body. Psychologists have come to discern that these absences contribute to “magical thinking” that the father would one day return unexpectedly. In my own experience, I was told that ‘God wanted my father in heaven because he was such a good man’ and that ‘he was watching over me.’ I still had the fantasy that he would come back, that a mistake had been made, that he was not really dead. It turns out that many other women have harbored the same secrets for more than 6 decades.