Men of Earth and Sky

I always revered my uncle, an ace pilot who died a hero. But later in life I realized my father’s complicated legacy was just as important to pass on to my kids.

My childhood routine almost never varied. Every Friday afternoon, I’d climb into the backward-facing backseat of our family’s Dodge station wagon with my little brother, John. My older brother and sister took the middle seat behind my parents. We’d drive 15 minutes to have dinner at my grandparents’ house in the Main Line suburbs of Philadelphia, where we’d eat under the portrait of an uncle who died in World War II.

Dad always drove, with his cigarette cocked out of the little side vent window and his right hand draped over the steering wheel. He worked for his father-in-law, my grandfather; Friday evenings for Dad meant dinner with the boss. But we kids enjoyed the luxury and attention at Granddaddy’s big tan stucco house in Wayne, Pennsylvania, which had rose gardens, a shy cook named Helen, and a secret button under the carpet used to summon her. There was always roast beef for dinner, and before dinner, there was always cocktail hour. The kids had ginger ale. Dad drank Canadian Club and soda, which, as the years went by, became Canadian Club without soda. After cocktails we’d bow our heads to say grace, and I’d sneak a look around the table.

Granddaddy sat at the head. Sometimes I’d catch him looking up past his second wife, Anna May, to a large portrait of his dead son, Arlington Ward de Canizares Jr., wearing the brown uniform of an Army Air Corps pilot. Ward was the last male in the de Canizares line, a family that had sailed with the conquistadors to Cuba and once owned sugar plantations. He had an aquiline nose, translucent skin with the veins showing, and slightly bulging eyes, all of which, my mother would have us know, were signs of Spanish nobility. In the picture, Ward had his hat cocked at an angle that would have been called rakish on another pilot but that seemed off-balance on him. He was a delicate-looking man. He weighed all of 150 pounds.

“He was an ace,” Anna May would say. “He died a hero.”

  The author’s uncle, Arlington Ward de Canizares Jr.

Mom sat on Granddaddy’s right. She prayed for real, with hands folded, and she never looked up during grace except to shoot a look at a squirmy child. Dad, on the other hand, was an avowed atheist who never closed his eyes during grace. He looked down at the table, his hands unfolded, and a freshened glass of whiskey in front of him. I doubt he ever saw Granddaddy gazing past him at Ward’s portrait.

Ward de Canizares, Mom’s adored big brother, was by all accounts a good student and a good boy. Like many earnest children, he kept a “commonplace book” filled with inspiring quotations and his desires to become a model citizen. After two years studying engineering at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, he enlisted in the Army and went to flight school. Naturally, he was one of the top cadets. He seemed as close to being a perfect son as any parents could wish, but I know about him only from his school record (stellar), the accounts of his relatives, and his little sister Dorothy (my mom); everyone called her Pinky.

Ward became a pilot in the 56th Fighter Group, part of the Army’s Eighth Air Force, in Halesworth, England. The base lies on England’s easternmost hump, a one-minute flight from the English Channel. The group called itself Zemke’s Wolfpack. Led by legendary ace Col. Hubert Zemke, who had 17 kills by the end of the war, the 56th was already known as one of the most successful forces in the air. Just before Ward joined them, they notched their 100th victory, having shot down that many German planes. Ward and his group flew in the P-47 Thunderbolt, nicknamed “the Jug” for its awkward round shape, which resembled the milk jugs of its day.

The Jug was a heavy, slow-moving, nearly indestructible fighter. It weighed nine tons fully loaded and carried four .50 caliber machine guns on each wing, as well as a ton of bombs during ground missions. Pilots liked the plane because its cockpit was roomy and comfortable, and you could get a good view of the enemy from all angles except the rear. That cockpit contained one pilot. “You have to be on your toes to fly one of these planes,” he cheerfully wrote his parents. He was taught to swivel his head constantly in search of the enemy.

The Germans were flying the Messerschmitt 109, a svelte, lightweight fighter with machine guns mounted on the fuselage instead of the wing, allowing for far greater maneuverability. The best way for a Jug to beat an Me 109 was to fly as high as possible and then drop out of the sky like a turkey ambushing a falcon.

Of course, that only worked if you knew where the Germans were flying. Often, the 56th didn’t. Ward describes Me 109s appearing suddenly out of the clouds, often from behind. “Some character took a pot shot at me but missed,” he wrote his father in early April. “I didn’t know he was there till I saw tracers going over my wing.” He added: “Although I was shot at more than somewhat, I only got one bullet hole out near my wingtip.”

He downed two enemy planes that day. “All in all it was most exciting,” he wrote. “And I don’t mind telling you I was good and scared once or twice.” By the time he flew his last mission, my 22-year-old uncle had already destroyed three enemy planes.

He wrote those letters to his parents on thin blue airmail stationery, every day until the day he died. The last letter is dated April 9, 1944, Easter Sunday. A good Episcopalian, Ward promised his mother he would attend Easter Mass. Later that day, he flew across the English Channel with two wing mates. He helped to down one German and disabled two others. As they turned back for England, Ward saw that he was dangerously low on fuel. Suddenly, an Me 109 came shooting from behind, and Ward heard the group’s leader radio to stay on course, so his wing mates could deal with the problem.

Ward refused the order and turned with the enemy, drawing his fire so his mates could get a good shot. The German peeled off in retreat, and the two pilots got behind Ward and headed toward England.

“ Ward wrote letters to his parents on thin blue airmail stationery, every day until the day he died. ”

They droned over the Channel until Ward’s engine cut off. His fuel and ammunition were gone, he radioed. He was bailing out. He yanked the plane’s ejection lever, the cockpit cover flew off, and an explosive charge launched him into the air. Sprung into the slipstream, he smacked into the plane’s tail and dropped two miles into the Channel, where a waiting rescue launch pulled him out of the water. But he was dead before he fell. His body lay in the Army coroner’s office in Cambridge, England, while my grandfather played organ in the Easter service at St. David’s Church in Wayne. The Army buried Ward in a military cemetery in the rolling countryside near Cambridge.

Brave youth cut down in his prime: Ward’s story was easier to understand than my father’s. Growing up, I knew almost nothing about Dad’s war experiences. It may be hard to believe now, in this nostalgic era when the Second World War seems like some golden age of youth and heroism and swing music, but our elders didn’t talk about combat—not back then. Mine didn’t, anyway.

Dad wasn’t a happy man. A submarine designer by training, he went to work for my grandfather’s paving company in 1954. Resurfacing tennis courts was a comedown for him. But he stayed in it until he died of ALS 33 years later. He wasn’t big on choices; I suppose he didn’t believe in them. The chief wartime value he taught us was blind obedience. “Act first, ask questions later,” was his mantra. “What you kids need is a good war,” he said.

I was all for it. I read every one of Hemingway’s novels and despaired of having missed the Spanish Civil War. I wore out Sgt. Fury comics.

His own war was nothing like Ward’s. For one thing, Dad’s war lasted longer. Charles Ernest Heinrichs—his mates called him Chuck—was drafted after a brief stint as a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Originally assigned to Officer Candidate School, he got switched to status as a corporal and sent overseas in February 1945 with the 86th Infantry Division. The Black Hawk Regiment, as his unit was called, originally looked lucky. Landing at Le Havre, France, almost a year after the Normandy Invasion, they spent just 34 days fighting in Germany, crossing the Danube under heavy fire. They moved so fast that they left their chow wagons behind, and more than once the Germans stole them. Dad remembered endless truck rides, sleeping with a helmet on his lap and his head on the helmet. They sucked hard candy and smoked cigarettes to stave off hunger and exhaustion. Dad told us kids that on long overnight marches, some of the men would sleepwalk; officers would have to round up strays who wandered into the woods.

Dad never mentioned the fighting. Once, my brother John and I were shooting at each other with rubber bands, and I hilariously managed to nail John in the butt.

“If you ever saw a man shot in the rear, you wouldn’t think it was funny,” Dad said.

John and I froze. Dad had seen someone shot?

“Did you ever kill anybody?” I asked him.

He took a drag on his cigarette, squinting, then lifted a shoulder. “I don’t know,” he said.

The Black Hawks liberated a forced-labor camp in the Ruhr Valley on April 11 and captured the Hungarian crown jewels in Austria on May 4. Four days later, the Germans surrendered. Dad began drafting a letter to the MIT administration, asking for readmission. By mid-June the Black Hawks were in New York, met by cheering crowds as the first division to return from the war. “Last in and first out,” jealous soldiers in other units said about them.

But the Army had rushed them back for good reason: They were needed on the Pacific front. After a brief leave and perfunctory training in Oklahoma, Dad and the rest of the Black Hawks took ship for the Philippines. Once again, despite the redeployment, the division looked lucky: They were still on board the ship in Leyte Harbor when news came that Japan had surrendered.

We kids knew about Dad and the Philippines. He showed us pictures of himself, tanned and broad-shouldered, smiling while wearing a small Army-issue bathing suit and horsing around on the beach. They played volleyball, and Dad taught swimming. One picture shows him rearing off his cot just as his tent mates poured a bucket of water on him. If this was war, I thought, sign me up.

It wasn’t until my father was dying that I asked to see the war mementos he had stored in the attic. Among them was a pair of front teeth in a little paper bag, along with a note in someone else’s handwriting saying they had belonged to a Japanese soldier. There was another mystery as well: When I knew my dad, everyone called him Charlie. I didn’t learn that people called him Chuck until I went up to the attic. “He was a fun guy,” a man who served with him told me half a century after the war. “Happy-go-lucky, always smiling.”

Chuck (top left) poses with his tent mates in the Philippines.

When his service ended, he finally re-enrolled in MIT. He roomed with a pair of Harvard students, raised African violets in his room, and met my mother, Pinky, a secretary in Boston. He told her his name was Charlie. He called her Dot. They married and lived in New Hampshire and Florida while he helped design the last class of diesel submarines for the Navy, right at the beginning of the Atomic Age. My grandfather advised him to get out of the business. With Eisenhower decommissioning the military, he said, there was no future in submarines. So Mom and Dad moved to the Philadelphia suburbs, where he went to work for his father-in-law paving tennis courts.

Soon before he died, I began doing some research and discovered that many of the Black Hawks, including my dad, were scattered throughout the big island of Luzon in the Philippines. Dad was assigned to a group that worked with Filipino soldiers, hunting Japanese soldiers who were unaware of the war’s end, unwilling to accept it, or simply too scared to surrender. They had reason to be afraid: Their commanding general was already on trial in Manila, and the Allied prosecutors were unfolding evidence of atrocities against the Filipinos. The holdout Japanese were determined not to be caught; in February 1946, six months after the emperor surrendered, 30 Japanese soldiers battled the Allies, killing six Americans and two Filipinos. One of the last holdouts, discovered in 1974, escaped capture and lived on the Philippine island of Lubang for nearly 30 years.

When Dad and the others went looking for the Japanese, they were still hiding by the thousands in caves and tunnels throughout the island. Removing them meant crawling after them. When I read Dad’s regimental documents, I could only imagine what he saw. While Uncle Ward died a hero in the air, some part of my father’s life might have ended in the caves.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he said.

That was on Thanksgiving in 1986. The following March, when his disease made it difficult for him to walk, Dad filed his income tax, sorted his family papers, and had my mother drive him to the hospital. He died at the age of 61, going quietly and without fuss—stoicism common among people his age.

In the bestselling book The Greatest Generation, Tom Brokaw writes of accompanying his uncle and another veteran to a military cemetery in Bristol, South Dakota, where they place American flags on the graves. The newscaster sounds almost jealous of the two men: Having gone off to war, he says,  “they came home to resume lives enriched by the values they had defended.”

That sentence hits home to us Baby Boomers. My generation has always felt overshadowed by and envious of older relatives who fought the good fight and saved the world from the Axis powers. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, on the other hand, might have taken issue with Brokaw’s characterization. Sherman, who burned Georgia during the Civil War, made no distinction between good wars and bad. They are all hell, he said.

Families bear the chief memory of war and pass it on in story—all myths begin in the household. At dinnertime, I would tell my son, George, the stories of his dead great-uncle and grandfather. He preferred the ones about Ward; his favorite toy was a model of a World War II P-51 Mustang fighter. In high school, George toured war sites in Europe and became the first member of our family to visit Ward’s grave in England.

My son was no different from the rest of us. After all, Ward’s story tells us what good can come from a young man’s death. Yet I wonder whether our war lust didn’t start with just such a household tale. At the time George visited the Cambridge war cemetery, he was only two years younger than my dad when he went to war. When I think of my dad today, I’m struck that we didn’t give his sacrifice enough credit. He lived through hell—crawled through it—and maybe he never entirely left it.

Some other family now lives in my grandfather’s house in Wayne. But I think of it as still haunted by a pair of ghosts, and I have made sure George knows them both. One is my uncle, who died in the air. The other is my father—the man who looked down, eyes open, as the rest of us prayed.

Jay Heinrichs is the former editorial director of this magazine. He is the bestselling author of Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion.

Photography courtesy of the Heinrichs family

Originally Published April 2016