My grandfather’s brother, Jack Wilkins, was an all-star multi-sport athlete from the Main South neighborhood of Worcester. When Pearl Harbor was bombed, he and my grandfather signed up and shipped off immediately—into the marines and the navy, respectively. While my grandfather rode aboard a Navy fuel tanker, thankfully avoiding torpedoes and coming home safely, Jack was piloting fighters in the marines. When WWII was over, my grandfather came home to his wife. Eschewing the reported major-league baseball tryouts which had been scheduled before the war, Jack stayed on in the marines, and went to Korea a short time later.
Less than a month into Korea, Jack’s plane was shot down. For the entire duration of the war, nobody in the family knew what had happened to him. In fact, he had been captured and was a POW. The way they finally became aware of this is that, when the war was over, there were several prisoners released. My family was watching the prisoners walk off the planes on television, and there was Jack, alive! It has become a piece of family history that is not often talked about, but the city of Worcester held a parade for his return.
Jack moved very quickly to a warmer climate (Florida), never to return to New England. He did not like to talk about his experience; the little I know of it I learned from my grandmother.
As interesting and impactful as this story is, it is but one of many. Jack’s experience was something that followed him for the rest of his life. My absolute favorite movie which explores the horrible things that can follow vets home in this way is The Deer Hunter. Yes it is very long, and yes some of the stuff is absolutely crazy, but it always hits me in a very American way. Of course, there are so many great Vietnam movies which delve into the psychological toll, but the connections I feel to the America portrayed in The Deer Hunter—the small, industrial town and its inhabitants—makes it stand out for me.”