Dear Uncle Beck

25 May

Dear Uncle Beck,

It seems odd to call you uncle. I never even knew you, although you were one of my grandfather’s half brothers. But you died 18-1/2 years before I was even born. And yet, on this, the 64th Memorial Day since you were killed in Southern France, I find myself wanting your death not to have gone unnoticed or to be forgotten among those of so many other brave military personnel who died in that war and all of the others our nation has been involved in.

Remember those who fought for your freedom

Remember those who fought for your freedom

Because you didn’t have the chance to marry and have children who could remember and memorialize you, I want to take this opportunity to share what little I know about your life. Who knows? Perhaps one of your buddies from World War II will see this and write to me to tell me more about you.

I know you were born Sylvester Austin Mattingly on 12 Jun 1915 in Daviess Co., KY. You died in combat in southern France on 20 Nov. 1944. Your family requested that you remain buried there at the Epinal American Cemetery. I hope to one day go to France and place a flag and a rose at your grave.

You were a 1934 graduate of Daviess County High School. I’m not sure what you did between the years of 1934 and 1941 when you volunteered to serve in the US Army on either 21 or 28 Feb. 1941–more than nine months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. That heroic action speaks volumes as to your patriotism and strength of character.

You trained at Ft. Lewis, Wash., Ft. Ord, Calif., and Camp Pickett, Va., in 1941 and most of 1942, before being sent overseas–landing in French Morocco on or about 2 Nov. 1942. (That was 13 years to the day before your grandniece and my oldest sister was born). Newspaper accounts of your death tell me that you had been promoted to the rank of Staff Sergeant by the time you were killed and that you served with the army’s infantry.

Your December 1944 obituary from an unknown newspaper reads, in part: “From the battlefields of Africa he was sent to Sicily, and from there to Italy where he was seriously wounded 29 Sept. 1943. He was sent to a hospital in North Africa where he spent three months, and from there was sent back to his division. He was again wounded, but slightly, and remained for treatment in a hospital in Italy. He rejoined his comrades in Southern Italy and was with them in Southern France where he was fatally wounded.”

With three battle wounds (including the one that took your life), you probably received the Purple Heart and two Oak Leaf Clusters. I have no idea if your father or sister or who in the family received those or where they might be right now. I hope someone takes them out every now and again and remembers you and the ultimate sacrifice you made for their freedom.

Even without the tangible medals, I hope this letter does that for you and that you know your death was not in vain. Because of your sacrifice, I live in a country where I can write this letter in freedom.

I only know what you looked like from a grainy photo in the 7 Dec. 1944 Owensboro (Ky.) Enquirer. You were such a handsome, vibrant-looking man. I’m sure your father and many siblings remembered you that way until the day they passed from this world to join you in heaven. I guess it was a blessing that your mother, Mary Jane Coomes Head Mattingly, my great-grandmother, had passed away during the influenza epidemic of 1918. She had already buried five of her ten children before they’d reached school age.

You were just three when my grandfather (your half-brother) went off to serve in World War I. He never said much about his Daviess County family–by then, he’d lost both parents and all of his siblings. I don’t think he came back to Daviess County much. I only learned about you when I began to do the genealogy of this part of my family back in the 1980s.

And so, my brave Uncle Beck, I leave you now, grateful for the sacrifice you and many others in the US armed forces have made over the centuries for this country I love. I regret that I never met you. Perhaps some day, we can get to know each other better on the other side.

But I promise you that, as long as my memory is strong, I will never forget you.

Your grandniece,

Rita Mackin Fox


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