Veterans Day 2017: remembering Uncle Reeves

Uncle Reeves and Aunt Jewell, early 1970s

My family has about the average number of veterans and career military personnel. I’ll write another day about the long career of my mom’s brother John Brackbill and his service in the Army and Navy. But on this particular day-before-Veterans Day, I’m thinking about my Uncle Reeves.

Reeves Dennis Church enlisted in August 1941, leaving his life as a merchant in Hot Springs, North Carolina. He trained in Boston; near the end of his life he told us highly abbreviated and edited stories of the infamous Scollay Square. In June 1942 he sailed to New York on the USS Siren as a seaman first class. By September he was sailing from Key West to Cuba, still on the Siren, having been promoted to yeoman third class. He was still serving on the Siren in March 1944, but had been promoted to Yeoman First Class. By May of that year he headed back to New York, when the Siren was decommissioned, and he was discharged in 1945.

USS Siren was a patrol yacht, originally assigned to coastal defense in New England, then redeployed to convoy duty along the southeastern US coast and in the Caribbean. As part of the crew, Reeves traveled to Trinidad, Jamaica, Key West, Cuba, and even to Brazil, and helped to rescue survivors of a U-Boat sunk by a Navy patrol plane.

That was the most excitement my uncle had. After the war, he returned home and married my Aunt Jewell, and settled into a quiet life, working for the NC state highway department. After retiring he would frequently give Appalachian Trail hikers seeking a zero a lift from the trail into Hot Springs. By the time I got to know him, thirty years after his discharge, you’d never have known that he spent the war keeping our country safe.

Which is one of the unique privileges we have had in America: to be kept safe by those ordinary people who volunteered to do extraordinary things.

My hometown POW camps

For every use of Facebook that is lamentable or just plain awful, there’s something like the Newport News group that I’m a member of. Filled with people whose memories of the Peninsula predate mine, it’s regularly full of surprises. None so big, though, as the pointer to a discussion forum on a Newport News High School site about World War II POW camps in my home town.

I think I had been vaguely aware that some prisoners of war had been housed in Newport News, particularly at Camp Patrick Henry (in my childhood Patrick Henry Airport, today known as Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport or “New Willie”). But I wasn’t aware of the scope: over 134,000 German and Italian POWs were housed in the camps at Camp Patrick Henry, Fort Eustis, a POW camp near the Port of Embarkation, Camp Hill, and other locations. According to one article, a major purpose of the camps was the “re-education” of former Nazis who were drafted into the German army unwillingly.

To my surprise, I also learned that there were enemy alien interment camps (like the ones in California that held a young George Takei) in New Market, Staunton, and Bath; these held German, Italian and Japanese natives.

History isn’t distant; sometimes it’s right where you’ve been all along.