Phyllis “Chickie” Shields was a cherub-faced 5-year-old when her mother, Gwendolyn, was handed a Western Union telegram notifying her of her husband’s death in the South Pacific.
It was 1943 and Jack Shields was a chief warrant officer in the 41st Infantry Division of the U.S. Army. He was 42. Gwendolyn told Chickie that malaria had killed her father. Then, following advice from a friend, Gwendolyn burned Jack’s letters to help her move on with her life.
Chickie was too young to ask questions. It wasn’t until 1973 that she learned the truth accidentally from an aunt. Jack had taken his own life. His daughter – nicknamed Chickie from birth after Jack’s father, Charles “Chick” Shields – spent the next 30 years recovering from the shock and stigma associated with suicide.
“I have a daddy-sized hole in my heart that’s never been filled,” she says now.
Years of healing culminates for Chickie, 65, next weekend with the dedication of the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. To honor her father’s memory and his contribution to the war effort, Chickie began raising money in 1998 to help build the $100 million monument. Her personal effort was so successful that Chickie enlisted the help of a war orphans organization – American World War II Orphans Network. Chickie and AWON raised $41,530.
“I decided the best way to get out of depression was to do something,” Chickie says, cuddling her perfectly groomed poodle in her Twin Lakes living room. “I desperately needed a way to honor my father and this was it.”
The American Battle Monuments Commission received $195 million in donations for the World War II Memorial that, with upkeep, will cost about $175 million. AWON’s contribution may seem like pocket change except the effort to raise the money earned the orphans’ group lasting visibility with the commission and 500 tickets to the dedication. It also tightened ties between so many war orphans and the parents they hardly knew.
“She’s done a lot for the World War II Memorial. She was determined to raise money for it,” says Ann Bennett Mix, AWON’s founder in Fredericksburg, Va. “Chickie’s the one who really made them notice us as a group.”
The experience helped Chickie reach the understanding that her father’s suicide was a casualty of war, and that he wasn’t the only one.
“Suicide is a fact of war, a psychological casualty,” she says. “The families of people in service today need to know that. It’s better to know the truth.”
Jack was 14 when he quit school to join the U.S. Army in Oregon and fight in World War I. Guarding President Woodrow Wilson in France right before the armistice was enough to motivate him to re-enlist for another two years. After the war, Jack turned his energy to the trumpet, becoming a well-known musician in the Portland area.
The Great Depression drove him to join the Oregon National Guard in 1934 to earn $9 more each month. He was still in the Guard in 1940 when the federal government absorbed it into the U.S. Army. Jack was 39, a husband and father of two daughters. He was assigned to the 41st Infantry Division’s band. In February 1942, the division headed to Australia, then New Guinea.
Chickie remembers sitting on Jack’s lap drinking from his coffee cup. She remembers ration stamps, her family’s victory garden and the blue star on a white banner in their window to show the family’s personal contribution to the war. She was the kid on the block with a dad in the war.
After the telegram about Jack’s death arrived, Gwendolyn told Chickie her father was a wonderfully talented musician and loved her very much. She changed the star in the window to gold.
“She said he died in the hospital on clean sheets,” Chickie says.
But a neighbor child told Chickie her father had died in a bloody and disgusting way. That was all Chickie heard about her dad’s war years until 1973.
She was 35 and happily married to her lifetime love, Bob Berry, when a conversation about life, death and the hereafter prompted her aunt to say, “That’s why we could never understand why your father would do such a thing.”
That’s how Chickie learned her father’s death was suicide. She began to research. Letters from the war department pinned his death on self-inflicted multiple stab wounds. Chickie was studying psychology in college then. She knew enough to start seeing a counselor and share her emotions with her husband.
The military’s available records were few. Many were lost to a fire right before Chickie started her search. She questioned her mother with the limited information she had. Gwendolyn didn’t change her story.
For 25 years, the incomplete picture of her father’s death nagged at her. Chickie found AWON in 1995 through an ad at the back of a magazine. She called the number in the ad and reached Ann Mix.
“It was as if I’d found a long-lost relative,” she says. “She knew about feeling different from other kids, not knowing how to behave around men. It was a very freeing experience.”
AWON was Chickie’s first experience with other war orphans. She knew there had to be others, but no one talked about it. The group helped her research. In 1998, she searched on the computer for reunion groups and found the 41st Division bands. When she reached a musician who’d served with her dad, he said, “Chickie, I wondered what had happened to you all these years.” The men remembered her as the chief warrant officer’s little girl. She went to their next reunion.
“They had nothing but praise for Dad,” she says. “They said he was a real gentleman and tried his best to make life easier for them.”
In 1998, AWON convinced the National Records Center to release records that had survived the fire in 1973. Between the records and the men with whom Jack had served, Chickie learned that her father’s unit had returned to Australia from New Guinea to regroup in the fall of 1943. Their uniforms were rotting off them after five months in the tropics.
Jack took a two-week furlough with friends to Sydney. Sometime during the trip, he was taken to a military hospital in a psychotic condition. Records showed that his mental state was so bad that doctors recommended he return home. Although he had threatened suicide, hospital personnel granted his request to stay in an open ward for officers rather than in a lockdown ward.
A friend saw Jack leave his ward in his pajamas and robe and assumed he was heading to the movie theater. Chickie pieced together the end of the story from doctor and nurse depositions. Jack had breakfast, sent a telegram and flowers to Gwendolyn for her birthday, then disappeared.
He was found five days later in a small building holding mechanical equipment. He’d stabbed himself in the heart and cut his wrists. Hospital personnel found a picture of his family and the receipt for his telegram in his pocket. No one knew why he’d killed himself.
But Gwendolyn was right that he’d had malaria. Most of the men with whom Jack served suffered from malaria, leaving Chickie to wonder about the jungle’s damage to her father’s brain.
Before the National Records Center shared the information with Chickie, she was asked if she was prepared. She was, but the details still broke her heart. Knowing her father was a true casualty of war was not much comfort. To heal, she arranged the photos, letters, newspaper clippings and military records of her dad in two scrapbooks. And she set Koko, a stuffed koala losing its stuffing, on the living room couch. Her father had sent Koko from Australia for her fifth birthday. She had slept with it until she married.
She also began raising money for a World War II memorial planned for Washington, D.C. Chickie sent letters to friends asking for donations. She quickly raised more than $1,000, which convinced her to propose the effort to AWON. Ann was skeptical. AWON was about support, not raising money. But Chickie believed such an effort would give AWON more visibility with the American Battle Monuments Commission.
The commission already had accepted Ann’s suggestion that the memorial include a wall of stars. The wall features 4,000 raised gold stars, each representing 100 American soldiers who died in the war. Now Ann is pushing for a recording at the memorial listing every name of the 407,000 Americans who died in World War II. The commission is listening, Ann believes, partly because Chickie raised AWON’s stature.
“I still think there’s hope,” Ann says.
Chickie will be at the World War II Memorial on Saturday for the dedication. She also organized a candlelight memorial service at the Wall of Stars in the evening for AWON. Chickie’s daughters, Bonnie Grant and Robin Berry, will read and sing at the service. Chickie’s stepfather was the only grandfather they knew, but Chickie has shared everything about Jack with her daughters.
“Knowing is so much more freeing than imagining,” she says. “This has been very therapeutic for me. Hopefully, families will know enough to keep memories alive for their children.”
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