My blog uncovers a tragic tale
Last month I posted a piece entitled "Reflections on a 61-year old photo" on this blog. It featured a picture of nine young GIs, myself included, happily posing in front of a volley ball net, some of us merrily holding beer bottles in our hands. The photograph was taken in the early spring of 1944 at a U.S. air base near the village of Panagarh in eastern India. We were far removed from a battle zone, and maybe that's why we all looked happy.
An 82-year old man now living in a small town in Oregon, who enjoys surfing the Internet, spotted my reference to Panagarh. He had been an Air Force pilot stationed there and had probably not seen or heard the name Panagarh in decades. He e-mailed me a message recounting his own military experiences in India and China, and we have since had a fascinating exchange of e-mails about religion, politics, medicine, family and other personal matters. In short, we have become geriatric pen pals.
In recent months I have sent copies of the photo, which I had just discovered in my files, to two of the nine men pictured in it whose addresses I have. (By an extraordinary coincidence, one of them, Nick Palazzo, moved into my community several years ago and is now my neighbor.)
One of the GIs in the old photo is named Gordon Tombleson, who I remember fondly as a warm-hearted, happy-go-lucky guy who was one of the most popular men in our outfit. I also recalled that he came from Oregon. Having just become acquainted with a man living in Oregon, I asked him whether there was a statewide telephone directory and if he could check for Gordon's name.
He was kind enough to cooperate with my search. He quickly wrote that he found eight people named Tombleson in a 1994 set of CDs called PhoneDisc USA. (I was unaware that there is such a directory.) He phoned four of the parties listed, asking whether there was anyone named Gordon in their families. None had ever heard of him. My new pen pal was unable to reach the four other Tomblesons. Probably weary of the effort, he passed on their names and phone numbers to me.
The first one to respond to my call was a Clayton E. Tombleson in the town of Rainier. Mr. Tombleson turned out to be Gordon's brother. Gordon, he said, had been a lumberjack and was killed in a work accident many years ago. We conversed for several minutes about Gordon, and I recalled how the two of us, both 19 when we met in the Army in India, had become very close friends. As we spoke I detected a sad change in Mr. Tombleson's tone of voice. He was apparently becoming more comfortable talking to me, a stranger poking into an intimate family matter. No, he said, Gordon had not been killed in a work accident. The truth was that he had been an alcoholic for many years and had committed suicide by shooting himself.
The "happy-go-lucky" Army buddy I knew in 1944 and 1945 had not found much happiness in his later years.