My mother simply called him “a boy I used to know.” Then she added, “He was killed in the war.” That’s how she referred to him when as a child I asked about the wings in her jewelry box, the large pink box with the little ballerina that would spin with the music. I picked up the wings and held them, coveted them perhaps for my own, but they went back into the box, under other things. “They were from a boy I used to know who was killed in the war,” she said simply.
It did not occur to me then that these wings, a gift perhaps before he went overseas, represented a personal loss, or even a deep grief. But it’s hard to think otherwise now. My mother may have been somewhat inured to loss, if such is possible. Her mother died when she was 6, shortly after giving birth to her third child and second son, and then her father, determined to support in any way possible his three young children, was fatally injured in a train accident, falling off a box car as he was making his way to harvest wheat in the summer of 1931 in the Texas Panhandle, Oklahoma and Kansas.
It is an old folks tale likely, though it’s been attributable to others who have used the phrase, that one is not truly dead until the last person who remembers you dies. If so, then William Y. (Bill) Ligon is not yet dead, for my mother’s oldest brother, my Uncle Frank, a veteran from the same war, still lives and certainly remembers him as he is listed as a pallbearer in the newspaper clipping my mother preserved from the reburial service held in Dallas. And he may yet be remembered by others this Memorial Day, perhaps by one or more of a still-living brother or sister; there were two of each noted in the other clipping in my mother’s scrapbook that I have open in front of me, the one with the news that he had been killed in Germany. I have no doubt that my mother thought of him many times before her own passing in 2003, maybe more frequently after my father died, contemplating from time to time a different future but for the war. Perhaps having an occasional recollection of him even as her Alzheimer’s stole her sense of the present, but seemed to leave for a while more distant memories.
But it brings to mind that in time, these men and women from that war, these called “The Greatest Generation” who died fighting “The Good War” will become, as individuals, more distant, increasingly fragile, memories. Remembered by an ever-diminishing number of those that served with them, remembered still, for a time, by younger brothers and sisters, by cousins, or simply those who had been young children living in the neighborhoods where they grew up.
I began to think about Bill Ligon more a few years back when at a family reunion, my mother’s close cousin, much more like a sister, and her youngest brother, both passed on now, brought his name up in their reminiscences. She said, “I think Pete (my mother’s family nickname) might have married Bill Ligon if he hadn’t been killed.” My Uncle Bill, a veteran of Korea, nodded an agreement.
I think it was that that made me go back and look through her scrapbook, to find what I could beyond those Army Air Force wings, not only wondering what might have been, but what might not have been as well. I find from that clipping that he and my mother went to different high schools in Dallas, he to Sunset, while she graduated Forest Avenue. But it says he worked at Walgreen’s and I know that my mother worked there as well. Perhaps this is the link that brought them together.
Staff Sgt. Bill Ligon, a gunner on a B-17, died when his bomber was shot down on Oct. 6, 1944, while on a mission over Berlin. He was 22 years old. And two pages over in the scrapbook, there is another clipping held on with now brittle cellophane tape. On December 7, 1944, the Dallas Morning News carried a brief item announcing the engagement of Mary Viola Sloan to Lt. Billy Latimer, and that the wedding would take place on Dec. 23. My father had a few months earlier, while in the Army Reserves, completed dental school in Dallas, and was now on active duty and stationed at what was then Camp Hood, but it seems with frequent opportunities to return home. He at one time had briefly dated that very sisterly cousin before meeting my mother and it was very much a sudden thing between them. My father was 24 and would soon be off for Europe himself, sailing on the Queen Mary just a few months before V-E Day, but of course as a dental officer he had few perils to contemplate beyond the rumors of U-boats. He was more likely occupied with thoughts of his young wife and, soon after arriving in Europe, of the child she would have in November.
But would he have had a chance had that B-17 not been shot down in October? Was my mother really only a close and caring friend to the “boy she used to know who was killed in the war?” Or did her loss and even grief give my father a better chance? I trust what my mother’s cousin and brother said. My mother may have waited and if history had been at least a bit different in that one mission, how else would history have turned? And for the over 415,000 United States military deaths from that war, what of those unrealized futures, those unrealized lives and progeny? Could my mother have been Mrs. Bill Ligon, leaving me and my brother as unrealized alternate history? As Horatio says to Hamlet, “’Twere to consider too curiously to consider so.”
But one other item I have, tucked into that scrap book: a souvenir photograph, a 5×7. It is still in its red, thin pasteboard folder labeled Plantation: Dallas, Texas. A restaurant, a night spot. Inside my mother has written, “November 26, 1943: Friday night.” On that day in the Pacific, the number of U.S Marines killed in the just-concluded invasion of the tiny island of Tarawa numbered over 1,000 in just 72 hours — a shock to the country and an omen of what was yet to come. In Italy the 36th Infantry Division, the Texas Division, over two months after the landing at Salerno was stalled between Naples and Casino and in the next four weeks would face terrible losses at San Pietro and at the disastrous attempt to cross the Rapido River.
But at home, in Dallas, it’s the day after Thanksgiving. Sgt. Bill Ligon is on leave from Concho Field in San Angelo. He has signed the folder with his name and that address. Altogether there are three couples. All three boys are in uniform. The table is covered with beer and spirit bottles. One beer I can identify is Falstaff, an artifact in itself. My mother is at the center of the picture, a lovely young woman of 21, small in the picture, she was just 5-foot-2. At her right is Bill Ligon. He is extraordinarily handsome. Dark hair and eyes, a square jaw, firm chin, gazing directly into the camera as they all are, gazing at the photographer who would sell the photo, sell it to Bill Ligon who would buy a print as a gift to my mother who would keep it for the rest of her life. A man any young woman would wait for if waiting had ever been discussed, or even implied in the giving of those wings.
In less than a year he would be dead along with many more we must remember, not just in that war, but in the others. They served, they died, and in their dying it would not just be an individual loss. In time they all will become unknown soldiers in that there will be no personal memories, though their names will endure. But what stays is the might have beens, the history of the country and the world that was not written for the absence of so many players. The history of the world would change with their sacrifice. My mother’s history, my father’s. My own, which might have been a history that may not have been. So we memorialize not only the dead, the ones who gave everything, but the loss to the future. To the world that was not to be. The children that were not to be born. Loss begets loss.
Then there is Laurence Binyon’s poem from the first World War “For the Fallen” and the one stanza in particular which is so often quoted and which to me gathers power as I look at that young man in that picture, brave, confident and full of destiny, my mother pressed against his strong arm.
“They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.”
So though I never knew him, I do remember Sgt. Bill Ligon, killed in action on Oct. 6, 1944 — a boy my mother used to know.
David Latimer lives in Austin with his wife and daughter and works as a policy analyst for the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services. He also teaches English at Austin Community College. David was born in Dallas but grew up in Marlin before coming to Austin to attend the University of Texas. He has a masters degree in English. David has published historical articles in Texas Highways magazine.