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Reader Voices: Discovering Uncle Bubba

"Who's that?" I wondered aloud, crossing the thick Oriental rug through the scents and summer shadows of my great-aunt's parlor for a better look at the portrait on her far wall. Staring sagely back at me was a young man in uniform, and while his glittering pilot's wings caught my attention, the roguish tilt to his hat and his daring eyes captivated me. He seemed out of place there, amongst the family antiques.

"Don't point, Katie," Aunt Marie gently chided, the ice cubes clinking in the glass she held. "That's your great-uncle, Bubba."

"Uncle Who?"

"Uncle Bubba. He was our brother, your grandmother's and mine. He died in the war," she said, then ushered me back into the kitchen to finish my apple juice. At 8 years old, I didn't even know which war she meant, but by her tone, I could tell that the subject was closed.

I've always known that genealogy is important. It shapes our relations, our service and sense of self. Still, I was never quite sure of how to go about participating in it since various members of my family, to their credit, have focused attention on our lineage so that the work already seems covered. Eventually, however, my relationship with the young man in the picture would change my perspective.

Almost an imaginary figure, my Uncle Bubba lingered on the periphery of my childhood, a glamorous ghost that embodied the hopeful spirit of wartime youth before his death in 1944. For years, I believed that he left my family little more than his serviceman's picture. Later, while studying at BYU and thanks to my grandmother's meticulous record keeping, I unearthed the sketchy details (and even recovered a few pictures) of Bubba's life, discoveries which supported my earliest assumptions about his bold character.

Originally rejected by the Armed Forces in America because of his 5-foot-4 height, Bubba left medical school at the University of Texas to join the Royal Canadian Air Force and was trained as a bomber pilot, then transferred to the Royal Air Force in England and eventually, the U.S. Army Air Corps — predecessor of the United States Air Force.

The only son of devout Southern Baptist parents, Bub remained close to his family throughout his military service, encouraging them not to worry about him. In truth, he found it difficult to shake the demons of combat, and when Bubba was transferred to the AAC in March 1943, his record of 22 successful missions with the RAF was discounted.

After enduring the Allies' raid on Ploiesti, Romania, an attack on the Nazi's largest source of petroleum from which only a third of the deployed aircraft would return, Bubba sent his family his most memorable letter, hiding it from American censors in the jacket of a friend who was headed home on leave. In this remarkable account of the raid, officially dubbed Operation Tidal Wave, Bubba describes witnessing the death of his best friend, Ivan "Junior" Canfield, after Junior's plane was hit and burst into flames. Of the entire war, perhaps it was this single event that shattered Bubba's nerves; for weeks afterward, he was struck blind from combat fatigue.

Doggedly determined to finish his tour of duty, Bubba went on to fly 25 more bombing missions; after that, he told his family, he no longer wanted to be responsible for the lives of a bomber crew. It was his decision to switch to lighter aircraft and that led to his death on June 6, 1944, when he attempted an aerial maneuver too close to the ground.

He was 24.

After my grandmother joined the Mormon church against the wishes of her parents in 1947, she saw to it that Bubba's temple work was completed. Still, his tragic story stirred my soul; I felt strongly that I should, in some way, contribute to his cause, but how?

Since Bubba left no wife or children behind, the responsibility lay with me and my family to share the story of his sacrifice. This became a daunting task as I realized that I had heard more about the details surrounding his death than his actual life. What sort of man was he? What had made him so determined to fight? In trying to forge a meaningful legacy out of meager details, I had no idea where to begin and immediately felt defeated by the obfuscating factors of time and distance. And while I had never met my Uncle Bubba — he'd died even before my mother was born — I wanted my children and theirs to know, somehow, that his life was worth remembering.

Then in September 2007, PBS aired a historical documentary entitled, "Most Honorable Son," chronicling the life of Ben Kuroki, the first Japanese-American to serve in the European theater; halfway through the program, I discovered that Kuroki and Bubba had served together in North Africa.

Awestruck, I sat next to my husband and watched as Kuroki's account of the Ploiesti raid went on, punctuated by photographs of his military tour flickering in the darkness. There on the screen before us was the base in Bhengazi, Libya, the 93rd Bombing Group, the B-24 bomber known as the Tupelo Lass and standing in the foreground, my Uncle Bubba, smiling back at me in sepia tones, sixty years later. Reverently, I listened as Mr. Kuroki recounted his service and exploits with fellow crew members, referring to Bubba as "Mr. Five-by-Five Young", a nod to Bub's short stature and muscular build; I smiled at how the nickname fit.

After tracking Ben Kuroki down I wrote to him, inquiring about his relationship with Uncle Bubba, pleading with him to divulge any and all details about the man, this shared shadow that my family and I had respectfully revered yet barely known. While I knew that reality might be harsh, I wrote, "It would mean so much to us if you could shed some light on his true character. We've always wondered about him and your association offers us, at long last, the possibility of discovery."

Just over a week later, a response with a type-written label appeared in my mailbox. Apologetically, Mr. Kuroki explained that he couldn't offer many insights into Bubba's character since Lt. Charles Stenius Young was an officer and Kuroki, an enlisted man, so they had separate quarters. Still, his words were golden. "What I remember most," Ben wrote, "was his friendliness, especially his respect for me as a fellow American. His compassion for me was without regard to race, color or creed. And that meant a great deal to me as I had to fight two wars, the enemy and bigotry." But his last line meant the world to me: "Your Uncle Bubba was a good man."

In that moment, I realized that I indeed knew my Uncle Bubba since, as Matthew says, "Ye shall know them by their fruits" (Matthew 7:16). My faith, my family, my freedoms remain rooted in the sacrifice of Bubba's generation and others who render similar service, including my three brothers. Now I understand that Bubba gave his life to ensure that mine — and millions of others — were assured countless blessings that he was unable to enjoy. Knowing this has made it easier for me to reconcile my gratitude with the cost of their opportunities.

Bubba never heard the gospel, but I'm humbled by the content of his character as he followed the Savior's example and chose to "lay down his life for his friends" (John 13:15). And while Bubba's parents grieved over his loss for the remainder of their lives, perhaps they also took comfort in the word of the Lord to his covenant people: "Observe and hear all the words which I command thee, that it may go well with thee, and with thy children after thee for ever, when thou doest that which is good and right in the sight of the Lord thy God" (Deuteronomy 12:28).

Surely, such goodness is worth remembering.

>Kate Jensen is from Bryan, Texas.