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The Human Face of War

Robert Lee Hotz Was Searching for Clues to a 60-Year-Old Family Mystery. In the Process, He Found an Uncle--and Something More.

October 29, 2000|ROBERT LEE HOTZ | Robert Lee Hotz is a Times science writer. His last piece for the magazine was a profile of Caltech President David Baltimore

It is past midnight in my Santa Monica study, and on the Internet, where it is no time and no place, I am searching for a soldier's grave in France. My mother had a brother, you see.

* Her brother's name was Bill. He was killed at Dunkirk in 1940 as the German army pushed the British into the sea. His widow killed herself. They left a child.

* For 60 years, that was the sum of it. There was no body to bury, no story to tell, just a photograph of a second lieutenant in the upstairs hall. When you are young, there are questions you don't know enough to ask. When you are old enough to understand, you discover the answers are beyond your reach.

The questions, when they finally did come, were not my own--not at first. They were my mother's. Turning 80, she had so little time to seek an answer.

Seated at my computer, I look for answers in the most urgent way I know, by searching through the 1 billion pages of the World Wide Web. It can answer in seconds the questions that took decades to form.

But the Web, like memory, is oblique, triggered by chance associations. Like memory, there are gaps. Like memory, the Web rings true and false. So many of its answers are themselves questions.

Even so, I find something unexpected of bravery and shame. I find kinship with a man I can never know. I find too much about a man I wish I could forget.

It began with a message on my answering machine, the fall of France and a forgotten war crime at a place called Paradise.

*

CALL ME, MY MOTHER SAID.

Sixty years of silence had ended with a sentence in a secondhand history book on Dunkirk. My mother discovered it by chance, browsing the back shelves of a bookstore in Maryland: More than "90 men of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Norfolk Regiment were machine-gunned by an execution party led by Oberslieutenant Fritz Knoechlein." The historian wrote that as an aside in his narrative, then changed the subject.

That was Bill's regiment, she said on the telephone when I returned her call. That was his battalion. What happened to Bill? she asked. Is that how he died? There was an echo of anguish in her voice.

I asked her to repeat the sentence for me. I wrote it down.

I looked at my computer. Maybe I could find a veterans group, a regimental historian, or a telephone number of someone who knows something. But I needed search terms and keywords.

I was embarrassed that I knew so little of my family. Tell me what you remember, I asked her.

What was his full name?

William Archibald Willison. He was 23 years old.

His rank?

Second lieutenant. In the Royal Norfolks. Second Battalion.

Here is what I heard: He was the only son of a Canadian family, Commonwealth to the bone, who grew up in Toronto, where in time of war, the women gave white feathers to the men who stayed behind. The family tithed to the cause of empire, in taxes, public service and its men. They were among the city's founding families, now in arrears and rich in pride. With little at hand to inherit and no ready skills to employ, Bill was born for a uniform.

By all accounts, he looked fine in one, my mother recalled, first in the scarlet tunic of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, then in the kilt and fur busby of the Governor's Guard.

Cannon fodder, his father said, when he saw Bill in full dress uniform.

When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, the army mobilized and he volunteered as an officer in the Norfolks. They landed in France, took up positions in Belgium at Christmas, facing the German army across the fields that their parents had fought over in the First World War.

Where did he die? When?

I don't know, she said. He went missing at Dunkirk.

For those of a certain age, Dunkirk is a word that conjures more than the name of a small port city on the French coast. It beats in the heart.

There, over nine days in May and June 1940, 338,226 British soldiers, cut off from land retreat by German tanks and infantry, were evacuated from the beaches by a makeshift armada of 693 British destroyers, pleasure steamers, coasters, fishing boats, lifeboats, yachts and motorboats.

Isolated British army units sacrificed themselves to hold the German panzers back from the beaches long enough for others to escape. About 68,000 men were killed, captured, wounded or missing in action. A third of the ships were sunk.

A battle was lost, yet an army was saved and, in that moment, the fate of the war decided. It was the worst retreat and greatest triumph in British military history, ignoble and inspiring in equal measure.

My mother last saw Bill on her wedding day. He had three months to live.

When war was declared, she was in London and had joined the Royal Air Force. She married a pilot. She was 18 and already an officer. And, on a sidewalk in London after the wedding ceremony, the three of them in uniform teased each other over who outranked whom.

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