Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Ken Burns/ Lynn Novick Questions: A Century of Stretching the Truth in Wartime

A Century of Stretching the Truth in Wartime
by Paul Keane


The Ken Burns/ Lynn Novick documentary The Viet Nam War begs the questions: What is patriotism? And what is a hero?

I have a 100 year old piece of paper, rolled up and dusty for fifty years, which announces  my grandmother’s brother was a patriot who made “the Supreme Sacrifice for Country and Mankind in the War for Civilization”.

It is a mistake.

It is a certificate given by the State of Connecticut in 1917 to my great grandparents when their 28 year-old-son, John Bristow Nugent, died serving in the Navy on the USS So. Dakota.

He may have been a patriot, but he wasn’t a hero and he didn’t make “the Supreme Sacrifice”.

He died only ten days after enlisting,  but not in battle.  He died of natural causes, “carcinoma” of the stomach

The certificate I had found in my grandmother’s papers was not a symbol of honor.  It was patriotic propaganda put out by the State of Connecticut and sent to its citizens who had lost a loved one in World War I.

I suspect the reason it was rolled up and dusty instead of hanging on a family wall in a gold frame, is that John Bristow Nugent’s relatives realized Connecticut had sent them the certificate in error, or as a gesture of kindness or courtesy at the loss of  a military son.

John Bristow Nugent in 1913,
working for the Attleboro, Mass. Water Company.

Furthermore, he enlisted under an alias, George Leon Young, complicating the mystery of the inappropriately delivered certificate sent to his next of kin, who lived in Connecticut, even though Bristow’s wife and 2 year old son lived in Fitchburg, Massachusetts.

Bristow, using that alias, nevertheless designated his mother by her legal name and address in New Haven, Connecticut as the person to be notified in an emergency.

The emergency turned out to be his untimely death. Here is the Navy report:

“Cause of Death: Carcinoma

Origin: Not in line of duty. Existed prior to enlistment. At about 8:45 A.M. on April 17, 1917 deceased was discovered lying unconscious and in convulsions in a lot in Vallejo, California. Asst. Surgeon H. R. McAllister, U.S.N. attached to the Navy yard, Mare Island, California, saw the deceased at the time and placing him in a motor car rushed him to the U.S. Naval Hospital, Mare Island, California but he died en route.

An autopsy showed all the abdominal viscera infiltrated with carcinoma nodules.

Body shipped by U.S. Naval Hospital, Mare Island, California to next of kin.”

The Ken Burns/Lynn Novick Viet Nam documentary systematically uncovers the years of  lies which the U.S. government told its citizens about our patriotic duty to fight Communism in Viet Nam and the heroes which that war was producing.

My grandmother’s dusty, rolled up certificate of Supreme Sacrifice is not exactly a lie, but  an embarrassing  government promotional ad,  used to soften the blow of losing a relative in war and make it seem somehow worthwhile. 

They had sent it to the wrong family in a moment of bureaucratic misjudgment, or misguided courtesy.

Bristow wasn’t a hero.  He was ill with undiagnosed cancer and died of his illness.

Even his parents knew that and had the  integrity not to ride on the coattails of a mistaken  hero’s supreme sacrifice.

On his tombstone they wrote quite simply:

John Bristow Nugent  
U.S.S. South Dakota
Died in Service at
Vallejo, California

No patriotic claptrap, no false claims of heroism, just the accurate words “Died in Service.”

Viet Nam and the World Wars did have heroes and their deaths were patriotic.

Bristow’s certificate deserved to be rolled up and to collect dust.

It was a governmental goof-up, even if motivated by kindness .

As Bristow’s closest living kin, I asked for and received all 300 pages of  his  military file including decades of insurance claims made by  his widow who received 240 monthly installments of $25 for herself and $40 for support of their son.

She and her son, who never married, are now long dead.

I was surprised to discover a family skeleton in those papers which may explain Bristow’s use of an alias. 

His marriage certificate declares that he was married in 1915 at the age of 26 to a 31 year old Canadian woman and the ceremony was officiated by a “R.C. Priest”, Father Boyle. Inter-religious marriage was frowned upon in those days and Bristow’s father was a “black Protestant” and an outspoken “Pope hater”.

The birth certificate of  Bristow’s son indicates the child was born 6 months after the marriage, suggesting that Bristow’s bride may have been pregnant at the time of the wedding.  In those days, it was a man’s duty to “do the honorable thing” if he got a girl pregnant and marry her so the baby would have a father’s name.

Bristow and my family were in a terrible bind:
Inter-religious marriage vs. dishonor.

Bristow did the honorable thing but two years later he did another honorable thing: He joined the service in wartime 3000 miles from home. A news article says "when the call came for recruits in the Navy the young man enlisted. " Its headline says "Body of Bellingham Hero Arrives for Burial"..Answering the call had apparently earned the title "hero".

The Burns/Novick documentary does not answer the questions: What is patriotism?  What is a hero?

But my great grandparents did answer.

“Died in service” is just what it says, nothing more and nothing less.

 And then the rolled up the certificate wound up in the hands of Bristow’s sister to collect dust  for fifty years.

I framed  that certificate and hung it in my study as a reminder of how difficult it is not to stretch the truth in time of war, a difficulty Ken Burns and Lynn Novick painfully document in their 8 part film on Viet Nam.