From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

The Gift of Hope

I will be forever beholden to Ray Kusela of Bremerton, Washington, a man I knew for only a few weeks over fifty years ago. He did me the greatest favor of any man I’ve ever known. . . .

“So long!” we shouted to our friend Ray as he swung his makeshift backpack over his shoulder.

With a big grin, he answered, “So long, you guys! I just wish I could take all of you with me.”

It was a cold, gray day in early December 1944 when Ray trudged across the compound of Stalag Luft 4 in northern Poland and out the gate, never to be seen by any of us again.

When Ray’s bomber was shot down over Germany the year before, his left arm had been badly wounded. The Germans knew he’d never be able to use his left hand again, and because of that disability, he was being repatriated on a prisoner exchange.

My B-17 had been shot down on November 2, 1944. But back in the States, all that my distraught parents knew was that I’d been classified as “missing in action.” It wasn’t until February 1945 that they were officially notified I was being held prisoner somewhere in Germany. That same month, my mother read in the Los Angeles Times that the War Department was sponsoring meetings across the country for relatives of prisoners of war. Ex-POWs talked to these audiences about life and treatment in the prison camps.

There was to be such a meeting at the Los Angeles Shrine Auditorium. Mom and Dad could hardly wait.

The following week when the big day arrived, they anxiously took their seats in the big auditorium. Half a dozen soldiers and sailors, all ex-POWs, took seats on the brightly lit stage. One by one, they spoke to the silent audience. Among the speakers was Ray Kusela.

When they finished, the officer in charge announced, “The men will now go down into the audience to look at any photos you brought along. Some of them may be recognized.”

When the men came down from the stage, the audience crowded forward, extending photos of their missing sons, husbands and sweethearts.

Dad later told me what happened next:

“Your mother and I had been feeling really bad since we got the telegram that you were missing in action. But those boys up there on that stage gave us hope that everything would turn out all right.

“I watched this one fellow pushing his way through the crowd, looking at pictures—hundreds of them—held out to him. He just shook his head and kept saying, ‘No. No. No.’

“By the time he made his way to where your mother and I stood, I began to feel dejected again. But I held out your picture, and suddenly that kid’s face lit up with a big grin, and he said, ‘Hey, that’s Bill!’”

Dad said he had to hold back a sob when he asked, “Is he okay?”

“Yes, he’s fine,” Ray assured them, relieving them of a burden of worry they’d carried since the previous November. Then he pressed his way deeper into the crowd, looking for other familiar faces on the photos clutched tightly in hopeful hands.

Mom and Dad cried on their way home that night, hearing over and over again those wonderful words that filled them with hope, “Yes, he’s fine.”

Bill Livingstone

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