Wayne Howard says Memorial Day means more to him now that he has dug into the past of the World War II veteran who raised him but who hardly ever talked about those defining years of his life.

His father, who was so afraid of heights he would balk at climbing a step stool, never told Howard what it had been like to be shot at by German fighters while flying at 17,000 feet. Never told him about life in a Nazi prison camp. Never told him of being forced on a starvation march into Germany. Or of hearing a single gunshot after guards led a straggler into the woods.

Howard's father, Edgar Howard, was among millions of U.S. troops who returned from World War II reluctant to share memories of the terrifying events they survived at the dawn of their adulthood.

"He did tell us he was a prisoner of war, but that invited questions that he just wouldn't answer," said Wayne Howard, who grew up in Elmont, and now lives on a canal in Amityville. "He would just say it wasn't a pleasant experience, but it was behind him, so let's just move forward."

After Wayne Howard's father died in 1987, he searched fruitlessly for scraps of information about his wartime service as gunner on a bomber. A 1973 fire at a military archive in St. Louis had destroyed Edgar Howard's official file.

But records from a veterans hospital where his father recovered after the war revealed that he had served with the 15th Air Force, 450th Bombardment Group. That led Howard to "Fast Track To Manhood," a book written by a retired colonel who had been his father's B-24 bomber pilot.

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And there, from the book's 274 pages, emerged details of Edgar Howard, a 5-foot-8 Missourian who went off to war at age 21, who flew on more than two dozen bombing missions over Europe, and who struggled to avoid starvation, frostbite and disease during a year as a German prisoner.

Wayne Howard learned that as liberating Allied troops approached the prison camp where his father was being held during the winter of 1945, German guards forced the prisoners to hastily evacuate on foot, first 60 miles to another camp, then nearly 100 miles to yet another. The captives often marched " . . . all day with little or no midday food, water or rest," the pilot, Thomas P. Griffin, recounted.

"Some men were even driven to killing and eating uncooked rats," he wrote. "Snow piled knee-deep at times and temperatures plunged well below zero. Under these conditions virtually all the marchers grew gaunt and weak. . . . The diseases were pneumonia, diphtheria, pellagra, typhus, trench foot, tuberculosis . . . Straggling marchers were sometimes escorted by the guards into the woods . . . there was a shot and the German guard came back to the formation alone."


Violence and courage

With its extreme violence, acts of courage, failures of nerve and grim hours of despair, World War II combat in ways served as an extended morality play, profoundly influencing the personalities of service members, said Carl Castro, research director of the Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families, at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

The psychological toll of witnessing death, experiencing fear or inflicting harm can make soldiers unwilling to talk about these life-altering traumas, Castro said.

"These are absolutely shaping events," Castro said. "Oftentimes veterans will describe their experience in combat as the most significant period of their lives, and that everything else paled in comparison."

"But at the same time, they want to protect their families, particularly their spouses and children, because they don't want to traumatize them about the experiences they have had," Castro said. "And they don't want their family members judging them about something they may have done that could lower their status in their eyes."


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Once thought missing

Edgar Howard, who was briefly listed as missing in action, returned from war to find that his first wife had divorced him and remarried while he was away, taking their two daughters with her.

He remarried, found work as a factory representative for General Motors, settled in Elmont and raised two boys. When he died in 1987, his sons did not know he had flown nearly 30 missions aboard a B-24, or that he had participated in the bombing of targets in Germany and Austria.

Wayne Howard, 54, said although he did not press his father for details he knew were uncomfortable for him to talk about, he always wondered about his wartime experiences -- experiences he believed could help him understand his father better.

"He was such a marvelous man, blessed with patience and wisdom, and we wanted to know more about him," Howard said. "Where he obtained these marvelous traits."

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"I think it strengthened my admiration for him," Howard said. "I always knew he was an honorable person, well respected by everyone. But it was surprising that this man I had in my life for 27 years could come through what he did and still be the man that he was."