by Henry Lane Hull
On several occasions in the 36 years I have written this item, I have referenced the philosopher George Santayana’s quotation, frequently cited by President Eisenhower, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to relive it.” In other words, learn from the past to have a better present and future.
Recently, exemplifying Santayana’s sage advice, Catherine Merkel, who lives in White Stone, published a book on her uncle, Charles Samuel Huppmann, known to family and friends as “Buck,” who was killed in action during the Second World War. It is a personal account based upon extensive family papers, photographs and newspaper articles. A short work, entitled simply as Buck’s full name and published on Shutterfly, it is well worth the time spent reading.
Buck was born on February 24, 1920, in Baltimore where he spent his youth growing up in a family as the eighth of nine children. After graduating from Calvert Hall High School, he matriculated at Johns Hopkins University. He was an excellent student, highly principled and full of promise for a fulfilling and worthy life ahead of him. His firm religious faith and its practice were evident throughout the letters that he wrote home.
With two years of undergraduate study behind him, five weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the service to be trained for the Army Air Corps. His assignments took him to Texas and Oklahoma, where he learned the rudiments and mechanics of flying, qualifying as a navigator. Upon completing his coursework, he received his commission as a second lieutenant in the Army Air Corps.
Buck was assigned to the China-Burma-India theater where the Allied forces were trying to contain the spread of Japanese forces into South Asia. By the beginning of 1944, Buck had been promoted to first lieutenant and been recommended for the Distinguished Flying Cross, having completed over 50 combat missions in a B-24 Liberator warplane. He was respected and liked by his fellow officers and enlisted troops as well.
On January 23, 1944, Buck’s plane was shot down on a mission near Mergui, Burma. Catherine has included in her narrative several statements by eyewitnesses of the crash, as well as letters of tribute indicating the esteem with which his colleagues held him. A sergeant, the sole survivor of the crash, tried to pull him from the plane as it was burning in the water, but Buck died shortly thereafter. The sergeant took a bullet in his foot from enemy strafing while attempting to save the other crew members.
The accolades that followed were heartwarming, indicating the stellar quality of this young man’s life. His remains were buried initially in Burma, and then ultimately in a joint grave with the others lost in the crash at Arlington National Cemetery. The book ends with a touching personal statement by Catherine that epitomizes the ordeal that her family suffered from Buck’s death. His orders to return home after his 50 missions arrived the day after the crash.
Buck was one of more than 400,000 Americans killed in the Second World War. Sadly, far too many of them are statistics, but in pulling together the many disparate pieces of surviving ephemera, Catherine has ensured that Buck will be remembered as a bright and good person whose nearly 24 years on this earth left a mark that should not be overlooked by future generations.
This year marks the centenary of Buck’s birth and last year the 75th anniversary of his death, a short span of life, the knowledge of which can afford us a further opportunity to reflect on the great sacrifices our veterans and their families have made on behalf of our country. By keeping them alive in our own memories, we can aspire to escape the fate Santayana described for those who forget.