“Dad never talks about his career” my future wife Sally insisted on the way to my introduction to her parents “and neither does mom.” Sally and I had met months earlier while she was still living in Houston. I had just helped her move back to her parent’s home in Fairfax, VA where she spent most of her life as the “Army brat” daughter of Colonel James Rike and past Lieutenant Delores Dilger. Sally was surprised that dad and I hit it off right away.
They lived in an upper middle class suburban home about 20 minutes from the Pentagon. There wasn’t any decorating that would indicate a military career that spanned WWII, Korea, and Viet Nam. It’s a nice size home, but on the small side for nine children. Three of the kids were married, some were out of the nest working, and a couple of the boys were finishing college. Mom and dad were still busy as parents and grandparents
Dad was a fun loving man who loved to whistle while he worked and heavily involved in all of the kid’s activities. But he was the colonel and mom was a lieutenant, and they were paid an appropriate, healthy fearful respect by everyone including me.
No one has influenced me more than these two hardworking, humble, virtuous people have. I’m not sure what mom and dad saw in me that made our relationship so special, , but whatever they saw in me led to a fast friendship. They treated me like one of their children. When I stepped out of line they let me know it and I honored them both, as anyone should. And they loved me like “I was one of their own” as mom told me.
That first evening when I met mom and dad, we sat in the kitchen gabbing. They politely asked me the normal scrutinizing parent questions. When dad asked about my career, I told him I was in the machine tools industry. We sold equipment used by many manufacturing sectors including aircraft manufacturing and defense. I mentioned my experiences with Sikorsky the helicopter manufacturer and other aircraft builders.
Sally and mom’s mouth nearly hit the floor when dad Dad told me had flown everything from suicide WWII gliders to jets and helicopters. talked about helicopters and some of the planes he flew for the Army. No one had ever gotten dad to speak about “that,” yet here we were meeting for the first time and he was chatting away. The door opened. I learned he had survived more aerial crashes than most peoples’ car wrecks. Dad flew winged and wingless aircraft, a rarity and one his many accolades.
Mom and dad accepted me and we became friends. Sally and I had our wedding less than one year after meeting mom and dad. My sister was maid of honor and my father was best man. Our four parents and my sister stood with us in a sunny, brick walled courtyard on Long Island. My father and I wore black shawl collared tuxedos. Sally’s dad wore something else. I had special plans for him.
“You’ll never get dad in his dress blues” Sally insisted. But I wasn’t giving in. The wedding was nearing when dad finally called and asked, “What should I wear?” As a military officer, preparedness was in his DNA. Time was short and he was a little nervous according to my plan.
“Wear your dress blues dad,” I said with a faux officer gentlemanly conviction.
“What are you and your father wearing?” he said as politely and unmoved as the brilliant poker player he was.
“It doesn’t matter what we’re wearing dad. My wedding gift is seeing you in your dress blues. It’s an honor we all deserve.” I stopped with conviction. Although he never acquiesced, he wore his dress blues proudly and danced with my mother to the “Caissons Go Rolling Along.”
Over the years, I learned that dad had flown countless suicide missions in poorly built gliders during WWII including the D-Day invasion. On one very low flight behind French lines, an 88mm shell put a hole “the size of a patio door” in one of his wings. “My green copilot and I jumped out and into a bomb hole half filled with water.” He laughed as he told me how his new flying partner shook like leaf.
“I have a bottle of scotch in my duffel,” the young flyer announce to dad.
“Well go get it” dad laughed as he finished telling me about the rescue from a French tavern where they were wined and dined by the locals.
Dad never showed me a sign of fear, never a flinch or twitch. “Were you ever afraid?” I once asked.
Without any hesitation he said, “No. I always had my faith in God. When a flyer became afraid, he didn’t come back.”
Dad survived more than three wars and being shot down four or five times. In one crash from enemy fire, he took a dunk in a poisoned section of the Yellow River that made him ill. He had a stroke that led to his retirement, bypass surgery, meningitis from a fall that leaked spinal fluid, and three aneurisms repaired by surgery. But it was a form of Lou Gehrig’s disease that finally ended his life.
This invincible man spent his last years in a wheelchair as brave as he sat in the cockpits over enemy fire. It was then that we learned the true mettle of mom.
Mom and dad’s social life was their family; kids, grandchildren, sisters and brothers nieces and nephews. Forty or more family members filled their home for holidays and family events. They had enough grandchildren for two baseball teams and loved every one of them. The grandkids took turns playing piano, violin, or showing off one accomplishment or another. Each one got the special attention grandchildren need. And then they lined up in dad’s office, “Pop-pop, can we have candy?” and the to mom, “Nana can we have candy?” Mom and dad gave the kids everything a child and adult needed.
We rarely saw their friends. So when dad left us for the next world, we were shocked when the funeral home overfilled for dad’s wake. The Knights of Columbus, members of the church and community overwhelmed the designated room. The funeral director opened more space to accommodate three hundred people or so.
Group prayers and the family rosary were said. It was a beautiful moment. Everyone but the family filtered out. We stood around sharing memories, having that uncomfortable filler what do we do next conversation when I noticed mom slowly walk up to dad’s open coffin. Delores, his 5’2” wife of 47 years quietly stood over him waiting. One by one, we gathered at her side.
Within a few minutes, the funeral hall that was filled with airport decibel level chatter became peacefully silent like the green pastures and quiet waters King David wrote about it.
“We love you dad and we’ll miss you,” mom announced. We all looked down at dad and said goodbye. It was a moment unmatched by any scene in any movie, play, or book.
“Okay, we can go now,” mom commanded, “You can close the coffin,” Lieutenant Delores (Dilger) Rike ordered.
A few years later, Sally asked mom about her time in WWII. “Oh, it was nothing darling” mom would giggle and change the subject. Over the years, mom had spoken nothing more than how she and dad met and some of the moments they enjoyed in war torn Europe during and after the war. This evening, when no one else was around, Sally persisted until mom brought her scrapbook to the kitchen table.
Lieutenant Delores Dilger was a flight nurse who flew over 170 missions during WWII. Her job was to fly into battle zones and care for the wounded in the aircraft on the way back to the hospital. Mom saw the horrors of Hitler’s, Mussolini’s, and Hirohito’s brutal torturous abuse of prisoners.
Lt. Dilger faced peril like every soldier. The enemy did not discriminate. They were shot at just like fighters and bombers. Mom went down on one flight and walked away with a knee injury. On another occasion, mom was grounded because she had a cold. She insisted on flying but the Captain refused and filled her spot with her good friend Dolly. That flight never returned
Years later, when mom and dad were settled in Virginia, mom collected and shipped clothing and household goods all over the world to missions including Native American reservations. Mom packed 100lb. boxes; the UPS limit. She never let the UPS driver lift them. “They’re too heavy and I don’t want you to hurt yourself,” she ordered drivers well into her 80s.
One day, mom received a letter from a hospital that had been receiving her boxes of treasures. The hospital that sent the letter was named for her friend Dolly, the very same friend who died in mom’s place on that fateful flight that never returned.
Dolly had plans to open a clinic for the poor in New Mexico after the war. When Dolly did not return, her parents built a hospital and named it for her. Somehow, someone pieced together that the woman sending boxes all of these years was Dolly’s WWII buddy. That letter lifted a burden of guilt Lt. Mom Dilger carried for over fifty years.
Mom’s greatest heroics in my opinion was staying at home, raising and keeping their family of nine children together. Their home was moved too many times with too little notice. That is the military life. You get your orders and take them with a smile. “let the water roll off the duck’s back,” mom would say.
My wife Sally was born in Stuttgart Germany during the 1950s, along with a brother and sister, while dad was stationed there. They lived in many states here in the U.S.A. and on the family farm in South Dakota. Mom was the ultimate matriarch who raised an incredible family.
The children had it very hard too. Is dad coming back? Will I ever see him again? What will happen to us? What will happen to me? Mom always smiled, never losing faith, and passed her and dad’s faith on to their children and grandchildren.
Yes, military families are the unsung heroes. They deserve medals and to be remembered on Memorial and Veterans Days along with the soldiers.
War is hell. Mom and dad were not warmongers as the vast majorities who have served are not. Like dad’s family who fought in the Revolutionary War, fighting for liberty was their duty – plain and simple. Their greatest fear was people would forget the hell of oppressive governments and murderous tyrants like Hitler. Mom and dad asked only one thing, that we defend freedom, the right to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Unlike Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese political prisoner who was given asylum here in the U.S.A., we can openly and safely speak out against our government leaders without fear of retaliation. We even have the freedom to protest the very people who defend our freedom.
Let’s honor those who marched into hell for us by never forgetting and never relenting.