Military service isn’t hereditary — at least not in the same way that applies to eye color, hair loss or the uncanny ability to roll your tongue for purposes of breaking the ice at a dull party.
When it came to Merle Wilson and family, it was more of a numbers game. Wilson grew up on a farm in Julian, one of 10 children born to born to John and Hannah.
Of those 10 children, six of them were boys. Of those six boys, five of them participated in the series of military conflicts spanning the years between 1944 and 1960. Of those five boys who went off to serve their country, five returned home.
Sometimes these things are a question of playing the odds. If you have a large, steady supply of strapping young men in the ages of World War II and Korea, chances are at least a handful of them will end up caught in the crossfire — but for all them to return home alive and unscathed?
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That’s venturing into miracle country.
I look back on this and I think how the hell did she get through all of this.
Wilson sometimes wonders how his mother made it to sleep on any given night. There was always the lingering possibility that the next morning she would awake to the see the sun come up over the horizon — and one of her sons would not.
“I look back on this and I think, ‘How the hell did she get through all of this?’ ” Wilson said.
These are the kind of questions that are born out of age and experience, from a man who has raised four kids and recently celebrated his 60th wedding anniversary, just over the hill from where he grew up.
Wilson was just 23 years old when he was drafted into the army during the tail end of the Korean War.
Fresh off the farm, he had no idea what to expect upon reporting for duty at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. He benefited ever so slightly from the unwritten social contract among siblings, a sort of trickle down wisdom that accumulates and then cascades down the family tree from eldest to youngest.
Wilson had his pick of brothers to rely on. Don Wilson had participated in the Battle of the Bulge, and Charles Wilson spent the bulk of his tenure with the army assigned to the 892nd Ordnance Heavy Ammunition Company in Seoul, South Korea. James Wilson was drafted in 1951 and, after 16 weeks of training, was deployed to Okita, Japan.
Their collective advice was simple and to the point: Do what you’re told.
“They did tell me about their basic training, what to expect when you go in,” Wilson said.
He was posted at Ladd Air Force Base in Alaska, where he operated as a heavy artillery repairman, maintaining 16 guns spread across four different sites in temperatures that often reached 60 below.
You couldn’t touch the metal with your bare hands. Your fingers or hands would have stuck right to the metal.
“You couldn’t touch the metal with your bare hands. Your fingers or hands would have stuck right to the metal,” Wilson said.
He was honorably discharged in 1955. His brother, Jesse, enlisted with the U.S Air Force the following year and worked as a mechanic on B-52 bombers.
With both heritage and a common thread of experiences tying all of the brothers together, it should have made it easier for them to speak collectively about the time they spent serving their country.
But it didn’t.
“People never talked about what they went through. I don’t know why,” Wilson said.