There are two stories to explain my name. The more light-hearted option is that I was named after my father’s best man, an “Uncle” Nick, who was fully Sicilian, and supposedly fully “connected.” The less enjoyable story, though, is likely the correct one: I was named after Gordon Nicholas Ripatranzone, a 19 year-old United States Army Corporal. Service number ER12338939. K Company, 9th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division. Missing in Action on February 12, 1951, near Chowon-ri. The same brand of legend that ties me to Cosa Nostra yielded an apocryphal story about this particular Nick, or Gordo: he was shot in the back of the head while on his knees, hands tied behind his spine. He went, the story said, from MIA to POW to KIA in the span of a day.
Gordo’s parents wouldn’t hear that version of his death until years later, passed third-hand from returned Korean War veterans. Nobody has been able to verify its truth, but such legend does not require evidence. After hundreds of photocopied flyers were distributed with three photographs and the lament that Gordo was “Not on Official POW list,” his parents were emotionally exhausted. Gordo was my second cousin, but his death predated my birth by nearly 30 years. Yet it is still difficult for me to read the questions that his parents typed on the flyer: “Did you know our son?” “Which camp was he in?” “How was he treated?” “Do you know if our son received any of our mail?”
The flyer concludes with a capitalized sentence: “THANKS EVER SO MUCH AND GOD BLESS YOU.” I heard they lost their faith soon afterward. For years that was the core of the story that lived in me: how faith could be lost. I hold on to mine, but I have never experienced such pain. Can faith bring back a son?
War raises the emotional stakes and breadth of narratives. In 1942, Ernest Hemingway selected and arranged representative stories in the anthology Men At War. Although my current high school students idolize writers such as David Foster Wallace and Blake Butler, I was still a Hemingway disciple at their age, and had bought a paperback copy of the anthology at a garage sale. On the cover, shadowed soldiers battle against a red, barbed-wire backdrop. At 16, with two Marine-uncles and aspirations of attending West Point, I was Hemingway’s ideal reader. That past summer the local American Legion had selected me to attend Boys State, where military drills were followed by civic lessons. I idolized the veterans who volunteered there: somehow their formality complimented the progressiveness of the group leaders, who wore sandals with their khakis and played the theme of St. Elmo’s Fire during our last day.
Few writers have been oversimplified as much as Hemingway, but he explained the complexities of war in that anthology. He dedicated the book to his sons, and offered a lengthy introduction that began bluntly: “This book will not tell you how to die.” His intentions become even clearer:
The editor of this anthology, who took part and was wounded in the last war to end war, hates war and hates all the politicians whose mismanagement, gullibility, cupidity, selfishness and ambition brought on this present war and made it inevitable. But once we have a war there is only one thing to do. It must be won. For defeat brings worse things than any that can ever happen in a war.
War is Hell, but it must be won. He continues: “when you go to war as a boy you have a great illusion of immortality. Other people get killed; not you.” Hemingway considered his anthology an antidote to such ignorance. He selected stories that revealed truths, not “bravado writing,” which would have resulted in a “propaganda book.” After all, the anthology “has been edited in order that those three boys… can have the book that will contain truth about war as near as we can come by it, which was lacking to me when I needed it most.” I certainly needed it.
At 19, the age of Gordo’s death, I became obsessed with his memory. I sketched genealogies on graph paper, contacted the Repatriation and Family Affairs Division of the Army. I received a loss incident summary report that mentioned Field Search Case 262F, which concluded that Gordo not only disappeared that February, but that none of the “more than 4,000 American POWs” who returned to the states ever mentioned seeing or hearing Gordo. Also enclosed was a map of Korea with four salient points marked: “Chosin Reservoir,” “Unsan County,” “Demilitarized Zone,” and “Area where CPL Ripatranzone became MIA.” I still receive annual invitations to conferences for the families of POWs, but I am nervous to attend. I did not, could not know Gordo. I never touched him, never heard his voice. We shared a name, and perhaps blood, but I have never served in the military or been to Korea.
The incident summary report mentioned one other thing. Gordo’s body was never discovered, so a “Presumptive Finding of Death” was placed on January 18, 1954. The last moment of his existence was presumed, not definite.
Ten years later I discovered American Pow’s Calling From Korea, a 112 page bound booklet with hazy printing on cloth paper. I thought I had heard the last of Gordo, but this book complicated everything, especially my comprehension of his final days. Clunky idiom dominates the prose, along with British spelling and misusages of punctuation throughout (the faulty possessive in the title is only a start). The text is clearly against American involvement in Korea, with the preface by the unnamed “Publishers,” noting that “these statements and messages were entrusted to correspondents of the Hsinhua (New China) News Agency serving with the Chinese people’s volunteers in Korea, who forwarded them to Peking where they were broadcast by ‘Radio Peking.’”
Litanies of soldiers complete with rank and number follow supposed cease-fire declarations. Truncated dramatic narratives are often addressed to “mothers” and contain similar refrains: the kindness of the Chinese and the aggression of the Americans. The book concludes with an account of the death of nineteen American POWs when “for 20 minutes the [American] planes fiercely bombed and strafed the camp.”
Tucked pages before that declaration, though, are the only words I have ever read “written” by Gordo Ripatranzone: “We are supposed to be here freeing the people and all we are doing is killing them and destroying them. The only way this war can be stopped is by you at home. Put this in the paper. Unite and get the people in the U. S. A. to have the Government withdraw. Let the North and South Koreans settle this war by themselves.” I doubt a single letter came from Gordo’s own hand: the diction, even the cadence of the message is a nearly mechanic repetition of other supposed communications of American POWs. It bothers me now, 60 years later. I wonder how much it bothered his parents back then, their every breath resting on the hope of his real voice.
A few months ago I received a cryptic message from Fort Hood. I called back, hoping for some great revelation, but instead learned that the Repatriation and Family Affairs Division was seeking DNA samples from relatives of missing soldiers. Of the 8,177 American soldiers killed during the Korean War, 800 are interred in the Military Cemetery of the Pacific at the Punchbowl in Honolulu, Hawaii. These remains “are to date largely unidentified.”
I was ready to provide my DNA, but not ready for the response: they didn’t need my sample. They’d called me in error; someone else had already provided a sample. They couldn’t tell me who. My family doesn’t talk of Gordo much — that wound seems best considered in silence — but someone else is looking for him, pursuing his memory. Now, I feel even more distant from him. The odds that Gordo’s remains are at Punchbowl are slim, but it felt like the one act I could take that mattered. Was it selfish to think in such a way? Is that a form of grieving, or of pride? I had turned his death into legend; his life folklore I could control.
One of my professors at Rutgers-Newark, the historian H. Bruce Franklin, authored M.I.A., or Mythmaking in America in 1993. While I won’t say that I entered his course a hawk and left a dove, Franklin absolutely refigured my perception of American participation in war. Franklin, a former navigator and intelligence officer in the Strategic Air Command of the US Air Force, has dissected the American personal and cultural perpetuation of the POW mythos. Franklin’s focus was on the potential for American soldiers remaining as POWs beyond the end of the Vietnam conflict:
…the supposed fate of this conjectural small group therefore might seem to be almost incidental to the catastrophic effects of the war on the ruined nation of Vietnam, whose casualties ran into the millions and whose own MIAs still number over two hundred thousand, as well as to the devastating effects of the war on the United States itself, including the known fate of many tens of thousands of veterans.
Belief in surviving POWs “could be regarded as the closest thing we have to a national religion.” Hollywood has sent “saviors such as Gene Hackman, Chuck Norris, Sylvester Stallone, and David Carradine… on quests to rescue imprisoned Vietnam veterans” though they “would have a more realistic chance of success in the United States, where hundreds of thousands are or have been incarcerated in jails and prisons.” Personal grief becomes political polemic: the reality of POWs and MIAs is less useful, and more disturbing, than the reminders of black-and-white flags. Franklin quotes Emma Hagerman, whose husband became MIA in 1967, that “‘the MIA disease’ turns families into ‘emotional cripples’ who ‘no longer look for an accounting, but are waiting for a resurrection.’”
Gordo’s resurrection was, and is, a perpetual possibility. Even if his remains are someday found, my belief in his mythology is greater than any tangible conclusion. I still read Hemingway. I regularly have talented writing students join the Marines or the Army, and I want to ask them why, even if I already know the answer. I’ve known it since I first saw Gordo’s photograph. The fiction we create for the men at war will always carry more truth than the reality. A foolish sentiment, but one that brings me comfort.
Image courtesy the author