Ode to my Pop: Roy Downing A WWII Aviator

I lost my 90 year old dad this year; my mother lost her partner of 65 years. The picture above was my favorite since I was a very little girl, I remember looking at it and thinking – My daddy is a hero! I was too young to know how much of a hero he was. I never knew until later in life the secrets he held inside.

Pop was blown out of the air and captured and held in a Concentration Camp during WW11. A strapping young man over 6 feet tall he was a lightweight boxer before he entered the Army Air corps. After escaping the Camp, when found by our side and told the war was over, he weighed 90 Lbs.

 My pop suffered PTSD as you can imagine from being held in the camps and seeing what he saw. His wounds from being shot out of the sky  nor those from being shot when he barley stayed alive after escaping, compared to the scars of all he witnessed during the war.

Before he died he began to tell stories of the horrors of the war and of the mass murders in the camps. I once saw the tears in his eyes as he watched some film clips of the war toward the end of his life.

 Pop was adopted and had a hard life on Missouri farm with a very strict father who beat him regularly. He escaped the farm as a young boy and traveled the railways like a hobo finally joining the service which became his only family. When he returned as a highly decorated war hero for saving the lives of several men before they were captured, his natural mother heard about him and called him.

Delighted he ran to her only to find when he arrived, she was drunk and already forgot he even existed. She had run off and remarried to a very rich man after her former husband died leaving the baby and his brother and sister orphans. Now rich, she found and raised the older ones but the baby having been adopted then ran away from home she lost track of.

Roy tried to fit in but he could not be anything other than rough around the edges, he was not brought up refined and with money. He was treated more like the help and his pride prompted him to walk away rather than be humiliated.

 He came east and met and married my mother Louise Bonetti an Italian whose family nearly rubbed him out. They didn’t and he made my mother very happy, he treated her like a queen right to the end. She never wanted for anything and they traveled the world and were like two peas in a pod.  I am not qualified to explain their relationship perhaps mom will comment here and do that for me. They shared 65 years and only one child.

After all Pop went through , I can’t say he had any frame of reference how to be a cuddly parent, he was strict, he beat and he punished me a lot. I think had I been a boy, we either would have got along better or he would have killed me.  He provided for me and without any experience on how to love a child he did the best he could and I realize that no malice was intended. He gave me wonderful things never realizing what I needed most was nothing more than his love and to be the Apple of his eye – ‘daddy’s little girl’.

 Men in general can’t express the effects of PTSD nor were the effects known or acknowledged until recently. Pop was a war hero- he wasn’t supposed to show weakness, he was supposed to be strong and lead with an iron fist and so he did.

At his deathbed he pretty much realized he could have done better by me and tried to heal that which was rough between us. I was not about to deny him. I will never know, but I do know that I held him and loved him and comforted him right to the end. I did him the honor of helping him leave with the dignity this war hero deserved and when he passed this year in the veterans hospital he died as my hero and finally he let me know that I was “daddy’s little girl.”

 This Veterans Day, as I look at this picture, a box full of medals, a flag the Air Force gave me at the funeral and cry- I need to be honest about all the mixed feelings I have for this man. I have both loved and hated and loved again. This man was my pop Roy Downing, an orphan, a son, a father, a husband and to be remembered today as a soldier who risked his life and limb for our country and who until his death volunteered selfishly for our country as Chairman of the American Reform Party. 

Dear Lord
Please let me have regular dreams like others do
Not these nightmares of memory
Let my dreams be filled with light and joy
Not smoke and terror
Let me hear the laughter of children
Not the screams of men dying
Let the birds fill the air with song
Not the sounds of bombs and bullets
Let the rivers run pure and clear
Not red with blood
Let everyone be healthy and whole
Not missing limbs and faces
Let the earth look as you made it
Not scorched and cratered
Let me wake up smiling
Not searching for the enemy
Let the sweat on my pillow be from summer’s heat
Not the sweat of fear and anxiety
but dear Lord most of all
I beg you
Please don’t let my children or their children
pray to you as I am doing tonight

Written by Maria Sutherland
September 16, 1999

5 Responses

  1. Dear BettyJean,
    This is such a moving tribute. Thank you for sharing from your heart and for opening up about such deeply personal feelings and experiences. It’s so good to know that in the end you made your peace with your father.

  2. ((((BettyJean))))

    Thank you for sharing.

    My father was also in WWII in the Pacific.

    I want to wish all the veteran’s reading this Thank You!

  3. So touching BJ, bless you sweet lady!

    • Thank you Anita,
      Momma didn’t like it at all. She thought I told a terrible story. She saw him as absolutely perfect and I am so appreciative she did. Pop was the best husband in the world and my mother had the King or Kings! She misses him dearly every day. they were so lucky to have each other- a perfect match perfect for each other. Every marriage should be that fortunate.

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