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Elizabeth Falada Birmingham (1888-1951), Al, Martin Birmingham (1869-1946). Easter Sunday, April 21, 1946
Al Birmingham’s Easters, 1945 & 1946
Al Birmingham (1926-2009), my mother’s brother, fought in the Philippines during World War II. He returned to his home at dawn on April 21, 1946, stepping off a train in Elma, Iowa, that he had boarded the day before at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Nobody knew that he was on his way.

Al walked from the depot to the home of his older brother Pat, dropped his bags on the kitchen floor (no locked doors in Elma in those days), and said, "Stand up and shake hands with a man." Evidently that's what Pat did. Then the brothers drove to the family farm near Lourdes, a few miles away. Their parents were at church, so Al and Pat went to church too. It was Easter Sunday. Al had turned 20 just two months before.

Some 60 years later, Al smiled when looked back at Easter 1946. He remembered his welcome after Mass, with everybody congratulating him and shaking his hand. "It was the greatest day of my life," he said. It must have been a great celebration for his family to see their son and brother safely back from the War on the day they commmemorated Christ's resurrection from the dead.

Al’s Easter 1945 was also memorable. In the Philippines, his unit had been involved in skirmishes approaching Bukal Hill, a peak near Mount Macolod. Preparing for battle on March 31, 1945, Al wrote:

After our hole was dug I opened my battered missal and discovered that it was Holy Saturday. I wondered what Easter morning would bring. Would I die a violent death on this glorious feast? I thought about the folks at home who would attend the early Mass to celebrate Christ's triumph over death. With these thoughts I fell asleep (Memoir, p. 18).

Easter Sunday 1945 was on April 1, the date of the invasion of Okinawa. Four nerve-wracking days later, April 4, Al's unit returned to their bivouac area. Al finds that he is one of the lucky men who has a letter, and it's from sister Violet, who was now a nun and who had taken their father’s name as hers, Sister Martin. Here is Al again:

Eagerly I snatched the welcome note and when I spotted Sister Martin's familiar handwriting. I sat down to read it without even removing my battle-gear. No other letter ever affected me so profoundly as that one did. It transformed a discouraged, pessimistic, war-weary G.I. into a new man. All my fondest hopes and highest aspirations were reawakened as I pondered the precious words.

The letter had been written in answer to my Christmas message which had revealed to Sister Martin my subjective vocation [for the priesthood]. I sat there for several minutes in rapturous silence, paying no need to anyone or anything around me. I was no longer a footsore, battle-happy doughboy but a candidate for the priesthood. My dreams took me through the seminar to the altar where I offered Holy Mass, holding Christ between my fingers. I read on: [Sr. Martin had written:] "I looked at your hands and said, 'Dear Lord, save them.'" I looked down at my hands, grimy and calloused, and wondered if they would ever be the consecrated hands of a priest" (Memoir, p. 19).

A few days later, April 19, Al was wounded, although not badly enough to take him out of action immediately. He was in pain but didn’t know that he had been hit. A few hours later the pain caused him to pull down his trousers. Only then did he and his comrades see that he had taken “enemy steel,” as he called it. His writes: “My only reaction to this discovery was a thrill of pride.”

A medic told him that the shell fragment had to be removed. Al left the front because “my buddies told me that it would be foolish to stay under the circumstances, especially,” he added, like an ambitious student, “since the point system gave extra credit for wounds.” But before he left he had another shift of guard duty. He describes himself as “a hardened soldier, resigned to my fate and determined to kill Japs as long as I was able.” His buddies weren’t so calm, however, and when one of them didn’t want to pull his shift on guard, Al got tough. “I remembered how he used to ridicule me for being a sissy who prayed and tried to keep the moral law.” This fellow asked Al if were is afraid. “No, I’m not,” Al replied. “ . . . I’m tired of worrying . . . Take the watch and let me get some sleep” (p. 27).

Once behind the lines, however, Al found that it took only a few minutes to remove the steel; he quickly returned to his unit. His injury was not the end of his war; the telegram to his parents called it a “slight” wound.

Al Birmingham was awarded the Purple Heart for his service.

The source is these Easter stories is Al Birmingham’s memoir, begun when he returned to Lourdes in 1946 but never completed.
Notes by Allen J. Frantzen, April 2017. Photograph of the Birminghams courtesy of Rosella Walters.