HER VOICE IS HESITANT, strained, edged with 50 years of grief.
I sit at my dining room table, phone clasped tightly to my ear, listening, jotting notes. In the quiet reserve of her voice, in the words she speaks, I hear her pain.
On June 2, 1953, our lives became forever linked. That day, on the battlefields of Korea, two young American soldiers forged into combat. One of them was blown apart by a mortar while the other watched in horror. My father came home; hers didn’t.
Today, after a two-month search, I am speaking to the daughter of Cpl. Ray W. Scheibe, my dad’s army buddy. I have anticipated this day, prayed for this day, wondered if this day would come. In recent months, I made it my mission to find Ray’s daughter, who was only six weeks old when he died in Korea.
My desire to find Teri Rae was spurred by the tragic story of her dad’s death. Just before he was killed, Ray told his comrades, my dad among them, that he was leaving Korea the next morning. Back home his wife and infant awaited his safe return. The new father was excited about seeing his child for the first time and his buddies shared his joy. That jubilation, however, was short-lived as minutes later the 22-year-old was hit by a deadly mortar.
Ray’s death impacted my dad more than any single wartime tragedy, for it is one of the few war memories he ever shared. He mourned for his buddy who would never see his child and for the child who would never know her father. While my dad always referred to the baby as a 9-month-old son, I learned during my search that the infant was really a 6-week-old daughter. My dad’s memory had failed him, but the memory of Ray’s horrific death never left him.
Now this grown daughter, today a grandmother, is on the phone, speaking to me from her home in southwestern Iowa. Only a week earlier I mailed a two-page letter to Teri, a letter which would change both of our lives. I wrote about our fathers’ friendship, about her dad’s death and about my search.
Teri tells me that she cried for two days after receiving my letter.
My quest for Teri began nearly two years after my dad’s 2003 death. While looking through a shoebox filled with my father’s military belongings, I found clues leading to the identity of Ray Scheibe.
I share with Teri in our phone conversation that I discovered a photo of her dad taken in May 1953. My dad had written “Sgt. Shibe, June 2, 1953” on the back of the photo and drawn a box around it. I recognized the surname, although misspelled, as the one my dad had once spoken when talking about his deceased buddy.
It is that picture; the discovery of a memorial service bulletin from Korea with Ray’s name listed inside; military documents; internet research into military records; and a phone conversation with Ray’s best friend from high school that confirm the identity of the young soldier from Wolbach, Nebraska.
I compose a letter to Teri and include copies of documents related to her dad, then drop it in the mail, fully expecting I may never hear from her.
But she quickly responds, hers the words of a daughter grieving for her father. “This letter has made him a real person with feelings and personality, before I just knew he existed,” Teri writes in her first correspondence to me. She continues with details about her life and family, about the loss of her beloved husband, Lee, the love of her life, two years earlier.
“My pain has been going on for years it seems like, since I have been born. I have learned to be strong I guess,” Teri continues.
She first learned of her father after starting school in Omaha, Nebraska. Teri’s mom Marilyn had remarried and, as was customary in that time period, death was not openly discussed. But when her teachers called her “Teri Scheibe” instead of “Teri Todd,” her new name, the youngster began to ask questions. For the first time, Marilyn told her daughter about her birth father who died in Korea.
“I know very little about him as no one ever spoke of him,” Teri writes to me. “And I was afraid to ask because they said my mom didn’t take it very well, and I know I was always a reminder. Even his family never spoke of him.”
Now we are on the phone, talking about this man who has been described to me by Robert “Sonny” Nealon as fun-loving, outgoing and a friend to all. Sonny and Ray were best friends who hunted, fished and played sports together while growing up in Wolbach.
The two entered the service on the same day, Ray to the Army and Sonny to the Navy. Sonny, who had been my final contact in finding Teri, was completing his naval tour in California when he learned of Ray’s death. “It was a heart rendering time when we read of Ray’s death in Korea,” Sonny recalls in a letter to me.
He tells of a man nicknamed Pee Wee because Ray stood only five feet seven inches tall. “…recalling the days with Pee Wee brought nothing but smiles and near laughter,” Sonny continues.
It is Sonny’s description of a real, living, breathing person that I wish to share with Teri. In the depths of 50-plus years of unresolved grief, I hope Teri will see her father through the eyes of his best friend.
I too yearn to know this man who meant so much to my dad. My father never made peace with Ray’s death and in the depths of my heart I carry my dad’s burden of unresolved grief.
As I speak with Teri, sorrow surfaces and I experience a deep sense of relief and of letting go. I sense that Teri, too, as we talk about her dad, his death and the tragedies in her life, is beginning to feel that same peace.
“You gave me a person to cry and grieve for. Thank you!” Teri says.
That first phone conversation is just the beginning of an ongoing correspondence with Teri and Sonny. We exchange photos and personal information. I view photos of Ray as a young man, read newspaper accounts of his death and cry over a snapshot of his tombstone, which reads in part, “Gave his life in Korea, 1953.”
While Terri struggles with the details of her father’s death, she is comforted by my father’s remembrance of him. “It made me proud that your father thought so highly of him (Ray) and had never forgotten him and liked him,” Teri writes. “I now can imagine a man so excited to be coming home to his family, and he did know about me, because all the letters did not reach him, and he was proud of me and he did love us.”
My father’s memories comfort Teri. Sonny’s memories lift her spirits. “He (Sonny) has made me smile and laugh, which is rare here,” Teri says.
I couldn’t have asked for a better outcome. I can only imagine two fathers smiling down from heaven, delighted that their daughters have connected. A friendship which began on the battlefields of Korea has now come full circle more than half a century later.
I wrote this story in 2005 and am publishing it today for the first time in honor of Cpl. Ray W. Scheibe who died in Korea on June 2, 1953. His wife Marilyn died, also on June 2, many decades later. Some day I hope to meet Teri and embrace the woman to whom I am forever linked through the friendship of our soldier fathers.
© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling