Man finds Oregon uncle commemorated in Manila military cemetery
PENDLETON — Phil Hodgen grew up hearing about his Uncle Eddie.
Edward O. Williams was a fun-loving banker, a popular young man about town in Pendleton. He'd played football at Pendleton High School. He loved to draw and fancied himself as a cartoonist.
Hodgen, whose middle name is Edward after his uncle, never got the chance to meet his mother's youngest brother. Edward joined the Army Air Corp with four of his high school buddies, and lost his life in Burma in his early twenties only seven months before the end of World War II. The family got a telegram informing them of Eddie's death, but the staff sergeant's body was never recovered.
So, that was that. The family grieved and slowly got used to the idea that Eddie would never come home.
"But, there was always a hole there," Hodgen said. "He was just a story in our lives."
Then, a little over a year ago, a serendipitous conversation gave Hodgen a chance to reconnect with his uncle's memory. At his son's wedding, a family member mentioned that his cousin (with whom Hodgen had lost touch) had learned that Uncle Eddie might be memorialized at the Philippines American Cemetery in Manila.
"The family never knew," said Hodgen, who is a retired DEQ spokesman who lives in Pendleton.
The 152-acre cemetery sits on property that was once a U.S. outpost named Fort William McKinley. Among the 17,202 soldiers buried there are numerous Americans. Names of more than 36,000 missing service members appear on white marble tablets. That's where the name Edward O. Williams might be inscribed, Hodgen learned.
The conversation with news of the memorial was opportune because Hodgen's wife, Sinta, grew up in the Philippines and the couple was headed to the island country only a few days later. Upon arrival, they headed to the cemetery established by the American Battle Monuments Commission in 1960.
A cemetery representative led the couple to the "W'' section of the Tablets of the Missing. A nearby inscription said, "Here are recorded the names of Americans who gave their lives in the service of their country and who sleep in unknown graves. 1941-1945." High on the wall was the name of Edward Williams, staff sergeant in the 82nd Bomb Squad, of Oregon. Hodgen, who served as a member of the Oregon Army National Guard, gazed at the name and felt a lump growing in his throat. It had been 70 years since William's death, but all of the family stories about Uncle Eddie swirled in his head.
"Sinta and I found the moment satisfying and very emotional," he said.
He and his wife were invited to return a few weeks later for Veterans Day ceremonies at the cemetery. On that day, they stood amid a crowd that included the American ambassador to the Philippines, U.S. and Filipino military brass bands, Filipino dignitaries and several hundred veterans and family members. Sinta, whose father had served in the Philippines military, was mesmerized. One American veteran, sitting in a wheelchair, had fought the Japanese for control of the land where they stood. Hodgen asked the veteran if he could pose for a photo with him.
"He was part of the unit that secured the ground where they later put the cemetery. It was incredibly humbling to meet him," Hodgen said. "You're just shaken when you're around someone like that."
This year, back in Pendleton, Hodgen plans to visit the grave of his World War II veteran father at the Athena Cemetery and stop by the Pioneer Chapel, where his uncle's name is engraved in another memorial wall honoring local service members who gave their lives. He'll attend the Tribute to the Veterans of World War II at the Pendleton Convention Center.
Some other year, though, Hodgen will return to the Manila cemetery to gaze at the name of the uncle he never actually met in person, but will never forget.