"So long, Ray," we all shouted as he swung his makeshift backpack over his shoulder.
With a big grin he said, "So long you guys. I just wish I could take all of you with me." It was a cold, gray day in early December 1944 when Ray Kuusela trudged across the compound of Stalag Luft IV, out the gate, and out of our lives forever.
When Ray's bomber was shot down over Germany a year or so before, his left arm had been badly wounded. When he was released from the German hospital, he, and the Germans, knew he would never be able to use his left hand again. Now, because of this disability, he was being repatriated back to the States.
I had been a prisoner of war since Nov. 2, 1944, when my B-17 was shot down, but it wasn't until February 1945 that my mom and dad learned from the War Department that I was a POW somewhere in Germany. Until then, they only knew that I was "missing in action.”
One day in late February 1945, my mom read a newspaper article about how the War Department was sponsoring meetings across the country for relatives of prisoners of war. Ex-POWs who had been repatriated talked to these audiences about life and treatment in the prison camps. There was to be such a meeting in the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles the following week.
Mom and dad could hardly wait, and the day finally arrived. Soon after they were seated in the big auditorium, about a half dozen soldiers and sailors — all of them disabled ex-POWs — took seats on the brightly lit stage. One by one they spoke to the intensely silent audience, everyone leaning forward, waiting to hear something that would give them hope. Among the speakers was Ray Kuusela.
When they finished speaking, the officer in charge said, "The men will now go down into the audience to look at any photos you brought along. Some of them may be recognized.”
As the men came down from the stage the audience crowded forward extending pictures of their missing sons, husbands and sweethearts.
Seven decades ago my dad told me this story:
"Bill, your mother and I had been feeling really bad since we got the telegram that you were missing in action, but those boys up there on that stage gave us hope that everything would turn out all right. I watched this one fellow push his way through the crowd, looking at pictures held out to him, hundreds of them, but he just shook his head saying 'No, no, no.’
"By the time he got up to where your mother and I were, I began to feel dejected again. But I held out your picture and suddenly that kid's face lit up with a big grin, and he said, 'Hey, that's Bill.’"
Dad held back a sob, and asked, "Is he OK?”
"Yes, he's fine," Ray assured him. Then he pressed on into the crowd looking for other familiar faces on black and white photographs tightly clutched in hopeful hands.
Mom and dad cried on the way home that night, hearing over and over again those bittersweet words, "Yes, he's fine.”
Ray Kuusela, of Bremerton, Washington, died in 2005.