I never met Robert Herbert Sanders, but I know a little bit about him. He was born in 1909 and graduated from West Point in 1934. His father-in-law also attended West Point and was, apparently, the first Irish-American to do so. He fought in the Spanish-American war and became a brigadier general.
After graduation, Robert married and had three children. The family was stationed at Pearl Harbor when the base was attacked on December 7, 1941. My guess is their son Robert, Jr., who was then only four months old, is the youngest survivor of that attack.
Eventually, Robert Sr. was sent overseas, and he found himself on the front lines in Europe in charge of what must have been a bunch of scared kids and that he performed with honor. I also know from his letters home that he missed his wife and children terribly. Then in the dark of night of February 24, 1945, he was walking through a trench on his way to check on a forward platoon when he stepped on a mine, and his brief life was over.
Memorial Day honors the sacrifices of people like Robert Sanders, as we should, but look more closely and you realize that when a single soldier is killed a lot of things die with him. Lieutenant-Colonel Sanders’s Â death shattered a young family. His widowâ€™s grief lasted long after she took the gold star down from her window. In fact, though she lived well into her 90s, she never recovered from it, and Iâ€™m sure that in countless ways his three children, now in their 60s and 70s, continue to be affected by their motherâ€™s continual sadness and the premature loss of their father.
In turn, while raising their own families, their lives and their choices must have been influenced by their grief and their fears and as a result their children are who they are partly because of what happened that night in February 1945.
I know itâ€™s true, because Robert Herbert Sanders was my wifeâ€™s grandfather, a man she obviously never knew. Who knows how her life would have been different had he survived the war? Â (I know my grandchildren will have it drummed into their heads that Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs were innocent and that a life without rooting for the Mets is a life not worth living).
I do know her father (who served in Vietnam) is about the best grandfather Iâ€™ve ever seen. Iâ€™m sure one reason for that is his growing up without a father. I also know that he doesnâ€™t like surprises and finds a certain amount of security in planning things out in advance. My wife is the same way. Doubtless any family that has experienced the knock on the door feels similarly.
In that sense, Robert H. Sandersâ€™ death more than 65 years ago continues to reverberate today. I suppose it will continue to do so until the memories of him and of those directly affected by him, just peter out over time like fading ripples in water that had been set in motion as powerful waves.
Robert H. Sanders was just one of some 292,000 American deaths on the battlefield in World War II. But to one family, he might as well have been all of them.
What follows are a few pages from a scrapbook of his life (the texts are clickable):
High school graduate, 1926:
West Point: 1934:
His last letter home, written less than two weeks before his death (later retyped):
The telegram recopied by his widow:
The West Point flag at half mast
His grave in Holland:
Being the father he never had (my wife in the rear):