Were he alive today, Jimmy would be 82.
However, if he were alive, this story would not be written. Nor would there be a need to visit his gravesite, place flowers, shed tears and think of all the “what ifs …”
“What if” he hadn’t been drafted into the military? “What if” America hadn’t become involved in conflict on the Korean Peninsula? “What if” Jimmy hadn’t been hale and healthy and fit for military duty? “What if”?
The last time I saw Jimmy alive, I was just 6 and I wasn’t interested in the reason for this family gathering. I was more interested in playing with cousins my own age, and eating more chocolate cake and ice cream than I should.
Still, I do have a fleeting memory of Jimmy on that Spring day in 1950. He was clad in a green Army dress uniform, shoes “spit-shine” polished, and brass glimmering. I looked at him with awe; the uniform gave Jimmy a super-hero aura.
It was May and Jimmy was headed off to Japan. He was 19, just a boy, really, forced to become a man before he should have faced the trials and tribulations of adulthood, long before the reality of war should have entered his life. By June of 1950, the conflict in Korea had begun and Jimmy, along with his comrades in the 24th Infantry Division, was among the first wave of Americans sent to that desolate corner of the World to fight in the Korean Civil War. By then he’d earned the rank of corporal and a local newspaper said Jimmy was the only local boy in Korea.
Folks in Eldora were rightly proud of their native son.
On July 20, 1950 – just a month into the war – Jimmy Wallis was listed as “Missing in Action.” Thirty-eight months later, in September of 1953, his status was changed to “Killed in Action.” Jimmy’s body was found right where it had lain on Korean soil since the day he went missing. By then, after lying through bone-cold Korean winters and hot, muggy Asian summers, only bones remained.
With the remains were Army “dog tags.” They identified the remains as Cpl. James E. Wallis. Found in tattered, weather-worn Army combat fatigues was a Zippo cigarette lighter inscribed simply, “Red.” That confirmed the identity; Jimmy was known to family and friends as “Red,” an obvious nickname given the color of his hair and hue of his complexion.
Jimmy “Red” Wallis was one of the first Iowans, if not the first, to be killed in action during the Korean War. It was devastating for all who knew him. His parents Paul and Alice (aunt “Lally” to us all) now had lost both their sons. Their first, Sterling, just a year older than Jimmy, had died in 1944 when a basement wall caved in on him as he was played with friends in a torn-down building in Eldora.
For the three long years Jimmy was missing, Paul and Lally, along with three sisters and countless cousins and friends, wondered about his fate, hoping against all probability that he’d be found alive. Down deep, though, everyone knew Jimmy was gone forever.
A month after they found Jimmy, his remains were sent home to his family in Eldora.
By then, I was 10, but still too young to understand what was happening.
If Jimmy was coming home, why couldn’t I see him? If that was really Jimmy, then what was he doing in that box, and why was there a flag over it? Did Jimmy still have on his neat uniform? And, why was everyone crying?
The funeral, for the most part, is a blur of memory. There were men dressed in military uniforms carrying the casket, men firing rifles and one playing “Taps.” The flag was folded with military precision and one of the uniformed men carried it to aunt Lally, kneeled and spoke to her in a soft voice, then presented her with the flag.
Throughout the gravesite ceremony, aunt Lally rocked slowly forward and back in her chair and uncle Paul sat stone faced and un-moving at her left side. Everyone sobbed.
I stood next to my father, grasping his hand tightly.
Memories of that day have lingered for six decades. Jimmy was laid to rest under a tree in the family plot at Eldora on Oct. 27, 1953.
The story of Jimmy’s short life, and how he died, is the true reason we pause on one Monday each year to remember the sacrifices he and others like him made. It’s the reason we observe Memorial Day.
It’s a way for us to make certain the ultimate sacrifice made by Jimmy “Red” Wallis and others are never forgotten.