What it’s like to wait for a loved one missing in war

The agony comes from not knowing. That was the pain endured by the family of Barton Cross, a Navy serviceman who was taken prisoner by the Japanese when they captured the Philippines in April 1942. In this moving account, Sally Mott Freeman recalls the efforts of Barton’s two brothers, both prominent naval officers, to obtain news about his whereabouts and secure his safe homecoming. Through her remarkable writing, the history of the Jersey brothers comes alive with gripping narrative and masterful storytelling. She relates with emotional intensity the brothers’ plight and the strength of the bonds that kept them united in the midst of war.


The Jersey Brothersby Sally Mott Freeman

Simon & Schuster. 608p, $28, ISBN-13: 978-1501104145

Barton’s brothers had always sought to protect him. They kept an eye out for their younger brother when they were growing up, forging a bond through their shared love of the Jersey shore and the call of the sea. Barton hoped to follow his brothers to the U.S. Naval Academy, but struggled academically and was forced to withdraw after his second year. But after earning a degree in business, his opportunity to serve his country came in 1941, when his brother Bill helped him secure a position in the Navy Supply Corps. By this point, Barton’s brothers had embarked on promising careers within the Navy. Benny served as an officer aboard the USS Enterprise, a carrier that was spared the attack on Pearl Harbor and went on to play a decisive role in the Pacific campaign, while Bill was tapped for a position with Naval Intelligence. In 1942 he was put in charge of the White House Map Room, the center of wartime planning, where he earned President Roosevelt’s respect and gratitude.

Cross endured tremendous hardship as a prisoner of war.

Barton may not have risen up the ranks like his brothers, but he matched them in courage and valor. He endured tremendous hardship as a prisoner of war. He suffered through forced marches, oppressive heat, meagre rations, cruel punishments and other brutalities. He watched fellow captives die from malnutrition, untreated illnesses, exposure and horrific conditions in camps and on transport ships. Yet through it all, he kept his wits about him. He helped tend to those in need and worked to lift sagging spirits. The family credited the training he received at Christ School, an Episcopal boarding school in North Carolina, for cultivating his character and the Citadel, the elite military college in South Carolina, for giving him the personal fortitude he needed to endure and the strength he needed to persevere.

While the title of the book calls attention to the brothers, the story is equally about their mother and her own ordeals. A forceful presence, it was Helen Cross who pushed for Barton to obtain a position with the Navy Supply Corps upon his graduation from Annapolis, believing that the post would keep him out of harm’s way. Upon news of his capture, she implored his brothers to use their connections to obtain information about his status and to ensure that those in command kept up efforts to secure the release of those in enemy hands. She also took up her pen with frequency, writing letters to President Roosevelt and top naval officials, pleading with them to do more. She did not hold back her anger and criticized their decisions when she felt they imperiled the safety of her son and others like him.

The story is one of Helen’s endurance as much as her son’s. To deal with the anxiety and uncertainty, she dutifully tended to the garden at the family home. She found consolation in the work, wanting blooms to be there to greet Barton upon his eventual return. She also turned to her diary, recording her thoughts and griefs throughout her son’s absence. Although her personal faith is not discussed in any detail, Helen’s writings echo the profound sorrow that all mothers in her situation share. Like a modern-day mater dolorosa, she expresses how “a million bayonets pierce my heart” when she hears of Japanese atrocities. Though tested, she never lost hope that he would be found safe and return home.

In telling Barton’s story, Freeman also provides a vivid account of the war’s Pacific theater.

Telling Barton’s story has clearly been a labor of love for the author, Sally Mott Freeman, the daughter of his brother Bill. The book reflects her own personal quest to come to understand her uncle’s history and the stories that went untold within the family. She put a great deal of work into recovering the past. In addition to delving into family records and retrieving memories, she examined military records and government archives, read numerous wartime accounts, visited sites in the Philippines and interviewed other prisoners of war. She deftly pieces all that material together to tell a moving, heartfelt account of trial and endurance.

In telling Barton’s story, Freeman also provides a vivid account of the war’s Pacific theater. The prominent positions held by Barton’s two brothers offer her unique vantage points for narrating the naval campaign against the Japanese. She details military strategy, provides riveting accounts of combat and its costs, and reminds us of the immense heroism of those who served, including the many who paid the ultimate price. She also recounts the power struggle between the admirals and General McArthur over plans and priorities. Siding squarely with Navy leadership, she describes their objections to McArthur’s efforts to control what they saw as rightfully a naval operation and his determination to prioritize his triumphant return to the Philippines. But more than a critique of any one figure, hers is a reminder of the strong personalities that color decisions.

Those who know war only from a distance will come through this book to appreciate the remarkable courage of those who served and the trials they endured. Especially moving are the detailed descriptions of the plight of prisoners of war. Though often forgotten in our histories, they were ever on the minds of their families. The book reminds us how inhumanely many were treated, especially when their captors failed to abide by the norms laid out by international conventions. During World War II, Americans were rightly horrified when news began to appear describing the treatment of those held captive in the Philippines. Particularly devastating were reports that the United States had unknowingly fired on its own because the Japanese were transporting prisoners on unmarked ships. Such casualties should never have occurred. The losses were made all the more unbearable by that fact.

Time cannot always heal the pain of uncertainty, but coming to terms with the past can provide much needed closure. Freeman’s work demonstrates this beautifully. But more than simply telling the tale of her own family, The Jersey Brothers recounts the story of the struggle that is shared by every family that waits anxiously for word of a loved one who has been captured or gone missing.

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