Living with Loss

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks – Week 12: Loss

PROMPT: Loss is universal. There are many ways to explore this theme, whether it’s the loss of a loved one, a livelihood, freedom. You could take a research-based angle on it and talk about the loss of records where your ancestors lived. 
John Wallace Cathcart II as a young Clemson cadet.

There is a lot of discussion these days about “privilege.” I fully admit that my existence–as a white heterosexual Angolo-Saxon Protestant–has been one in which I have enjoyed freedoms, peace of mind, and success due in at least some part to these attributes. I have no doubt taken this for granted. This past year, I have made an attempt, through discussions with people of color and through reading and follow-up book club discussions, to look more critically at myself and how I might become a better ally on behalf of those not born with my inherent privilege.

In a similar vein, my years of researching my family tree have been an eye-opening reminder to me of a privilege I had not previously given much thought to: I’ve never had a close relative who was sent into combat nor experienced the anxieties and dread by family members of those who have done so.

Coming across so many military records and details of casualties suffered by members of my extended family has made me better empathize with military families and the sacrifices those who serve and their families have made.

I have chosen to highlight for this week’s “assignment” Dr. John “Johnnie” Wallace Cathcart, II, M.D. (1918-1945).

John Cathcart’s father–Samuel Craig Cathcart, Sr. (1862-1930)–immigrated from Bushmills, County Antrim, Ireland, to Winnsboro, South Carolina, when he was twenty-two years old. His first wife died shortly after the death of the couple’s fourth child; he remarried and, to this marriage were born three boys, the youngest being John Wallace Cathcart, II.

Clemson College Yearbook Photo – 1939

John attended Clemson College as an undergraduate and medical school in Charleston. He did his internship at Columbia Hospital, and it was in the Emergency Room of that hospital that he met the Supervisor of Nurses–Margaret Caughman (1913-2009)–whom he would marry within the year. Dr. Cathcart reported for active duty with the Army Medical Corps at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, in March and, following six weeks of intensive training in Kentucky, he was shipped overseas in August–six months after his marriage. He was assigned to a hospital dispensary in New Guinea and, in November, he was sent to Leyte, Philippines. Dr. Cathcart was subsequently promoted to Captain and served as 1st Battalion Aid Surgeon.

Dr. Cathcart received a telegram in January of 1945 informing him that he had become a father, prompting him to pen a letter to the daughter he had yet to meet, an excerpt of which is below:

“My Darling Daughter,

A telegram from your Uncle William came today telling of your blessed arrival. I am so sorry that I could not be there to greet you personally but ‘Uncle Sam’ thought it best for me to be on a small island in the Philippines to help defeat the Japs and establish a lasting peace in which you and countless other children can grow…It is a pity that you were born into such a war-torn world as this, but by the time you grow up to understand, all this will be in the past, and I shall be home to help your mother and you. By then you will be a little lady walking around and prattling away in your baby talk. When I show up, you will probably not know me, but we shall get to be wonderful pals…”

As Battalian Aid Surgeon, John Cathcart made landings with his outfit on Mindoro, Maranduque, Lubang, and Mindanao in the Philippine Islands. He lost his life during the Battle of Mindanao.

Captain John Wallace Cathcart, Battalion Aid Surgeon, 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 24th Division, U.S. Army was killed in action on 03 May 1945 by a Japanese sniper in fighting near Mintal, Mindanao, Philippine Islands.

April 27, 1945

I cannot begin to imagine the ripple effect of this tragic loss of life: the loss of a spouse, and the loss of the years John and Margaret could have shared together; the loss of the opportunity to see a father’s expression when he held his child for the first time; the loss of the experience of parenting as a team with a dedicated and loving partner–and someone with whom to share the years of memories that come with that. (Margaret never remarried.); the loss of a brother; a daughter’s loss of a father she never even met; the loss of a life spent in the companionship of a spouse.

I hope to meet John Cathcart’s daughter–Virginia “Jenny” Cathcart Reves–and her descendants some day. I am in touch with her daughter Betsy on Facebook. Like me, she is interested in family history. While Betsy never met the man who would have been her Grandfather Cathcart, the bravery he showed in serving his country and the bravery her Grandmother Cathcart showed in raising Betsy’s mother are valuable family legacies in and of themselves.

2 thoughts on “Living with Loss”

  1. What a beautiful tribute to this courageous young man. I was born about the same time to a Seabee, also stationed in New Guinea but I was fortunate to have him return.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As I wrote, this is not a something anyone in my family has experienced. Thanks for reading, Donna, and I’m so glad that you were able to eventually meet your father!

    Like

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