Jul 4, 2018
Since this week is 4th of July, I wanted to do something really special. Months ago I was trying to think of what special thing I could do and nothing seemed to be special enough. I had thought of some guest speakers who could talk about important topics, thought of doing a tribute to all of you, but then a thought came that honestly struck my heart. Why don’t you “interview” the most amazing Waiting Warrior you know of: Great Grandma Ester Packard. Now, my Great Grandma Esther past away before my dad was even born, but her goodness, strength and story continue to live on. He husband, Great Grandpa Forrest Packard was actually a prisoner of war during WWII, which left Esther home, alone, no job or skills, just a huge farm to get out of debt, and raising 11 children at home, though she had 16, only 11 were still at home.
Lucky for us one of my dad’s cousins, Ellen Leavitt, spent years putting together a detailed history of Forrest and Esther’s story during the war together and printed a book years ago called “They Never Wavered” so I am able to tell her story today.
Let’s first go back to before the war. Forrest and Esther Packard moved their family from Nampa to a 40 acre farm 3 miles south of Merdian Idaho, just before the crash of 1929. The family worked hard but could not get ahead. By 1941 Esther was pregnant with baby number 16 in July and times were hard. The two oldest, Beth and Dee were now married, and Jay was graduated and was moving to California in June. Cleo remained home to help, and Von, Donna, Floyd, Ron, Bud and Bill were in school, with Bob, Ben, and Bernie being preschoolers. The family was still trying to pay off the debt on their little farm, and Esther and the children were doing most of the hard farm work while Forrest worked as a carpenter in Tampa for the Pacific Fruit Express, which was part of the Union Pacific Railroad. Forrest was concerned about being laid off so when the chance came for a higher paying job with Morrison-Knudsen Construction Company working at Boise’s Gowen Field. When that job was completed the company had nothing else so Forrest was left to attempt to find odd job. The family remembers him often coming home with nothing. The family was in extreme need but Forrest and Esther refused to join any government welfare programs.
Later in the year Morrison-Knudsen advertised in the local papers for carpenters, large equipment operators, cooks and everything else needed to set up an active community of workers to go to a small island called Wake in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to help construct a naval air base. The pay was excellent and the contract was only for 9 months. This opportunity would mean they could pay off the family farm and have money left over. Forrest was 48 years old, work had been scared throughout the depression, but this still wasn’t a spur of the moment decision. Forrest and Esther took a whole month to talk, lay out all the benefits and risks, pray, and then as a united front present the idea to the children. They wanted everyone to buy into it and be apart of the decision.
On April 27th, 1941 Forrest left Boise to California, from there to went to Honolulu where he waited for the next ship to Wake Island. While there he went to local religious leaders seeking comfort and guidance. There he received a blessing that while he was gone he and his family would live and his family chain be unbroken. Forrest really believed in that blessing, wrote about it to home, and he and the family found a lot of strength and peace.
After about 7-10 days at sea Forrest arrived on Wake Island on May 23, 1941. For the next 5 1/2 months Forrest lived a comfortable life, worked hard as a carpenter on the island and since he was one of the older men on the island, being 48, he was a strong example of goodness and handwork to others. Meanwhile at home Esther was keeping the farm and family in line. Though they missed Forrest, they knew they could manage and were loving the letters and shells he would send home to Idaho. As the end of the year approached the men on the island would hear rumors of tensions with Japan, but just like the rest of the country, never thought they were in real danger, especially not while Japan was on American soil having peace talks.
After having a long work week of working over time, the men on Wake Island finally had Dec 7th off, which was Dec 6th in the US. The next day, work started as usual. At daybreak the radio broadcast of the bombing on Pearl Harbor reached Wake Island, the operator on duty woke up the Commander of the island telling of the news. While the soldiers and marines on the island immediately began to prepare the severely under manned and under armed island, the civilian workers only heard rumors of the bombing, kept on working, and didn’t get any verification of the attack until later that morning. Still they kept on working until Wake Island received its first attack, just as most the men were getting ready to go to lunch.
Wake Island’s population consisted of 68 naval personnel, 388 combat marines, 60 marine air cop, a 6 man army communications detail, 70 Pan American Airways employees, and 1,146 civilian construction workers. They had only 12 planes, and only enough men to man half of the guns on the island. Most of the men didn’t even have side arms, gas masks, or helmets.
Those men fought for 16 days, sustaining 17 air attacks, and still severely damaging the enemy : destroying an estimated of 11 ships, 29 planes and 5700 men. 51 other bombers sustained damage from Wake guns and planes.
While to the rest of the country Wake Island became the Alamo of the Pacific: the one island to actually resist the Japanese, the heroes that brought vigor back to a defeated country, the stories and news reports of Wake’s fight gave no such feelings to Esther and the Packard family in Idaho.
While the rest of the country was holding out hope that maybe just one would survive, just one would keep on fighting and keep the American resilencence and spirit alive, Ester and her children wouldn’t have found such hope. They just wanted one to live, and his odds were not as good as the other. “The men were made into heroes and that did not help Esther” and this is perhaps one of the greatest difficulties of being a Waiting Warrior. We cherish our loved ones, we know the work they do is good and courageous, but often their courage gives us fear.
From Dec 8th to Dec 23rd Esther lived by the radio and newspaper searching for any information of Wake and yet all she was hearing was the following.
Dec 8-Between 20 and 30 twin engined bombers in the opening attack caught 8 of the garrison’s 12 planes on the ground, put the 8 out of action and killed 25 of the marines.
Dec 9-There were two more raids by planes which also carried incendiaries but due to vigorous plan and anti air craft defenses, damage was less severe than on the 8th.
Dec 10-There was a fourth air raid at dawn while for the first time enemy warships started pumping shells onto the flat, virtually shelterless atoll.. nevertheless wake’s guns replied with such good effect to this double attack that a light cruiser and destroyer were sunk. The defenders also had the satisfaction of shaking up a total of 6 enemy planes destroyed too and including this 3rd day of battle.. two transports kept out of rand while 18 planes came over for the 5th air raid. Only 16 departed. The marines still had 3 planes aloft.
Dec 11- A four enter seaplane attacked. Marine fliers… promptly shot it down. The convoy reappeared. Marin fliers damaged one vessel and sank a submarine.
Dec 12 - The enemy did not appear
Dec 13- By moonlight bombers came over. Anti aircraft fire discouraged them from dropping bombs.
Dec 14-Fifty bombers unloosed the heaviest air raid. Three planes were downed, plus others were damaged. The marines planed were reduced to one (They heroically managed to patch a second one together.
Dec 15- At night a 9th air raid caused no serious damage
Dec 16-more than 25 bombers attacked
Dec 17-They came again. By now practically every installation on the island was heavily damaged or destroyed.
Dec 18-Bombers devasted the few buildings left standing
Dec 19-there was no raid
Dec 20-dive bombers, evidently from a carrier, roared down on the island.
Dec 21- The enemy withheld his hand
Dec 22-Land based and carrier operated planes attacked in large force- how large was never reported… wake’s air defenses were lost. The enemy at long last landed in force. The issue is in doubt, marines are still fighting. Two Japanese destroyers disabled.
On Dec 23rd the papers announced Japanese landed on Wake and the headline in all the Boise newspapers screamed “Navy Admits Loss of Wake”
Meanwhile the families of the Wake men received a letter stating their loved one was “missing in action”. You can imagine the state Esther was in. When Wake was captured she was overcome with worry. When her oldest daughter Beth heard of the news her small family had Christmas early and quickly got to Boise. They found Esther in an emotional mess. Esther had worked herself into such a nervous condition she was falling apart emotionally and physically. Her family pleaded with her to believe in the blessing he received in Hawaii, to believe Forrest was still alive. Esther was losing hope and faith, but her daughter Beth was able to start convincing her Forrest was alive, but most importantly that she had the load now, and she had to respond. Esther believed Forrest was alive, but she also realized the monstrous task facing her. She was overcome with fear. She felt tremendous fear for the future, fear for Forrest, fear about the debt on the farm, and most of all fear for the welfare for her eleven children at home. Cleo, Von, Donna, Floyd, Ron, Bud, Bill, Bob, Ben, Bernie and Barbra who was only 4 months old. She had these 11 children to support with no education or work experience and Esther was at a loss of how to handle situation. The children had questions, but Esther had no answers and she had a complete emotional breakdown, some speculate it may have been severe depression.
She spent so much of her time living to the radio and reading the newspapers longing to find something about Forrest and the men from Wake. Rumors were spreading of the atrocities and subhuman treatment that American prisoners were receiving in Japanese prison camps, if they even made it there.
Esther became frantic with worry. Beth doesn’t remember Esther ever being hospitalized or on medication but remembers her being irrational and her decisions being out of character so her family disabled the radio. One of Esthers sons said “The darkest time I ever remember in my life was when mother was ill. This hardy woman, who had been a rock to her own family and to countless others, found herself in a deep, weary pit.”
The family and friends decided it was best for the preschool children to be sent away to various family members and the older children to stay and take care of the farm and do everything they could to make the farm look better. Even with the help Esther still knew the bills and farm payment had to be taken care of. Forrest’s paycheck had stopped with is capture and monetary support was slow to come from the government.
With the farm, garden, chicken, cows and other animals food wasn’t the main problem, but they still needed money. A longtime friend, Emeline Hansen had become involved in selling Spencer corsets and helped Esther start selling and become a corset fitter. After many months of being out of commission with her illness she was nursed back to health with the help of her friends and local religious leaders. Esther was on her way to good health while Forrest was on his way to a prison camp in China.
But Forrest’s whereabouts where unknown to the family. Because of how the Japanese soldiers handles the dog tags of the dead and prisoners the government and all the families were clueless as to who had survived. Slowly names and locations started to be released in April 1942. It took 9 release of names for Forrests to finally to be found on July 15th 1942. Knowing the men were alive and where they were being held was incredible news for all the families. The Packard household erupted with joy the first time they heard Forrest’s name mentioned. Their next goal was to send and receive mail.
I know so far I have only interviewed spouses on this podcast but I fully recognize the sacrifice other family members make while their brothers, sisters, sons and daughters serve our country and communities. I would be completely disrespecting my own mother in law who has two sons in the military, if I didn’t at the very least acknowledge the love, worry and sacrifice of these Waiting Warriors. So, I want to read one of the first letter Forrest’s mother, Cynthia and his sister Alice wrote.
My dear son Forrest I long to hear your loving voice again and wish for the time when we can meet agin. Earl and I both wrote to you when we first learned that letters could be sent to you and would be pleased to get a reply but maybe the letter failed to reach you so we thought we would write again. A short time ago we was at Lolas on sunday and Esther and the children were also there they were all looking fine and little barbra was learning to walk she is real pretty and cute. Earl is raising a lot of beets for the sugar factory and they are doing fine. I got a letter from Dudley yesterday he asked me to send your address with it to day. I will close hoping you have kind friends to administer to your needs I pray that they lord will bless you with kind friends and protect you from every harm. Except my love and best wishes, as every your loving mother Cynthia E Packard. Please write to us if you can.
With a broken yet prayerful heart I am writing these lines, trusting that God will help them find their way to you and that you will be permitted to answer. I received letter often from our folks in Idaho and Canada, they are all as well as can be expected. I am still doing missionary work although it has been difficult the last few months as I have been so badly broken up. I know you would advise me to keep on and on. If you are permitted to answer please dear brother mention names of our family that I might know it is really your writing. Forrest I most humbly ask you to forgive me of any wrong I may have committed which caused you sorrow. I have never at any time in my life ceased to love you or pray for you. May the great and powerful heavenly father answer our prayers very soon and bring you safely to the arms of your loved ones. Oh that he will protect you and bless you with everything you need is my constant prayer. Your loving sister.
Unfortunately Forrest didn’t receive any of the mail or packages his family diligently sent until some finally went through in 1944. Esther finally received her first letter from Forrest on Sept 26th 1942. What a relief it was to hear from him after nine agonizing months of worry. Esther pulled herself up by the bootstraps. She had to either give up or decide to do something with her life so she could raise her family how she wanted to, so they would grow up to be known for good both far and near. It wasn’t until she went to work that she recognized she had the ability to do what needed to be done to save the family. She was then able to get hold of things and start on a firm course of action. In the February 1948 edition of a magazine called the Ensign an article was written of Esther, it stated : Perhaps the most poignant example of this philosophy is Esther’s struggle to overcome the nervous breakdowns she experienced after her husband was capture on wake island. Esther had come away from the period with a new resolve, determined not to believe as society believed, that a woman alone could not raise sixteen children and run a farm too. She remembered the dream she and Forrest shared that when he returned from Wake Island they could pay off the farm. The children carried much of the burden at home, and she became a “spencer Corsetier, selling corsets to women door to door.
Family solidarity became Esther’s major concern so she started playing games with her children. She worked hard and played harder. She began selling corsets by going from farm to farm, sometimes having women coming to the house for fittings. When Esther became successful selling corsets her confidence sky rocketed and felt she could accomplish anything. It wasn’t long until Esther was the number one salesperson in the US. She taught her children to work hard but at the same time had a way of making anything the family did fun. It was not uncommon for the family to stay up late, even until 1 am simply playing games together. If ever there was a choice between their friends or being with their mother, they always choose her. I think above all else that speaks so much about her. She had such an incredibly daunting tasks, and was conquering, but she did so with so much love and care for her family that they took every moment they could with her. By the end of 1942 Esther was much stronger and more valiant. She had no idea when Forrest would return but she decided it was up to her to raise the family the way he would have wanted.
The years crawled along but at the same time Esther was swamped with her many responsibilites. Esther desperately missed Forrest and his spiritual strength. She recongized that many of her children, particularly boys, were at a critical age and though she wished she could rely on her husbands wisdom and strength, she had to do it on her own. Esther was not one to outwardly show her emotions though. Her son Bud has said : he didn’t realize for several years that she felt uncomfortable with the expression of concern and caring while Forrest was gone- people continually asking how she was doing.
Even though she didn’t outwardly show her emotions she was very sensitive to her children. She tried to compensate for being away so much by often bringing them a milky way candy bar to be split into 12 pieces or a penny all day sucker for each of them.
Esther also used music and games to draw her family close together. She continually played games and had fun with her children when work was done in the evenings. I honestly cannot fathom the energy all this required: all the responsibility, all the heart ache and worry, all the work, managing 11 children, and yet she still made ample time to play with them.
By the fall of 1943 Esther had only received 2 letters from Forrest. Though the Pacific Island Employee Foundation would take experts of all the letters received from the POW’s to give everyone a more detailed view on what their loved ones were experiencing, Esther still longed for her Forrest and expressed her feelings once to her close friend Josephine in a letter:
(READ LEETTER FROM PAGE 160)No I have not rep’d one word from Forrest. They claim Red Cross had definitely located him in Japan. Is that encouraging? Anything but. Had some witch told forrest (READ LETT
She longed for Forrest but she still kept on going. Since it was evident that Esther was a very good sales lady Emeline Hansen convinced Esther to open up a women’s corset and apparel shop in Boise called Packard’s Dress Shop in the spring of 1944. In the beginning it probably didn’t bring in much money, but very quickly became successful. Esther continuously counted her blessings, especially since other shops were struggling and some even closed shop. Though the family owned two cars Esther would have the older boys drop her off at the stop so she could take the bus. The older children had to take the others to school and the milk in the back of the trailer to the creamery. At nights they would all meet at the creamery, pick up the kids, the milk cans, and go home. Cleo helped at home during the day while Esther was gone. She baked eight to ten loaves of bread a day, made lunches for those in school, did the laundry and most of the housework. At the appointed time the boys would meet Esther at the bus stop, go home, and then they all worked on their chores until dark. Each had his own job to do, the strength of the family was helping one another until all the tasks were finished. I doubt that loving, hardworking, strength came to the family by accident. By the middle of 1945 Esther had become a successful business woman, a fantastic mother and had gained the admiration of family and friends. In the mean time, since Victory had been declared in Europe in May Japan was tightening their grip and Forrest was being moved from a prison camp in China to South Korea and then into the heart of Japan.
While most of the country was rejoicing over victory in Europe the Packard home didn’t change much until later in the summer as the news was full of the victories in the Pacific. Excitement in the home was building. Esther had received word that Forrest had been moved to somewhere in Japan, but nothing official had been reported. Still, because of the victory in Europe all military resources were being aimed at the pacific. It seemed only a matter of time before victory was declared in Japan. Forrest was going to be coming home to many changes, but Esther and the family were frantically working to get the farm ready to welcome him home. While he had been gone rooms had been added to the house, Dee, the oldest son who was already married had been drafted into the army; Jay had married and joined the navy; Donna married an air force pilot; and several grand children were born. Barbara, who had been born while Forrest was working on Wake Island was now four and a half. I can only imagine the emotional toll it was for both Forrest and Esther to know how much he had missed, yet they knew liberation was about to come
On August 14 1945 victory was declared in japan. The next day the emperor of Japan broadcasted a surrender speech to the entire nation, on august 21 1945 this news reached the prison camp in Niigata and yet some were still held captive. It wasn’t until September 2, 1945 when Japan officials signed the surrender on board the USS MISSOURI, and the real celebration happened when American planes dropped barrels of food and supplies that kept the men alive for several weeks until trains came to rescue them. It was an incredibly daunting task to find all the men and all the camps. There were about 90 prison camps throughout Japan and about 34000 POWS. It was finally on Sept 5th or 6th that Niigata was found and then men were divided into two groups, and traveled by cattle car train. The men knew very little of the devastation the atomic bombs had until the saw the destruction on their way to freedom. From Japan Forrest was sent on the USS OZARK to Guam, then Hawaii and then finally home, the land they loved, The United States of America.
For the families back home in Boise there was a lot of confusion but also another wave of confusion and fear. Poor records provided a lot of confusion and families who thought their loved one was alive were informed of their death. Some were able to send and receive telegrams from home before they even left Japan, but unfortunately the Packards were not. They scowered the revised lists of the dead and living for days until finally, one POW, Bill Taylor arrived home in Boise before anyone else because of his escape. He had been on with Forrest the entire time and he went to Meridian to visit Esther. The family was overcome of joy to hear Forrest was not only alive, but had been vital and influential in so many of the other POWs lives.
Finally after four and half years, Forrest and the USS Ozark landed in San Fransisco. it was a foggy as the ship approached but all of a sudden Forrest could see his Esther in the large crows and called out loudly “There’s my Queen!”
I LOVE this story. I wish I had enough time to share all that Forrest endured and the strength and kindness he showed throughout his imprisionment but Esther, what a woman. I hope you can draw on her strength and example as I do. I hope you realize that hard times happen, we all can fall and sink into deep pits because the fact of the matter is our loved ones have jobs and cause a lot of difficulty for us. But we are Warriors. We wait at home with fire and determination to hope for the best and welcome our loved ones home.
I hope you guys have a fabulous 4th of July and I’ll end with this one quote. In 1942 as Esther was recovering for her breakdown she wrote a letter to her good friend Josephine. In it she talked about how every day she would say the following to herself, and I think it’s the perfect thing for all of us to do. She would say “Now Esther, it isn’t the size of the bump that counts, its how you take it.”
Happy 4th of July and God Bless American and all you Strong Waiting Warriors.