This photograph is an important part of my family’s history. Most of my uncles and great-uncles served in World War II – both theatres of operation – and only one of them did not come back: 1st Lt. Chester David Jaques. He was a B-17 pilot in the 8th Air Force of the Army Air Corps, the predecessor of today’s Air Force. Great-Uncle Chester flew in the 303rd Bombardment Group (Heavy), 427th Squadron. This was very early in the United States’ involvement in the air war in Europe, and losses ran extremely high in that first year – 1943. 1st Lt. Jaques scrambled with his squadron for a total of seven attempted missions but scrubbed on two of those due to mechanical issues. It was on his seventh mission that his B-17 was shot down, killing him and his entire crew. Of course, the Army Air Corps didn’t know for sure that the air crew were all dead – not until several years later.
I love this photo because of what it says about my great-grandmother’s strength of character. The Army Air Corps couldn’t tell her whether her son was dead…but I think that she knew as soon as he and his crew were reported MIA. I think she knew, even if she never said it out loud. And as Colonel Hoyle is pinning the Air Medal on her coat lapel, I think that she was a hair away from breaking down. Her chin is just a little too determinedly elevated…her gaze is fixed somewhere far, far beyond Colonel Hoyle’s shoulder…and although I can’t see her hands, just gauging by her overall posture, I think that her hands must have been clenched in fists, so hard that her nails were digging into her palms, to the point of drawing blood.
By this point in her life, Rachel Jaques had already lost two children – Eleanor, her eldest – to Spanish influenza in 1918. Then in 1926, just two weeks after she had given birth to her youngest daughter, she lost her husband Albert and their middle son, Frank George, both of whom drowned…in front of the other five children. Finally, on May 15, 1943, her son Chester was shot down somewhere over the North Sea…and all she knew was that he was Missing In Action. How much can one person take? I think that she is, in this photograph at least, held together by baling wire and tape…and hope…and loss…
I have so many questions about this photograph…was Colonel Hoyle in 1st Lt. Jaques’ chain of command? Why award the Air Medal to a pilot who had only flown five actual missions? Did the Army Air Corps provide a citation along with the medal to my great-grandmother? If so…where is it? Did she inter the medal with Chester when the Army Air Corps finally received his remains some four years later? I only have fragmentary information and I want to know so much more…but I do know this: Rachel Mary Greta Jaques was one hell of a woman and I want to be like her when I grow up.