Searching for Willie Tate
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on November 11, 2011 1:46 PM
There was no heroic moment during a firefight -- no medals awarded for valor.
He wasn't even on the front lines.
At least, not that they know of.
But when, thanks to her daughter, Pamela, Julia Tate came to know the simple details about her father's military service during World War II -- that he was stationed in Morocco; that he drove an artillery truck -- her eyes filled with tears.
"It's amazing," Julia said, looking down at a portrait of a man who died when she was a little girl. "Just amazing."
It started with a stack of photographs -- shots taken during the funeral held for Willie Tate decades ago.
"My great-aunt brought them to the house last Thanksgiving," Pamela said. "And ever since, it was on my mind that there were just so many unanswered questions about my mother's father."
Julia never knew much about the man -- only that he was beloved by friends and neighbors, that he loved to play baseball.
"That's what everybody would tell me when I was growing up. He played baseball in LaGrange because they had a team. He wanted to play in the Negro Baseball League. That was his dream."
And she knew that he served his country -- thanks, mostly, to a portrait that hung in the family's living room of a young man dressed in an Army uniform.
"We just knew that he was in the service," Julia said. "My mother, she just didn't talk about it much."
But when Willie died, the images of his military funeral were forever imprinted in his daughter's memory.
"I remember when they folded that flag. That's one thing I never did block out -- when they handed it to Mama," Julia said. "She kept it and kept it."
So she welcomed the notion that, one day, she would research just what her father's service had entailed.
But as time passed, life always got in the way.
Perhaps it was watching her son, A.J., step out of his room wearing an Eastern Wayne High School ROTC uniform that prompted Pamela to dig deeper into her grandfather's story.
"When he put on that uniform his freshman year ... my mother, she almost cried," Pamela said. "Mama said, 'It looks just like he's leaving.'"
Just as his great-grandfather had years before Julia was born -- a story finally told with the help of several ancestry websites.
"I just said, 'It's time.' So I started typing," Pamela said. "I wanted to get some closure for my mother."
But after several hours on the computer, the woman found that this particular project would require far more than just a name.
"You'd be surprised how many Willie Tates are out there," Pamela said. "So I narrowed the search -- clicking the next button and the next button -- and then ... I saw my great-grandmother's name. I said, 'This is it.'"
It turns out that her grandfather enlisted on June 30, 1941 -- that he was originally stationed at Fort Bragg; that he was honorably discharged after joining the war effort mounting overseas.
"I was just so excited," Pamela said. "I said, 'Mama. Mama. Let me show you what I've found.'"
And the details, no matter how simple, left Julia speechless.
"It just brought tears to my eyes," she said. "I mean, all I ever knew what that he was in the service. But now I know that he loved the Army. Sure enough. And now, I can close the doors on it and have some peace of mind."
Having lost him when she was only 4 years old, Julia has always coveted the little things she remembers about her father.
"On Saturdays, we would listen to the radio. He was a Yankees fan," she said. "And Sunday was our ice-cream day. He would take me to the little store and we would have ice cream."
But now, thanks to her daughter, she has other things to hold close to her heart.
Like the fact that she and Willie have the same handwriting.
"I pulled up his signature and said, 'Mama, look at this. You make your Ts just like him,'" Pamela said. "She just stood there and couldn't say anything."
"It was just like looking in the mirror," Julia added. "I was just so surprised."
Or the feeling that came with being able to fill spaces in the family Bible that had remained blank for so many years.
"There's a place that says, 'Military,' and it had always been empty," Julia said. "Now I can write in that he was in the Army -- things like that."
Pamela, too, has been touched by the experience of "finding" her grandfather.
"When I saw what it did to my mother, it made me cry," she said. "I would hate to leave this world and have my child not know about me."
So she will continue to research until the family knows every available detail about the service they just recently learned of.
Willie Tate's story, Pamela said, means far too much to close just yet.
"I'm gonna keep doing it until I get all the answers I want," she said, looking back at her mother. "I'm not gonna stop now. I can't."