Sustaining a memory
For many people, Memorial Day is simply a day off work. A day to spend with family and friends at the lake or poolside.
In today’s fast-paced world it can be far too easy to forget the purpose of the holiday – to remember those who gave their lives in service of our country.
For one Franklin County family, 75 years has not diminished the impact of the loss of one of their own.
Their story is one of pain, world war, survival and the indomitable spirit of a mother’s love.
One of five children, Alvin Banks was the oldest son of Groves and Ethel Banks of Carnesville.
Groves and Ethel saw three of their four sons leave Franklin County, bound for the battlefront in Europe and the Pacific during World War II.
Two of their sons survived the war, but Alvin did not.
He would not survive to see the birth of his son. He would not feel his mother’s embrace upon his return home.
Russell Alvin Banks was an Army Staff Sergeant, serving with the 79th Reconnaissance Division.
On Sept. 13, 1944, Banks was on a reconnaissance mission during the French Campaign as Allied forces were taking the city of Neufchateau, France.
During the mission, his unit met enemy resistance and a heated firefight ensued.
Alvin was mortally wounded during the fight and succumbed to his injuries on the way to the field hospital near Nancy, France. He was buried in the American Military Cemetery in Saint-Avold, France.
He was 24 years old.
For most, this would be where the story ends. But, Banks family’s story was just beginning.
As was typical during that time, Ethel and Groves received word by telegram that Alvin had been killed in action.
They were so grief-stricken they could not face Alvin’s wife, Margaret, who was eight months pregnant at the time.
They sent their youngest son, Truitt, to deliver the news.
One month later, Margaret delivered Alvin’s one and only child: a boy she named Ed.
With Alvin’s younger brothers, Bill, still listed as missing in action and, Verner, out of contact on a naval ship, Groves and Ethel began the habit of praying at bedtime every night.
Ed says it was habit they kept for the rest of their lives.
That prayer would help sustain Ethel in the coming years.
After her initial shock and grief, Ethel became obsessed with learning every detail surrounding her son’s death.
She wrote letters to her son’s fellow soldiers, including his best friend Willis McDonald, who was recovering in a hospital.
The soldiers responded, telling Ethel how much her son was loved and respected by his peers.
She also received letters from officers in the 79th Infantry Division, the War Department and from Georgia Congressmen.
One of the letters Ethel received was from an army chaplain who knew Alvin personally and had conducted his graveside service.
While the letters gave her comfort, the thought of her son buried nearly 5,000 miles away on another continent nagged at Ethel.
She made it her mission to have his remains returned to Carnesville so he could be buried in the family plot. It would be a quest that would take nearly three years to realize.
After the war, Ethel again made inquiries to the War Department. More than two and half years and several more inquiries later, the Banks family finally received a reply:
“The War Department has now been authorized to remove, at government expense, to the final resting place designated by the next of kin, the remains of those American citizens who died while serving overseas with our armed forces during this war.”
It was the news Ethel had waited for.
However, it would be 11 more months before her son’s remains were returned home.
In December 1947, a coffin arrived by train in Lavonia.
A funeral was held at Cross Roads Baptist Church in Carnesville with burial in the family plot next to the church.
S/SG Alvin Banks was finally home.
Alvin’s son, Ed, says that some family members at the time were not in agreement with Ethel’s actions, worrying that the process would simply renew the grief of all those affected by Alvin’s death.
Others, however, felt that it gave the family closure and peace.
Ed says it shows the “indescribable depths of a mother’s love.”
The loss of Alvin had a profound effect on his family and friends.
Ed never knew his father.
He was born 32 days after Alvin was killed in France.
Despite that, his father’s influence is felt every day. He sees his father’s likeness in the face of his son, Alan.
Alvin’s absence from Ed’s life was a constant reminder of the price of freedom.
It is a reminder this Memorial Day to each of us to honor all those who have fallen.