John Waller has lived a long and notable life in Virginia, but The 96-year-old World War II veteran lived for decades with a painful secret he kept since his war days. One secret involves a military tragedy. The other involves a moral tragedy that will be my focus.
The secret unfolded three years ago, when Garland, Waller’s daughter, was helping her father move. She found a portrait, a watercolor on ivory, which she had never seen before, in a box of letters from the war. "I wiped out a lot of my war years, but some things just didn’t go away,” Waller said.
Waller was 19 years old and assigned to the Army’s Black Panther Division. In spring 1945, Waller’s platoon stood watch over German Army forces on a submarine base in France. They noticed a chateau about 200 yards away. Curious, they went inside, and found the Nazis had pillaged it. There was nearly nothing left except for a safe, Waller said. The American’s blew the safe’s door off, Waller said. He walked away with a picture of the chateau, a pair of dueling pistols, which he later sold to buy an engagement ring, and the miniature portrait. For the rest of the war, he kept the stolen items in his backpack. When he returned home, he hid the portrait in his dresser for years.
When his daughter asked about the picture and the portrait three years ago, Waller, who was 93 at that time, spilled the beans. He told her about the way he had taken it from the chateau and that it had been weighing on his conscience. “I always had a guilty feeling about what I had done,” Waller said. “I wanted someday to take it back.”
The Wallers tracked down the French chateau and its owners. The Waller family headed overseas last year. Waller apologized a man who as a young boy lived in the chateau and returned the portrait. Waller’s glad the portrait is home.
There is nothing like the power of the conscience to steer us right if we will listen.