He was somebody I never thought about because he died a year before I was born. Only his baby shoes and medals were left, a few photographs. Samuel Gary Clarke was the uncle I never knew.

I began to ask about Sam shortly after my father died. Perhaps I was searching for a father figure and it seemed to me that Sam possessed all the qualities of the archetypal father -- the giver of strength and identity, the hero.

My mother, Mildred, showed me a yellowed letter written by Army Chaplain Thomas Eugene West, who had been a pastor in Charlottesville, Va., when Sam was in high school. She said the two were like father and son.

Mildred remembered her brother as a constantly grinning boy who later developed a slightly irreverent sense of humor, thundering sermons with Elmer Gantry fury in mock church services. The family was athletic and competitive. Once on a dare, Mildred and Sam drove what was left of the old family Buick down Monticello Mountain without using the brakes. The car came to a halt in a haystack.

Sam, a football player, quit college and joined the Army Air Corps, leaving behind his girl, Nancy, to become a flier like his older brothers. Pastor West left Charlottesville to bcome chaplain to the Nisei (Japanese-Americans) fighting in Italy. After flight school, Sam was stationed in Italy, toto, in Grossetto, where he once again met his old friend.

I began to read the chaplain's letter, written 34 years ago: "My devoted dear friends: Every day since my eyes so happily fell upon Sammy I have stood in mortal fear of having to write such a letter . . . I was told by one who knew of my close relationship with Sammy the words I feared I would hear every morning -- 'Your boy Sammy didn't come back last night.'"

The crew that night included the bombardier, Lt. Dennis Weiskopf, and two gunners, Sgt. James Cunningham and Sgt. Eugene Rusak. Sgt. Cunningham recalled, "If we didn't find anything to hit we were to bomb trucks or roads to make potholes to slow up supply routes. That is what we did that night, but on the way back we saw the top prize -- a train. We swooped down to strafe, but we missed. Sam said we better go home because they would be waiting for us the next time. I heard Weiskopf on the intercom -- he was young and inexperienced -- saying that we should try again or else we were yellow. He even said he would tell our superiors and we would all be court-martialed. Sam asked us what we thought and we said it was up to him. He said something like 'What the hell' and we tried to hit the train again . . . I heard an explosion and blue and red lights were flashing -- we crashed."

Sam had taken his last dare; his final words were, "This is it. Prepare yourselves." Rusak and Cunningham survived.

When Chaplain West heard what had happened, he and two drivers spent several days behind enemy lines searching, in vain, for the bodies. "It really doesn't matter where one dies nor where his grave," he wrote the Clarkes. "My grave doesn't concern me at all and Sammy was the same way. Don't worry, leave it to God."

Thomas West was glad, he wrote, that Sam's family did not "know war as I know it. Such a disgraceful and heartless tragedy must never happen again on God's earth by any of us who wear the name human, not to mention calling ourselves Christians."

For months after the crash a telegram arrived: "The reports show that his remains are interred in the U.S. military cemetery Mirandola (Italy), plot K, row 16, grave 1342." The enemy train, the telegram said, had been destroyed.

No one ever visited Sam's grave. Perhaps the family never really believed the body was found, or perhaps they took Chaplain West's advice and left it to God. My Grandfather, Sam's father, told a Charlottesville minister, the Rev. Henry Porter, "We were waiting for Sam to come home to us, and now he is waiting for us to come home to him."

Sam's essential courage coupled with circumstance and an instant decision meant that he was a hero.

I thought of my father's prolonged struggle with the mutant cancer cells that took his life. Perhaps he was a hero, too: He knew he was dying and he tried not to show fear.

And so I found my uncle, Sam. He is there, like my father, remembered.