Memorial Day 2016: A namesake’s service

From the Perry (Fla.) News-Herald, dated May 23, 2008.

From the Perry (Fla.) News-Herald, dated May 23, 2008.

There was bad blood on my dad’s side of the family. We never learned the cause of it, and while we met his mother, sister and various cousins from the O’Grady clan, his brother remained a mystery.

The two men didn’t speak for something like a quarter century, and while a reunion was finally arranged while I was off at college, I don’t have the impression that the hatchet was ever completely buried, though my uncle and I share a middle name.

Dad rarely discussed his World War II service beyond the light bits, like occasionally ferrying some celebrity around, and while we got some hints as regards his war years from Mom, I came to think of her as something of a fabulist, a storyteller, putting a bit of spin on every tale. As a copy editor I retained a healthy skepticism.

But whaddaya know? While casting about for a fresh take on the old man’s war for today’s Memorial Day post, I stumbled across a newspaper report confirming pretty much everything I’d heard about his brother, Charles Declan O’Grady.

Like Dad, Uncle Dec was a member of the U.S. Army Air Corps, but assigned to the 504th Bombardment Group, 313th Bomb Wing, operating from Tinian in the Mariana Islands. While Dad flew C-47s out of New Guinea, Uncle Dec was occupying the other end of the aircraft as a tail gunner in a B-29, the “Dinah Might.”

The Kawasaki Ki-45 "Nick," one of which my uncle put in the drink a day before he wound up there himself.

The Kawasaki Ki-45 “Nick,” one of which my uncle put in the drink a day before he wound up there himself.

He was credited with destroying a Japanese fighter during a mission to Aichi Prefecture in Japan, on June 25, 1945. The very next day, Dec’s bomber was shot down over Ise Wan bay, near Nagoya, one of the largest centers of the Japanese aircraft industry; he bailed out and was rescued by a Navy sub, one of seven crew members to survive.

Twice wounded during the war, Dec was honorably discharged in August 1945, returned to his law practice in Perry, Fla., and eventually was elected Taylor County judge.

Dad, as you will recall, stayed in the Air Force until his 30 was up; he didn’t retire until I was in my first year of college.

And I didn’t meet Uncle Dec until Dad’s funeral, eight years later.

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12 Responses to “Memorial Day 2016: A namesake’s service”

  1. khal spencer Says:

    Glad you finally met him. Tailgunner was a high hazard job. Even on a B-29.

    • khal spencer Says:

      Did their enmity pre-date one being an enlisted and one an officer?

      • Patrick O'Grady Says:

        No idea, K. My sister and I tried to coax a tale out of Dad’s sis back in the day, but no soap. One of these days I should touch base with the Perry branch of the clan, see if anyone there has the straight poop.

        You know what they say about Irish Alzheimer’s? “You forget everything except the grudges.”

      • Pat O'Brien Says:

        My Dad was an Army Air Corp WWII veteran. My uncle Dave was a Navy WWII veteran. My uncle Bob, who died in his 50s, was an Army WWII veteran. Another Uncle Eliis (O’Be), my Dad’s younger brother was a Marine Corp Korean war veteran. I was the only male member of the next generation to serve in the Armed Forces. As far as I can recall, none of my uncles or Dad ever told war stories, even to me after I got out of the service. I wondered why, but never asked.

      • khal spencer Says:

        There must be a Sicilian Alzheimer’s as well.

        Flag is up in front of Chez BombTown, in honor of those from your clan and mine who wore the uniform in WW II.

      • Patrick O'Grady Says:

        Most of the combat types I’ve known kept their war stories to themselves. I’ve heard a few, and read a lot more, and I’m not certain they can be fully understood by someone who hasn’t been there. It’s like listening to a foreign language.

        I’m grateful to writers like Erich Maria Remarque, Michael Herr, Joseph Heller, Philip Caputo, Gustav Hasford, Larry Heinemann and Phil Klay who were able to lift the curtain a little bit for the rest of us.

        Speaking of Klay, here’s an essay of his on the citizen-soldier and his (or her) society. Good reading.

        “I remember listening in on an outgoing group of soldiers talking about what they should tell their families back home about the war. They couldn’t tell them the truth, they agreed. Instead, they’d tell them proud, uplifting things. “We can tell them the truth when we get home,” one said. It was quiet a moment, and another asked, “Will we even tell the truth then.”

      • khal spencer Says:

        My genetic old man was a medic in Korea. Since he never saw fit to recognize me, I return the favor. My uncle Ralph had easy duty as General Raymond Wheeler’s aide in South Asia. Uncle Roy fought for real, dodging 88’s in France while rebuilding railroads. I have a friend back in Hawaii who was a USMC officer in Vietnam; I knew him decades later as a VP of an environmental engineering firm. He never talked about Vietnam.

        I had a good friend in college, Fred Woodard. He was a lot older and I knew him from my P/T job as a security aide at the University. He was a Rochester city cop, moonlighted as a security officer at the U of R, and had been a WW II vet in the 101st Airborne. He was at Bastogne and several other major battles. Woody never talked about the tough side of war–just funny stories.

        We used to have breakfast after the graveyard shift at this little Greek greasy spoon near the U of R that served steak and eggs. One day, somehow, we got on the subject of Malmedy. Fred got really quiet, said that for six weeks after Malmedy they didn’t take a German alive, and then he changed the subject. We all shut up and looked at our food.

        I’m humbled by this stuff. I never went off to war, and quietly tip my hat to those who did.

  2. Steve O Says:

    Mom spent the day looking through paperwork from various relatives

    Her uncle Bud was shot down over Burma in February 1944

    Never found the body, but there was some sort of semi official narrative that local towns people reported burying the exact right number of bodies that would’ve made up the crew, matched up to the tail number of the wreckage nearby

    Because he was listed as MIA instead of KIA for so long, there was a ridiculous amount of paperwork related to shipping his personal effects back stateside. All of these disclaimers that the return of personal effects did in no way endorse a finding of killed in action, and that should he turn back up again, he is presumed to be widow was responsible for getting everything back to the rightful owner

    An amazing amount of paperwork when you consider that we didn’t have computers back then, so everyone of these letters had to be cranked out by an individual typist.

  3. David Rees Says:

    My father was a bombardier/navigator on a B17 in WWII. He flew 35 missions in all with the 452nd bomb group, 8th AF, out of Deopham Green in the UK. Made it back home in early ’45 after two shot-up aircraft, several killed and wounded crew members, and an emergency landing in Belgium with a flak-riddled, two engine remaining airplane. He never talked about it, even though as a kid, and later in my life, he knew I was intensely interested in all of it.

    His old co-pilot ended up living quite near us in Riverside CA in the ’60s and his son did an amazing job compiling information of every single mission the two of them flew together, which is how I know anything at all about what my father did during the war.

    He died two years ago at age 91, but before he did we had a very small talk about those years and I think he was a bit ashamed for what he did. Even though the Germans were trying very hard to blast his ass out of the sky, I think he felt guilty for dropping bombs on unsuspecting civilians. But even that is just a hunch.

    One of the only things he ever said to me about those missions was this: “Just before I climbed in that aircraft – on every damn mission – I’d go over to the edge of the hardstand and throw up.”

  4. Libby Says:

    Thanks for the poignant essay, Patrick. My mother’s brother was in the Army in the Pacific and my father’s brother was in the Navy in the Pacific during WWII.

    Evidently my uncle became disaffected when he came home, literally threw away his Bronze Star and moved to the other side of the country with a buddy to start over. He never returned home and had no relationship with his family. Just before his death 25 years ago, he got in touch with my aunt and mother.

    My father’s brother, came back to a similar small city, got a job at a small company, joined the Elks, married, had a family and 900+ people came to his wake when he died. He was a very active man and passed unexpectedly at 79. Both of my uncles grew up in small manufacturing cities that grew in the late 19th century and flourished through the early 20th century and hung on through the 40’s. They had such different lives.

    Patrick, regarding Klay’s haunting passage that you cite above and the casualties of war. My father would become irritated if we asked him about his service. He did answer some who, what and where questions regarding his buddies and the camps they were in before going overseas. As a child and later, I pored over his photos looking for every detail and insight. I did learn a few things when he and another relative conversed. My father spoke of returning from France on a hospital ship. As they were coming in to dock at Charleston a soldier committed suicide by jumping into the water. “Will we tell the truth then.”

  5. Patrick O'Grady Says:

    Anybody ever wonder what their kinsmen would think of what we’ve done with the country they fought for? Some days I’m astonished that we’re not up to our eyeballs in pissed-off ghosts.

    • Pat O'Brien Says:

      For real. They would be especially infuriated with our useless military experiments of the last 50 years. They would certainly haunt the halls of congress, and I would hope they would be very nasty poltergeists.

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