The following is a guest blog post by Hope O’Keeffe, an attorney in the Library’s Office of General Counsel, and an ardent supporter of the Veterans History Project (VHP).
I come from a long line of heroes. They may be gone, but their stories linger and echo.
My grandfather, John McLaughlin, never told us war stories about World War I. But every Armistice Day, Dad, as we called him, would buckle on his American Legion belt and march through Boston. I imagine the stories flew during Dad’s weekly penny-ante poker games with his brothers-in-law, Walter Sims and Bill Tyree.
Uncle Walter fought in Europe, where he won the Silver Star saving the wounded under fire in No Man’s Land. Dad volunteered for WWI at 24 but never made it out of the States – he was quarantined by the flu, and entertained his chums playing in the camp band shown above. My first memories are of sitting in Dad’s lap, watching the dancing fingers while he played.
Reno Telford would take off his shirt to show us kids his tattoos and the scars on his back from swimming through burning oil in the Pacific during WWII. Uncle Reno was a torpedo man down in the bowels of the big boats. He served on eight different ships; two were sunk out from under him, and he was rescued each time by the Brits. He talked about being on top deck watch and asking a friend to hold his post for a few minutes while he went down below for coffee; a kamikaze pilot came in and obliterated the deck along with Reno’s friend. He never forgave himself. Uncle Reno told stories all the time, with his booming Oklahoma laugh.
Jim Roemer came from Texas, and met Aunt Millie at a Boston USO dance. They married somewhere in the middle of the country when Uncle Jim managed to get a brief leave from WWII. He served as a gunner on a Patrol Torpedo (PT) boat, sinking 72 barges. Aunt Millie worked double shifts at Bendix Aviation, and donated blood for the troops till she was anemic. She dedicated the decades after the war to cheering up “her boys” at the West Roxbury Veteran’s Hospital. “Any one of them could have been my Jim,” she would whisper. Uncle Jim went to the PT reunions every year, keeping in touch with his shipmates, but I don’t recall him talking about the war.
John McLaughlin served as a Navy sailor in the North Atlantic during WWII, and rejoined as a Marine officer during the Korean War, fighting lonely, bloody battles on hills whose names were numbers on a map. Uncle John told stories of hearing the Chinese at night, getting nearer, and said his commanding officer wanted to put him in for a Silver Star for saving an infantry platoon, but he turned it down because so many had died needlessly. He would say,
The heroes are all dead.
My father-in-law, Frank Burns, served two tours as an Army MP (Military Police Officer) in Vietnam, bringing in the first planeload of police dogs. Later he created the first online community for the Army as part of “closing the gap between the human condition and the human potential.” Frank claimed that while stationed at the Pentagon, he came up with “Be all you can be,” and he was.
My dad, Thomas O’Keeffe, a career Navy officer, served a tour in Vietnam, helping set up the SWIFT boat program. We have a photo taken that year of my brother, Edward, holding a sign: “Hi Daddy, I’m 1.”
Dad’s gone too, after three service-related cancers. He never talked about the war, but would stop at the Vietnam Memorial Wall when he came to DC.
My cousin, Brooke Telford Caffrey, Reno’s granddaughter, served four tours in Afghanistan, Kuwait and Iraq as an Air Force mechanic before returning home as a Master Sergeant. Her dad, Wayne, served in the Navy in Vietnam. Brooke is one of the far too many vets who have taken their own lives. If you know a veteran who needs help, please contact the Veterans Crisis Line right away.
None of my family members’ stories are truly gone, of course, so long as we remember them. But none of them are in the Veterans History Project yet, either. Please, please, interview someone you love for Memorial Day, and share their stories with VHP. And even if your vet is now gone, you can submit their collection if you have at least 10 original photos or letters, or a diary that’s 20 pages or longer. I didn’t learn that until I wrote this blog post – and now, gathering these photos from my family gives me hope that our vets’ stories can be told far beyond our family reunions.