During this past Veterans' Week, and as Veteran's Day approaches tomorrow, November 12, 2012, I have given a great deal of thought to my family's record of military service to this country. On my father's side of the family, there is a story of two brothers, Daniel and James, who immigrated from the west of Ireland to New York City in the summer of 1864. They had no idea that the U.S. Congress had passed the Enrollment Act in March 1863, and that they, as young men in their twenties, would be forced to fight for their new country. The 69th Infantry Regiment, also known as the "Fighting 69th," had consisted primarily of Irish immigrants, but suffered devastating losses at Chancellorsville (only 300 men survived) and then again at Gettysburg (where they held the Wheatfield on the second day of battle until it was overrun by Confederates) in 1863. The Lynch brothers joined the 1st Regiment of the 2nd Irish Brigade, which included the depleted ranks of the 69th. They were at nine-month long "Siege of Petersburg," which was trench warfare. One brother sustained a leg injury, but recovered from his wound. Both brothers survived the war, and were at Appomattox when General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant. Although I haven't been able to document what happened to them after the war, Lynch family oral history says that one brother settled in New York City, and the other in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
My maternal grandfather George, son of two immigrants from Co. Derry in the north of Ireland, was born in the Five Points area of New York in 1901. He was too young (and suffered from pleurisy) and so could not serve in The Great War. He was one of the younger brothers in a family of thirteen, and George went to work for "The Edison," as ConEd was known. His adored eldest brother Patrick had been lucky and smart enough to win a scholarship to Fordham University where he studied engineering. As a civil engineer for The City of New York, Patrick had participated in overseeing the installment of 107th Regiment Monument, a bronze sculpture designed by Karl Morningstar Illava, which is on Fifth Avenue and East 67th Street, right by Central Park. The monument was dedicated in 1927 to "Seventh Regiment New York, One Hundred and Seventh United States Infantry, 1917-1918." The Seventh Regiment entered World War II with 3,000 officers and men. By war's end, they suffered 1,918 casualties (dead, wounded, and those who later died from their wounds).
Grandpa was in his forties, the father of four children, when the U.S. joined World War II in December 1941. However, his brother, my great-uncle, Patrick J. McNicholl already had enlisted in the RAF before our country's official involvement in the war. Uncle Patrick became a U.S. Army Colonel in the 317th Engineer Regiment, 92nd Infantry Division. The 92nd Infantry Division was the only segregated unit of African-American soldiers to see combat, and were crucial to winning the Italian campaign. They had the nickname "Buffalo Soldiers,” which is what Native Americans called African-American cavalrymen in the 19th century. After the war ended, Uncle Patrick returned to the Bronx to his beloved wife Anne. I was very young when he was very old, and I remember him as crusty and stoic. My mother remembers him as a man who had a sense of fun, and who very much enjoyed spending time with his nieces and nephews. I hold precious letters which my grandfather wrote to his brother during the war.
My father Danny was celebrating his fourteenth birthday in Jamaica, Queens when Victory over Japan was declared in the United States on August 14, 1945. Five years later, at the age of nineteen, he was U.S. Army Private serving in the Korean "Conflict." He was wounded on August 14, 1951. Shrapnel was spread throughout the lower part of his left leg. He refused morphine from the Army medic because he wanted to be fully conscious when he arrived at the MASH Unit in order to tell the surgeons that they were NOT amputating his leg. Fortunately, in the years since World War II, military surgeons had learned to do vascular grafts (dropping the amputation rate from 46.9% in that war to 20.5% in the Korean War). The MASH surgeons repaired my father's leg as best as they could. Then he was shipped to Japan, and then to his first VA hospital in Hawaii. My father spent two years in VA hospitals in the United States, most far from his home in Queens, before receiving an honorable discharge in October 1953. He won The Purple Heart.
Daddy didn't talk much about his service in Korea, although I was born at a V.A. hospital, and we used to go to Fort Totten and, later, Mitchell Field to do our food and clothing shopping when I was growing up. During the Ice Storm which hit on December 16, 1973, the day before my eleventh birthday, he was trying to comfort me in front of the fireplace, a fireplace in which he kept a fire roaring to keep his family warm. He spoke about how cold it was in Korea. (Aptly, David Halberstam's history of the Korean War is titled The Coldest Winter.) He suffered a lot from that wounded leg, but he suffered more from the invisible wound of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). My father self-medicated with alcohol. It's only in the past few years that his brother, my Uncle Jimmy--yes, two Lynch brothers, Daniel and James--explained how when they shared a bedroom in my grandmother's apartment in the nine months before Jimmy married Diane, my father had terrible nightmares. He would wake up both of them with his screams. Mostly, my father Danny went to school at Pace College, where he studied accounting, held an office job, hit the books, and enjoyed his life as a single guy. (Until he met my mother in 1958, but that's another story.)
I grew up watching the Vietnam War on television every night with Uncle Walter (Walter Cronkite). I was left with the impressions and images of the horrors of war at a very young age. Young men left our neighborhood in Queens whole, and came back missing legs, or with heroin habits. Billy across the street overdosed at age 20 in 1969. In the spring of 1973, I wept at the image of John McCain's daughter running to greet him when he returned after five-and-one-half years as a POW in Vietnam.
As an adult, I have witnessed from afar many other wars and have been a student of military history, and the reflection of war in literature and film. While I have no doubt that war IS hell, I was, am and always shall be proud and supportive of military personnel and veterans, and the part my family played in war. And especially to those who made the supreme sacrifice. I would not be a free citizen, someone who has the right to speak out and write about how wrong war is, if it were not for their service and sacrifice.