Row on row

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Joseph Kenny was a soldier in the 169th infantry, 43rd Infantry Division, during the Second World War. He was born in 1910 in Rhode Island, one of the nine children of Michael and Catherine (Mangan) Kenny – both Irish immigrants. My great-uncle Joseph died on 11 August 1944 in the Philippine Islands.

He was stationed at Fort William McKinley. Although we don’t know much about how Joseph died in combat, we do know a lot about the after effects of his death from the telegrams and letters written by the Kenny family to the Army for more than a year – all trying to learn about Joseph’s last days on Earth. My grandmother also received letters from Joseph’s army buddies marveling at his effect on his unit. Stanley E. Johnson, an Army friend, wrote to my grandmother in August 1944 saying, “Joe was known as a great morale builder in Company C.  Even when the going was tough with him and the boys, he always had something to say to give the boys a laugh. I don’t think half of the boys would have gone as far as they did, if it wasn’t for him building up their morale.”

The kind and poetic nature of Charles’s writing always brings a tear to my eye.

Now, as we celebrate Memorial Day, I am grateful for my great-uncle. As part of my family collection, we have the following letter, which was written to my grandmother Camilla (Kenny) Dery in October 1944 by a war correspondent from the Providence Journal-Bulletin, Charles H. Spillman. Charles’s letter gives us a glimpse into Joseph’s final send-off. The kind and poetic nature of Charles’s writing always brings a tear to my eye. I’m hopeful that his letter helped my family grieve the loss of their son, brother, and friend. Charles wrote to my grandmother again in December 1944 reporting a conversation he had overheard about Joseph between two officers: “It was a great loss when he was killed, because there aren’t many men in the world with his personality.”

New Guinea, 22 Oct. 1944

Dear Camilla:

You will remember that before I left I promised you I would find Joe. I have kept that promise. It was not as either you or I would have willed it, but perhaps you would like to hear about it.

It is Sunday here, although it is still Saturday where you are. There is a long road paralleling the shore, a road heavy with grey dust which the passing trucks throw up in clouds. A way along this road a side road turns off towards the beach.

You walk a little distance with the sound of the sea loud in your ears and then you come to a white fence. An arch of wood frames a gate. From it a path of white coral leads on to a tall pole from which an American flag flies. On either side of this path the white crosses stand row on row.

It is in the fifth row on the left, the fourth cross. It has his name lettered neatly in black, the designation of his company and regiment, the hospital in which he died and the date, Aug 11 1944.

You can walk down a path of crushed coral, white in the sunlight, and stand before the cross.  Between you and the cross a small plant with broad green leaves pushes up from the sandy soil. It has blossomed since the rain of yesterday, deep pink trumpet-shaped blossoms.

A tall tree raises its gnarled and twisted trunk to the sky a little to one side. Its branches bend toward the cross and soften somewhat the harsh sunlight. The wind blows softly through its branches, and the sea rolls loudly in with the song of eternity.

You know how he died. Johnson told me he has written you.

They brought him back from the jungle, from the river where he fell. The men of his company filed slowly through the white gate and down the coral path. Men who had fought beside him, who had prayed beside him as he died, bore him more slowly still. The chaplain walked behind.

They laid the litter on support besides the open grave. The chaplain opened his book and read words which have been repeated all too often since war began. An officer gave a command. Seven men raised their rifles to their shoulders. Three times they fired and three times the echo of their firing crashed through the trees which hold the little cemetery close. Softly a bugler breathed the slow notes which end the day for men of the Army. The soldiers who had borne him so far gently lifted the flag which had covered the brown blanket in which he was wrapped. Carefully they folded it and handed it to the company commander.

Then the men turned toward the flagpole. Slowly the flag there which had been at half mast, rose to the top of the pole. The men turned again and slowly walked from the grave, back down the coral path and out through the gate, leaving him there, alone with his God…

[signed Charles Spillman]

About Sarah Dery

Sarah Dery, who lives in Concord, is the Research and Library Manager at American Ancestors/NEHGS; she has been with the Society since 2017. She supports the researchers and genealogists on the Research and Library teams, managing correspondence with constituents, organizing research information, and applying her genealogical knowledge in assisting our clients – both in-person and digitally. Sarah is a graduate of Rhode Island College in Providence and has a B.A. in anthropology and English Literature. Her interest in anthropology stems from her participation in a week-long archaeology dig at James Madison’s Montpelier in Virginia. Her family ancestry and expertise include Rhode Island, Connecticut, and French-Canada.

12 thoughts on “Row on row

  1. What a beautiful letter to help soothe a grieving mother! Thank you for sharing your family story. Honoring those who gave so much for our freedom (and the sacrifice of their families!) is what Memorial Day truly is about- so many have forgotten that. Our freedoms are never free.

  2. What a wonderful piece of family history.My paternal Great-Great Grandfather William Harmon Wight died while a prisoner of the Confederacy after serving just over a year in the Union Calvary. He left his wife and four young children the oldest, my great grandfather, was 8 years-old and the youngest was just under 2 years-old. We have the good fortune to own about forty letters that William wrote to his wife during his time of service. On January 10, 1863 from Pickett’s Headquarters Lambs Creek Church VA he wrote “I hope he will spare us all to meet again to enjoy each others company and when I think that I am here to help perpetuate this government of ours and sustain that glorious old flag of our country for the benefit of my Children I feel much more reconciled to my lot”.

  3. Beautiful, what treasurers they are. My uncle was one of the paratroopers who were dropped in the Philippines. He survived but was ever sad about the death, starvation and suffering that they found.

  4. So many lives lost in so many wars. We don’t often get to hear the feelings of others who fought with them. I am sure this is a treasure for you and your family…I enjoyed reading it.

  5. A beautiful letter! How fortunate your family was to have received it, and to have it still.

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