Down East 2013 ©
Sixteen million Americans served during World War II. Today, only 1.5 million veterans survive, and we are losing them at a rate of 680 a day, according to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. “There is an old African proverb that I came across when I was in eighth grade: ‘When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground,’ ” says sixteen-year-old Morgan Rielly, of Westbrook. “That really hit me. I thought of all the veterans who had passed away, taking their stories with them.”
An avid student of history, Rielly has made it his mission to preserve some of those stories. Connecting with retired soldiers through family friends, historical societies, and American Legion halls, Rielly traveled the state conducting interviews. The result is Neighborhood Heroes: Life Lessons Learned from Maine’s Greatest Generation, a collection of twenty-six soldiers’ stories and Rielly’s reflections on each encounter.
“All of these veterans taught me something; not just about how to fight a war, but about how to live a life,” explains Rielly, who is looking for a publisher for the book. Among them are Harold Lewis, of Westbrook, a tail gunner who never gave up hope, even after being shot down behind enemy lines in Italy, and Jean Marc Desjardins, of Scarborough, whose experience defusing German bombs with his buddy, “Puddinghead,” taught him the value of a good friend.
Bernard Cheney, of Machias, left the deepest impression. The paratrooper participated in the invasions of Sicily and France, and he was one of the few soldiers in his battalion to survive the Battle of the Bulge. His guiding philosophy? “Keep a positive attitude,” says Rielly. “It’s part of what helped him to survive.”
It is the bittersweet nature of Rielly’s work that six of the soldiers who inspired him, including Lewis and Cheney, have passed away. But thanks to this young man born a half-century after “the good war,” their stories and their examples endure. — Virginia M. Wright
Photo Courtesy of Collections of Maine Historical Society