Cher Ami, 1918 & Memorial Day, 2020
This is a different and special kind of Memorial Day. On a day we traditionally remember the brave men and women who have fought and died to defend our country, we are surrounded by fear, uncertainty, sickness and death. We wonder what the future holds, we listen to grave predictions, we fear the worst. What can sustain us, and lift this weight from our shoulders? In remembering our fallen soldiers, let us also remember how they dealt with the same feelings of despair in their day. What sustained them? What light did they follow to help them prevail and overcome? I believe it was faith in humanity, which is the very essence of life and happiness.
My grandfather, Felix McGowan, emigrated to America from Killarga, County Leitrim, in 1915 with his sister Mary. Within two years, he was drafted into the US Army and served in France in World War I. Back in Leitrim, his brother William enlisted with an Irish Regiment in the British Army. Both brothers fought for different armies, yet on the same side and against the same foe. William was involved in the massive Somme offensive, earning a medal for bravery two weeks before he perished in Ginchy, France, in September 1916. His body was never recovered and lays where he fell, along with half of all WWI casualties. He is memorialized at the Thiepval Memorial in France, along with thousands of his fallen brothers..
My grandfather Felix on the other hand, was part of the famous Lost Batallion--a group of brave New Yorkers who found themselves trapped behind German lines, cutoff from their fellow Americans. For six days they faced relentless attacks from the Germans, losing 360 of their orignal 554 men. They even suffered unintentional bombardment from American artillery as they could not communicate with their commanders. Carrier pigeons were widely used during WWI and the Lost Batallion did have several, which were their only hope. They sent up pigeon after pigeon, all with messages, and all were shot down by the Germans. Cher Ami, their last bird and their last hope, took off on October 3, 1918, and was immediately shot and fell, but miraculously got back up. Badly wounded, blinded, and missing a leg, CherAmi flew all the way to the American lines and conveyed the position of the Lost Batallion, which was saved shortly thereafter. The message Cher Ami carried simply said, "We are along the road paralell to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heavens sake stop it." The war ended one month later and my grandfather returned home to New York, where he met my grandmother Maura O'Sullivan, a recent immigrant from County Wexford, where she was a member of the Cumann na mBan. They went on to raise a family, including my father, Felix, in New Rochelle, NY. I am amazed to realize that this family would never have existed, nor would I, were it not for the amazing Cher Ami!
The Roman emperor Marcus Aurleius, who himself died during the Antonine Plague, famously said that a plague "..can only threaten your life, whereas evil, selfishness, hypocricy, and fear attack our humanity." The univeral good is based on humility, wisdom, kindness, and service to others. We can choose each day to focus on these virtues and when we do, death and loss have no power. Our humanity remains intact up to death and beyond. Once again, as always, it is faith and love that sustain and preserve us.
The sacrifices made by our soldiers were not in vain, as they have shown us that all good things are worth fighting for, up to death and beyond. While I have not served in our nation's military myself, I have carried a lifelong appreciation for those who have, and I honor them this day and always. In my opinion, the highest honor we can pay them is to preserve their ideals and values and to pass these on to our children. As a father, and Irish-American, it is my highest honor and privelege to do this every day.
Photo: Cher Ami being released on October 3, 1918.