Shanghai to Guadalcanal

The Life and Times of Liam O’Donnell, volume 5 of the Irish-American Story, covers from the end of WWI through to the end of WWII; a period quickly fading from memory. One might wonder how I bridged the awesome gap from our involvement in China during the 1930s to the Pacific campaign in 1942. The answer is simple … I introduced a fictional character to someone who had been in both places.

Fortunately, I had just such an acquaintance and even more advantageous, he wrote a book about his experiences. I met Father Gehring at a communion breakfast the year he published A Child of Miracles.  I dusted off and reread his work before writing the Liam O’Donnell book a half-century later.

 

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On his first overseas assignment, my fictitious correspondent, TJ Barr, met Father Gerhing in Shanghai. Later Father Gerhing was a chaplain on Guadalcanal. At this stage of the campaign, the Japanese had supremacy of the sea. To protect what remained of the fleet, our Navy had pulled away from Guadalcanal, leaving a division of Marines helplessly exposed. Just before launching a nighttime attack, the Japanese slaughtered an entire native village, with the exception of a five or six year-old Chinese girl. The following is contained in a letter from Paddy O’Donnell who was in the hospital with Pat Reath.

Chapter 20, of the Liam O’Donnell book,

America Strikes Back

        Halsey’s chauffeur who visited us in the hospital was none other than Father Gehring, the Vincentian,Tom Barr had met in China. … One day he told us about Patsy Li, a Chinese orphan, who natives had given him to take care of. Imagine a bunch of battle-hardened Marines bringing fruit and flowers to their adopted orphan. Seabees made wooden dolls, using scraps of parachutes for clothing.

 

Two of my former bosses, both ex-Marines, had served heroically on Guadalcanal. I included in my book: Pat Reath, a New Jersey Irishman, and John Solar, who claimed to be a dumb Polack, but was a Bohunk with a tinge of Irish blood.  A 1977 National Geographic article stated, “People in countries as diverse as Spain and Hungary still consider themselves to be Celts.”  

By my reckoning somewhere between 1.5  and 2.0 million Irish-American and Irish-born wore the uniform of the United States during WWII.

        The following from a plaque that hung behind Pat Reath’s desk told the tale:

 

                        The First Marine Raider Battalion

                                Of them let it be said,

                                They were the very best.

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The War Years 1941-1945

I’ll never forget December 7, 1941, when my Uncle Matt, a career Marine, knelt on one knee and fiddled with the radio dial, trying to get news about Pearl Harbor. For the next four years, families, worrying that a Western Union messenger might deliver dreaded news from the War Department, walked to the corner grocery story to study the weekly posting of the dead and wounded.

The Life and Times of Liam O’Donnell,which began as a family saga, swiftly turned to include a history of those times, when I recalled that I was playing baseball while the Germans were marching into Czechoslovakia. Fascinated by his adventures in Australia and elsewhere, I interviewed the now deceased retired Army Colonel Bill Kittrell, who had made seven amphibious landings during the Pacific Campaign. I had to include him, for he complained that I only portrayed the Navy and Marines.

The story begins with the fictional O’Donnells gathering for Liam’s funeral following the crash of his plane in the Sea of Japan. His hard of hearing brother, Rory, mourning Liam’s death, lip-reads to learn of his older brothers’ wartime experiences, and retains the tales of the O’Donnell family’s struggles in order that some day he might write about them. Reporters for the London Times and the Philadelphia Bulletin bring news of world events to the O’Donnells.

This well-researched story,which covers every year until the end of WWII, begins at the end of WWI to include the influenza epidemic when bodies were piled on  the street like cords of firewood.

  • Enjoy the episodes of the O’Donnell brothers, surviving Philadelphia’s  tough Port Richmond neighborhood,  the nuns in grammar school, Christian Brothers in a jammed packed high school and the struggling LaSalle University during the  trying times of WWII.
  • I used letters from the O’Donnell brothers and newspaper reporters to take the reader from the rise of Hitler through Montgomery’s and Rommel’s African campaigns, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and all the major battles until the Japanese surrender.
  • The story includes little known battles and episodes, including:
    • The Battle of Hürtgen Forest – during which more Americans were killed than in the battle of the Bulge
    • The sinking of the HMT Rhona by a German guided missile, killing over 1,000 U.S. soldiers.
    • Reverend Frederick P. Ghering’s emarkable tale regarding the saving of baby Patsy Lee on Guadalcanal
    • A visit with the Flying Tigers and with a member of Doolittle’s crew
    • Americans fighting in the Philippines after the surrender of Corregidor
    • The Jews in Warsaw’s ghetto

The Life and Times of Liam O’Donnell is a great read and an outstanding reference book, covering a period that is swiftly fading from memory.