With St. Patrick’s Day upon us, my thoughts naturally turn to my favorite South Side Irishmen. While the day, and in this case, the weekend, is filled with the usual nod to our Irish ancestry, celebrating with parades, rebel songs, beer and plenty of corned beef, a part of me always feels a bit wistful, as memories turn to my parents, no longer here to join in the festivities. And so, to them I raise a parting glass in salute.
My dad, John Casey Toner, better known as Jack to his friends, died a couple of months shy of my twenty-fifth birthday. Though I was married with a toddler, I was still a daddy’s girl. It wasn’t really fair, I know. My sister is eight years older than me and had been surrounded by boys until my arrival. In fact, one of her favorite memories was when she and my brothers were sent off to stay with my cousins as they eagerly awaited the newest arrival in the family (me, coming in at number six). She asked my dad to please let her be the first to know if she had a new sister (for which she had been fervently praying) or another brother (to which she’d resigned herself). Upon my entrance into the world, my dad telephoned with the news. When my aunt excitedly answered the phone and asked the obvious question, he told her that he needed to speak with Mary Beth first. That was the kind of man he was. The simple, innocent promise made to an eight year old girl took precedence over all else. When you’re the baby girl in a family, it’s hard not to be spoiled. So, while my sister was relegated to the role of second mother to us all, including yet another little brother bringing up the rear, I happily assumed the role of the baby girl.
Today is the day that will live in infamy. Yes, December 7, 1941 will always be remembered for the devastating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, spiralling the United States into a second World War. My father served in WWII as an Army paratrooper with the Screaming Eagles 101st Airborne Division. My father-in-law served in the Marine Corps and, at the age of nineteen, suffered a severe, life-threatening injury during the battle at Iwo Jima. Only recently, has he told anyone of his experience during that life-changing moment.
He still isn’t sure what hit him. All he knew was, in a split second, he felt like he was on fire. Drifting in and out of consciousness, he only prayed that the unspeakable pain would end. Unbeknownst to him, his unit had been pushed back as he lay, completely unprotected, in front of his own lines. A medic came to his aid and hastily administered morphine, while attempting to carry him back to safety on a canvas stretcher, only to be dropped several times when bombs exploded all around them. He says he can remember looking at the medic just as a bullet shot right through him. He remembers seeing the hole. Then, my nineteen year old, wounded father-in-law administered morphine to the very medic who had so bravely come to his aid. That man never survived the battle. He died saving my husband’s father, but he will never be forgotten.
(Insert shameless plug here) My son, Brian, produced a short documentary, while studying film in college, entitled, The Story Of A Generation, which can be viewed on You Tube. In it, he interviewed his grandfather about his experience at Iwo. It is worth the time to watch, as these men are vanishing too quickly and, soon, I fear their stories will be relegated to ancient history. After the war, he went on to receive his bachelor’s degree at LaSalle College in Philadelphia, continued at the University of Chicago for his Master’s degree, and, then together with my mother-in-law, raised eight children. Though his injury is a constant reminder of the hell he endured, he remains “Always Faithful” to the Marine Corps. Semper fi, Grandpa.