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Remembering my great uncle John Moloney, who died for his country

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    Army 1st Sargeant Shelly Jenkins places flags on graves at Arlington National Cemetery ahead of Memorial Day. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

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    A member of the Third U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) carries flags during a "Flags-In" ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

He was a football player for Holy Cross until he got injured. Then he transferred to Boston College where he graduated in in 1942. He was patriotic and enlisted in the Army immediately after final exams, not even waiting for the commencement ceremony.

John Moloney’s story is one of 291,557. That’s the number of Americans who were killed in combat during World War II. All of them have a story and for most that story has been lost. For years, John’s story was not quite lost, but it was buried, in a packet of more than 100 letters that he wrote to his parents while in the service. 

This young man, full of life and potential, was stripped away from his friends, family and fiancé in a foreign land, because above all things, he loved his country.

It was my privilege to reassemble my great uncle’s life in the Army through those letters in a capstone history project this semester at Siena College. He was a man with hopes and dreams, a fiancé he eagerly wanted to marry, and his letters indicate that he was pretty sure he would come home. He went from camp to camp in the U.S., alternatively pleased with his Army experience and just as often mightily frustrated by it. He became a paratrooper. Finally he went overseas. 

His final words to his family were scribbled on a ripped sheet of notebook paper on November 24, 1944. “Dear Mum and Dad -- Just a few minutes for another brief note. I’m some place in the Philippines. It shouldn’t be too hard to figure out where. Don’t be alarmed if you don’t hear for it’s almost impossible at present. All my love, John.” 

Two letters and a Christmas package would arrive at the Moloney house soon after marked “Returned to Sender -- DECEASED,” and the telegram that every family feared receiving the most arrived on January 6, 1945, an entire month after his death.

After John Maloney was shot in the head and killed on Leyte, his family’s life at home would never be the same. Physically little had changed in his hometown of Norwood, Massachusetts during the course of the war, but everything felt different. This was especially true for the families whose sons and brothers would never return home.

His parents would watch other boys, like John’s best friend Walter, come home and try to readjust to normal civilian life after seeing the horrors of war firsthand. Seventy years later his sister still clearly remembers the piercing scream from her mother when news of John’s death finally reached the family, and how all of their lives and personalities were forever altered.

John’s mother, who used to laugh often and easily, lost the ability to find humor in the smallest things. 

His father who was always a kind and gentle man became a shadow of his former self, as if a light went out inside of him when his only son was killed. 

His fiancé, who lost the love of her life, did not marry for many years after John’s death. She never had children.

The piano that John used to play sat and gathered dust for years. The tune “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” would never be played again in the Moloney household. 

Every day became a constant reminder that John had so much living left to do. Whether it was a drive down the street John dreamed of building a house on, or seeing a young couple holding hands walking down the street, his family was hit with the reality that John, and so many other young men, were going to miss out on a lifetime of opportunity because of war.

The story of John Moloney, and every civilian soldier, is a story of bravery and fear, humor and humility, determination and frustration, and love and loss. This young man, full of life and potential, was stripped away from his friends, family and fiancé in a foreign land, because above all things, he loved his country.

Although the Allied powers were ultimately victorious in World War II, for families all over America who felt the same searing pain of loss that the Moloney’s did, it seemed that victory came at the ultimate price. “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” is a Latin saying that roughly translates to “it is sweet and fitting to die for your country,” but when this quote from a poem becomes reality, there is nothing sweet or fitting about the death of young man who had just begun to live. To live for one’s country is a much sweeter fate.

Kaitlyn Buscone is a 2014 graduate of Siena College in Loudonville, New York.