Columns, War
May 31, 1998
MIKE BARNICLE IN THE BOSTON GLOBE: A Day to ask, who were they?


May 31, 1998

At the intersection of VFW Parkway and LaGrange Street in West Roxbury there is a sign that stands like a silent sentry reminding us of a proud past filled with a quiet sadness that lingers still across all the years even though the American memory seems to have less and less capacity to recall the cruel and true costs of war. It is a memorial to brothers — Thomas and Gerald Keenan — who died in 1944.

Each day, thousands pass through the busy crossroads. And, each day, the sign is there, nearly invisible to those idling in autos: “Keenan Memorial Square,” the top line reads. “Thomas W. Jr. — US Marines, 1920-1944.” And, right beside the brief reference to that young man, “Gerald J. — US Navy, 1925-1944. Brothers who gave the supreme sacrifice for their country. For a long time I wondered about those brave boys. Who were they? Where did they live? When did they die? Who — and what — did they leave behind?

The other day along LaGrange, nobody seemed to know. It’s understandable; too much time has passed. People come, people go. Families move, taking local lore or the treasure of stories spawned on city streets to new ZIP codes and suburban destinations where the past is homogenized, packed away or even forgotten, like relics in an attic.

Fifty-four years ago, the United States was a different country. The dimension, the scope and the staggering casualties of a great war fought on two fronts had reached into every household. The Depression had been defeated. D-Day sent a coast-to-coast current of electric euphoria that was offset only by the continual drumroll and the sound of “Taps” that echoed in graveyards of small towns as well as big cities where so many families were touched with the tears and the toll of burying their heroic dead.

St. Joseph’s Cemetery is just a quarter-mile from the sign. And there, in a lovely grotto surrounded by the shade of a mature elm, a flat, stone marker was discovered in freshly cut grass. This is where Thomas and Gerald came after being brought home from their war.

Shut your eyes and you can see them still — and you can sense the society that mourned them after they lost their lives in battles that helped deliver the gift of liberty we open each morning. They returned to a place where self-pity was a stranger, where neighbors knew each other, where people actually volunteered for duty and willingly went without staples like sugar or gas because the cause was greater than any individual need, the collective will stronger than the smug selfishness thatoften sets us apart today.

But who were they? And what did they leave behind?

“I think you need to talk to my uncle,” said the young man who answered the door at the house where both boys grew up. “They know the story. And it’s still sad to talk about.”

Thomas and Helen Keenan had 10 children, seven boys and three girls. The father was a Boston firefighter. The family lived in West Roxbury. After Pearl Harbor, the oldest, Tom Jr., joined the Marine Corps. A few months later, his brother Gerald enlisted in the Navy after Roslindale High.

“Thomas died in the battle for Tinian Island,” his brother Joe, 71, recalled yesterday. “He died July 14, 1944. A priest came to the house with the fellow from Western Union. That’s how we were told: a telegram.

“Two weeks later, Gerald died when the Japs torpedoed his ship, the Canberra. Funny thing is, I helped build that boat at the Charlestown Navy Yard. It was a very difficult time. My parents never got over it.”

Both brothers came back to Boston together in death. They were waked at the old Legion Post in West Roxbury, blocks from their boyhood home, and buried side-by-side on Aug. 28, 1944.

Less than a year later, World War II was over. Germany surrendered the following spring. The Japanese conceded defeat in late summer, all because so many brave young men swallowed their fear and delivered their lives to a common cause not often recalled all these years later.

Thomas Keenan was 23. His brother Gerald was 19. And yesterday — Memorial Day — was all about them.