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Sidewalks with Tom Deignan
Greatest Generation Still Haunts Us
November 19, 2008
Sidewalks by Tom Deignan
RALPH Tupper Ferns, born in Co. Tipperary, was not a prominent man, not like, say, U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy, a member of Irish America’s royal family, who was back in the news this week. Teddy returned to the U.S. Senate after more or less taking months off to battle a brain tumor.
But Ferns, along with another Kennedy — Bobby’s son Max — are reminding us once again of the accomplishments of the so-called Greatest Generation. As we struggle though our own grim economic times, and muddle our way through our own global military conflict, this remains a generation we — not to mention our new president — can learn from.
Interesting that this should all come together as we approach November 22, the 45th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. JFK, of course, was himself an historic president as the first Catholic.
Bobby Kennedy, meanwhile, was proven to be quite a visionary when people dug up something he said during his own 1968 run for president. That year, Kennedy predicted that an African American would be president in 40 years.
If RFK proved to be prescient, a man who could see the future, then Bobby’s son Max is now providing a valuable look back at the past.
On May 11, 1945, a terrorist attack in the Pacific killed nearly 400 American soldiers and wounded well over 200. These were the grueling, waning days of World War II.
Hitler and the Nazis had finally surrendered, but the Japanese continued fighting the U.S. and its allies. So desperate had the Japanese become that they were now resorting to what we, today, call suicide bombing. Of course, to the Japanese, it was known as the kamikaze attack.
In a new book entitled Danger’s Hour: The Story of the USS Bunker Hill and the Kamikaze Pilot Who Crippled Her, Max Kennedy explores what had been the most deadly terrorist attack on a U.S. target until September 11.
But Kennedy’s focus is not just on the lives lost, but the heroism required to save the many lives that were saved that day. He contrasts this with the desperate state of the Japanese, some of whose soldiers were expending energy so that they could die valiantly, rather than live.
Needless to say, the mindset that would lead a desperate person to martyr themselves to injure a powerful enemy has important lessons for us in today’s world.
If Kennedy provides us with a valuable story of the Greatest Generation on a large, bloody, but ultimately redeeming scale, than Ralph Tupper Ferns offers us something on a smaller scale.
The Tipperary native left Ireland at a young age, went halfway around the world to see some of the most horrific things a young man can see, and just this past week completed a long journey home. Ferns’ niece and nephew were by his side, making sure that the world understood the importance of Ferns’ life.
As so many unsung Irish did before him, Ferns settled in Canada. When World War II broke out Ferns became a member of the Royal Regiment of Canada, whose missions sent them to France, which was in the process of being overrun by Hitler and the Nazis.
On August 14, 1944, Ferns and his comrades were in the French village of Haut-Mesnil when an intensive bombing campaign began. In all likelihood, experts say, Ferns was killed by friendly fire, amidst the smoky chaos of the Normandy battlefields, where enemy targets got lost in the haze.
For decades, Ferns was considered a casualty of war whose remains were never recovered. Then, in March of 2005, a body was discovered by French villagers. Three years later, using dental, military and historic records, it was determined that the remains did, in fact, belong to Ferns.
This past Friday, Ferns was laid to rest at the Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery in the Normandy region.
“I feel he should be here with his comrades who are lost here too,” Ferns’ niece, Janice, said after the ceremony. “I’m sure all of them wanted to come home, but I feel he belongs here.”
It’s tempting to see Ferns, and the men of the USS Bunker Hill, as remnants from a heroic past we cannot match. But Ferns’ niece and nephew knew that their Irish uncle deserved a proper burial and acknowledgement, in part, because they know such a life provides valuable lessons for us today.
It’s up to us to understand and apply those lessons to our own troubled times.
(Contact Sidewalks at
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