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Son traces father's wartime experience

Patrick O'Donnell and Vincent J. Montera, Colonel US

Patrick O'Donnell and Vincent J. Montera, Colonel US Army (retired) talk about the trip they took with two other men to visit WWII battlefields. (May 21, 2012) Credit: Newsday/Audrey C. Tiernan

For years after his father died, Patrick O'Donnell Jr. wondered about the steely resolve of the immigrant who came to America in the wake of the Irish Civil War and raised six children on a New York City subway motorman's salary.

His father willingly shared stories of his County Kerry roots, of vacation trips to Havana and of his determination to start a new career as a civil engineer when he was nearly 60.

But there was a chapter of his father's life that he hardly mentioned -- his military service during World War II.

"He would tell us bits and pieces, but not in great detail," O'Donnell said. "He tried to keep it funny. But he really didn't share all that much. And toward the end, I got the feeling that he got a little depressed, that we didn't appreciate what he had gone through."

So the son, hoping to better understand the father, set out to learn what he could. Beyond his desire to know his father better, he also hoped to learn things he could apply to his own life as he raised his two children.

From boxes of his father's yellowing papers, old battlefield histories and battered maps, a portrait emerged of a man who had been tested by some of World War II's most ferocious battles.

"I remember continuously saying 'Wow! . . . Wow! . . . Wow!' " as the details of his father's military service emerged, said O'Donnell, 59, of Massapequa, who retired from the U.S. Army Reserve in 2001.

Drafted by the Army when he was nearly 35, Patrick O'Donnell Sr. served in the aftermath of the Allied landing at Normandy, the three-month battle with the German Army in the French city of Metz, the Battle of the Bulge and the decisive Rhine River crossing into Germany at the historic Remagen Bridge.

 

Seeing the battlefields

Armed with what he learned in his father's papers, O'Donnell and several friends who were also retired military set out for Europe. They wanted to see the battlefields for themselves.

Because the horror and trauma of war often leaves returning soldiers like O'Donnell Sr. reluctant to talk about their combat experiences, his son is among a generation of children of World War II veterans who grew up knowing little about some of the most formative experiences in the lives of their fathers.

Stephen Long, a psychologist at the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center, said soldiers who cause the death of others in war or witness extreme violence often will not talk about their experiences with family members because they feel no one can understand what they endured.

"In some instances, it can result in there being quite a distance between parent and child, and in many cases their experiences go with them to their grave," said Long, who said he encourages returning troops to talk about their wartime experiences. "They can feel that what they have experienced is so different that it sets them apart from others, that others won't understand.

"It's happening again with soldiers returning from today's wars," Long added. "A good part of our work is trying to get combat veterans to reconnect with their families."

What O'Donnell knew about his father was that, after the war, he got a job with the New York subway system, married and started a family. He returned to Ireland with his family briefly, but moved back to New York in the early 1960s. He eventually became a civil engineer for New York State and worked on such projects as the reconstruction of the Grand Central Parkway interchange at the Cross Island Parkway.

O'Donnell Sr. returned to Ireland after his retirement, and died there in 1981 at the age of 75.

 

Connecting with his father

O'Donnell Jr., who himself joined the Army in 1976 and retired as a Reserve colonel in 2001, never pressed his father for details of his military life.

So for O'Donnell and his companions, last year's two-week pilgrimage was a way to connect with fathers who had helped guide them into adulthood, but who had never fully explained how they had come to be who they were.

O'Donnell was persuaded to travel to Europe's battlefields by Vincent Montera, 65, a retired Army colonel from Bellmore.

Montera began looking into the World War II history of his own father, Vincent Montera Sr., who died in December 2002, just months before Montera began a yearlong deployment in Iraq.

Like O'Donnell, Montera said he knew only bits of his father's wartime service as a medic with the 60th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division.

"I found out by hearing snippets while he would talk to his buddies, that he had been a medic who had seen badly, horribly injured soldiers," Montera said. "But they would drop it whenever anyone was around. They wouldn't talk about it in front of us. It was almost as if there was an understanding that it wouldn't come up."

Montera said he was amazed to learn that his father's service in Europe lasted from 1942 through war's end in 1945, more than three times longer than Montera's Iraq deployment.

"He saw some real bad stuff, and especially as a medic," Montera said.

 

Reverence for servicemen

Tony Filosa, 72, a retired Army sergeant major from Port Jefferson Station, also made the trip with Montera and O'Donnell. He said learning the details of the lives of his friends' fathers left him with feelings of deep reverence.

"How many people are alive today, how many generations -- because of Vin's father?" Filosa said. "How many people left this earth with Vin's father holding their hand?"

Filosa was with O'Donnell when the group visited a historic plaque in the Belgian city of St. Vith, where the 7th Armored Division of O'Donnell's father had helped to deflect a key German advance. That showdown was a major incident during the Battle of the Bulge, during which 42,000 Americans were listed as killed or missing.

"To be standing in the same road where his dad had come by 63 years earlier, you could see him get real emotional," Filosa said. "I don't cry often, but I teared up, seeing what he was going through."

O'Donnell said learning about his father's involvement at St. Vith confirmed for him what he had always sensed was an inner tenacity in his father. He realized then he wanted to know all he could about what his father had endured.

"Learning about that was the 'Oh, my God' moment for me," O'Donnell said.

"When he died, I could tell he didn't think anyone understood what he went through," O'Donnell said. "So as his eldest son, it was important for me to be actually where he was during the most intense fighting imaginable, to walk the ground he had.

"Standing in front of that plaque at St. Vith, I said 'Pop, I made it.' "

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