When I was a boy and my grandmother was still alive, I can recall how no one in my family was allowed to play “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” around her. Her brother was killed during World War II, my mom would explain, and he had promised in his last letter home after two years overseas that — like Bing Crosby had sung in that hit 1943 tune — he, too, would be home for Christmas.
He was supposed to get leave that December. Decades upon decades later, my grandmother would still break down in tears whenever she heard the song.
That’s all I ever really knew about my great uncle — until I was much older, and a relative uncovered some forgotten paperwork. What I learned was the story of a great American hero, and of love and sacrifice in a time of utter darkness and desperation.
Charles “Chic” Quinn, a Long Island Rail Road machinist from St. Albans, Queens, was 19 years old when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. A week later, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps.
According to military records, Corporal Charles D. Quinn was 5 feet, 7 3/4 inches tall with blue eyes, brown hair and a ruddy complexion.
During his almost two years overseas, he took part in several military campaigns against the Japanese in the Pacific, including a 1944 reconnaissance mission in Peleliu, in the island nation of Palau.
He completed his last mission but suffered wounds at the hands of the Japanese along the way. Five days later, he died on a Navy hospital ship in the arms of a Catholic chaplain. Cpl. Quinn, a baby brother who in battle wore the Presidential Unit Citation, was later posthumously awarded the Silver Star, the military’s third-highest award for valor in the face of the enemy.
His citation reads: “While carrying out an extremely hazardous reconnaissance mission to obtain vital information, Cpl. Quinn observed a marine officer pinned down by intense enemy rifle and machine-gun fire and imperiled by snipers. Disregarding his own personal safety, he courageously advanced in the face of the hostile fi re and killed the most threatening sniper, thereby saving the officer’s life.
“Although he received wounds during this action which later proved fatal, he steadfastly refused medical attention and completed his reconnaissance, subsequently dispatching a written report to the regimental command post before he was evacuated.”
Yes, Cpl. Quinn never made it home for Christmas. He received a military funeral at sea, according to records. He left behind three sisters; his parents had both already died. Some four months after his death, the priest who held “Chic” as he passed away sent two letters to his surviving family in the U.S. He mailed one letter to my grandmother’s home in St. Albans. The other he sent to my great-aunt Winifred, a Catholic nun then known as Sister Mary Coronata, who lived in Toledo at the time.
Both letters were typed on letterhead from the U.S.S. Samaritan, the ship on which my great-uncle died, but they are devoid of the buttoned-up military speak of the telegrams and citations.
The letter to Toledo, dated Jan. 4, 1945, reads as follows:
My dear Sister Coronata: May our dearest Lord bless you and your work abundantly during this New Year.
I was very pleased to receive your letter concerning our dear little “CHIC.” This is just what he was. During the few days that he was with us I visited him often. He was always so pleased to see a priest. He was such an innocent child and his faith so deeply rooted that I really loved him. When he first came aboard I told him that someone’s good prayers had been heard. I meant that he had not been called on the field, as so many other poor boys. He immediately responded, “Yes Father, my sister, she is a nun.” Having a sister of my own a Dominican, we had something more in common. I could not help but feel for you; for I know how my good sister would feel.
Chic was conscious till the very last moment. He was so attentive to the prayers for the dying; which was the greatest edification to me. When he breathed his last, I actually broke down myself before the doctor and nurse, as I continued to say prayers. Our dearest Lord wanted another little angel for His heavenly choir.
Please continue to pray for me, Sister; and may I ask that you have the children pray for me also. We priests of the service have so much need for prayers than before.
Sincerely in Christ,
Joseph S. McCauley
Not just on Veterans Day but throughout the year, let us all take time to remember our brave men and women in arms — especially those who never made it home for Christmas.
Michael White is the editor of The Suffolk Times and Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at [email protected] or at (631) 298-3200, Ext. 152. A similar version of this column first appeared in this publication in November 2008.