Bravery Remembered

Thomas Kelley ’60 (photo, right) and the late Holy Cross professor Rev. Joseph T. O’Callahan, S.J., are two of the College’s three Medal of Honor recipients. Both men are also graduates of Boston College High School, as is Philip M. Byrne ’62. Byrne was instrumental in creating a veterans’ memorial at the high school, and in his speech at its moving dedication, remembered the heroes who are fellow alumni. His remarks follow here:

Dedication of the B.C. High Wall of Honor
Philip M. Byrne ’62
This is an exciting day for BC High. It’s wonderful to see so many people here for the occasion, and to have such a beautiful day for it!

“Four score and seven years ago…..”  The familiar opening line of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address - renowned for its eloquence and brevity - was delivered in November 1863 at the height of the Civil War.

That war, still America’s costliest in term of lives lost, was a time of unprecedented turmoil and great testing for this nation.  It saw the secession of 11 states from the Union, the Emancipation Proclamation, the authorization by Congress of what would become the nation’s highest military decoration - the Medal of Honor, staggering numbers of casualties leading to the establishment of Arlington National Cemetery on land formerly owned by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s family, and the first assassination of an American President.

1863 was also a time of testing for the newly-arrived, Irish-Catholic, immigrant families in Boston - a city not known in those days for welcoming them with open arms.  In March of that year, and against that background, BC High had been accredited by the Massachusetts legislature, and in September it welcomed its first 22 students.  Most of them came from those same Irish immigrant families, and one graduated the following spring.

On Wednesday of this week, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, it will be four score and eleven years since the guns fell silent in France marking the end of World War I - the first war, as far as we know, in which the sons of BC High gave their lives in the service of their country.

We come here today to remember them and to dedicate a Veterans’ Wall of Honor for all of BC High’s fallen.  To echo Lincoln once more - “It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”

This effort has had the full support of the entire BC High community from the beginning.  Students, faculty, staff, alumni, trustees, families, and friends have all been involved in working toward today’s dedication.  While many participated, a few should be recognized for their special efforts. 

Nick Argento, Kevin Howell-Egan, and Ben Maher took on the difficult job of researching and identifying 65 people whose names appear on this Wall, and they did a terrific job.  You’ve heard Nick and Ben discuss how they went about this.

Senior staff members Michele O’Connor, Vice President of Advancement, Brian Maher, Director of Capital Planning, Rick Subrizio, Director of Communications, and Tim Alberts, Director of Alumni Relations, all played key roles along the way. 

Also assisting were J. Barry Driscoll and Paul Roche.  Paul, a Colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve, also helped establish a scholarship fund at BC High in memory of his classmate, Lt. John P. Connors, a Navy SEAL, who was killed in action in 1989 in Panama. 

We also want to thank the BC High choir for their wonderful rendition of the national anthem, The Ancient & Honorable Artillery Company, North America’s oldest chartered military organization, whose members have included four former Presidents and eight Medal of Honor recipients, for providing us with the color guard today, and the three students who will perform Taps at the end of this dedication – senior Greg Murphy, junior Braeden Lohe, and freshman Robbie Hillman.

And I would be remiss if I did not recognize one more person.  Since 1863, 3,447 men (and one woman, a surgeon in the Union Army) have received the Medal of Honor.  Nearly half of those were awarded during the Civil War, 14 men received it twice, and 95 recipients are alive today.  Two of the recipients were BC High graduates. 

The first was the late LCDR Joseph T. O’Callahan, S.J., BC High Class of 1922, who received it for his heroism in 1945 while serving as a Navy Chaplain on board the aircraft carrier USS Franklin off the coast of Japan.

The other is with us this morning, a retired Captain, US Navy, who today is Secretary of Veterans’ Services for Massachusetts.  For his actions with River Assault Division 152 in 1969 in Vietnam, and for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty,” then-Lt. Thomas G. Kelley, BC High Class of 1956, was awarded the Medal of Honor.  Tom, please stand and accept our thanks for all you have done.

With the help of all these people, and the constant support and encouragement of Bill Kemeza, we began our work.  Before Nick, Kevin, and Ben could begin their research the first step was to establish the guidelines for inclusion.

We wanted to be inclusive without lowering the usual standards in any significant way.  Therefore, we decided to include as BC High “family” not just graduates of the school, but also former students, faculty, and staff - if they had left the school to go into the service.  We learned that 31 seniors in the BC High Class of 1943 actually did this, and there may have been others before and after them.

We also decided to list not just those who were “killed in action,” but those who died in the “line of duty.”  This somewhat broader definition could include, for example, those who died in training accidents, or as POW’s, or in the Cold War, or from exposure to such hazards as mustard gas or Agent Orange.

Finally, we decided to include in addition to those who served in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, or Air Force, any others lost while serving in the Coast Guard or the Merchant Marine, and, if any, those lost while serving with the Allied Forces before the U.S entered WWII.  The Merchant Marine, by the way, suffered the highest per capita casualties in WWII, including one BC High graduate, and they were eventually given most of the benefits accorded military veterans.

While the names were being identified, we turned to the question of what kind of memorial BC High should have.  Virtually every village green and city square in America has a statue or a plaque to honor its heroes.  And there are many truly famous memorials - at the Alamo, Pearl Harbor, Omaha Beach, the Marine Corps War Memorial (aka the Iwo Jima Monument), the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, and many others.  What the best ones seem to have in common is a distinctive design, a deep understanding of the history they represent, an appropriateness to their setting, and the ability to stir our emotions. 

Our principal objective, of course, was to recognize and honor the BC High men who made the ultimate sacrifice.  While nothing we do can ever repay them - or their families - for that sacrifice, we wanted a memorial that would assure that BC High’s Band of Brothers will always be remembered.  They rose to the occasion and proudly put on the uniform when their country called.  Today, we rise to the occasion to honor them.

We also saw in this memorial a unique opportunity to enrich the learning experience of the whole BC High community, especially current and future students, as BC High strives to give them the knowledge, skills, and values that will serve them well in life and inspire them to be Men for Others.

And so we chose a unique design - a mosaic - that depicts and interweaves the histories of BC High and the nation, and which shows in considerable detail the many contributions and sacrifices which the men of BC High have made while serving in the Armed Forces.  It is a powerful story!

In the future, some students, seeing in vivid terms the cost of war, may be inspired to serve their country by becoming diplomats or statesmen working to avoid future wars.  Others, recognizing that the best efforts of the diplomats are sometimes in vain, may choose to follow in the footsteps of those we honor today and serve in the Armed Forces.  I believe the reality is that we will need both.

As a wise man once said, “If a nation does not educate both great plumbers and great philosophers, neither its pipes nor its arguments will hold water.”   To paraphrase that thought, in the dangerous world in which we live, we will need both the peacemakers and the peacekeepers.

With these objectives in mind, we hope and believe this memorial will honor those who served our country and inspire those who follow to also serve.

At the bottom of the Wall of Honor we have included an exhortation to our students - a quote from one of the world’s peacemakers, Mahatma Ghandi - that we think will serve them well: 

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow.  Learn as if you were to live forever.”

Thank you,

Philip M. Byrne