Memorial Day: The Quiet Heroes

There’s a story behind every single name on Ridgefield’s war monuments and honor rolls. For some of them, there’s a relative or friend—perhaps even you—who still lives here in town and can tell the story behind the name. Others who live here now do not have a Ridgefield hero to cite. But they can recall a name, read a letter or point to a photograph. They can speak of someone known to them or their family who donned a uniform and left a home somewhere else—from Alaska to Florida, New York to New Mexico—never to return from serving their country. They can feel Memorial Day, and because of the stories our friends or neighbors can tell, we too can feel Memorial Day.

This Memorial Day, Ridgefield Democrats salute the organizers, nationwide and right here in town, who work for weeks and months to create solemn ceremonies, arrange for dignitaries’ appearances, lead orderly parades, and host memory-filled barbecues to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Thank you for providing venues where we can come together to express our appreciation, recall our military heroes’ names and faces, and stand beside those who still mourn.

To contribute to this hallowed observance, we gathered vignettes of heroes who, as it happens, all served in World War II, but whose stories have enduring relevance. They are but a few of the hundreds of thousands of stories that matter—stories of ordinary people whom we sent into conflicts across Europe, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and countless other places where the military serve. The stories are what matter on Memorial Day. They matter because they remind us–individually and as a nation–that we are all in our fallen heroes’ eternal debt for the rights and freedoms we enjoy today in the United States of America.

A couple of years ago, I tracked down the story of my uncle, Francis (Sonny) T. Connelly, who died August 5, 1944, in France at the age of 20. My dad, Brendan Connelly, who was five years old when his brother was drafted, didn’t have any stories to tell about him. It’s Sonny’s letters that give us a sense of who he was. The raw emotion in them—to fight against tyranny and inhumanity—seems so rare these days. Wanting my dad to think he soon would return home to Brooklyn, NY, Sonny said, “Tell Brendan I’m off on a trip to see some friends.” (Francis T. Connelly was a private with the 119th Infantry, 30th Division, which fought through France’s hedgerows, villages, forests and fields from June 1944 until the European conflict ended in 1945.)
Submitted by Sean Connelly, Ridgefield Board of Selectmen

My father was a doctor. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, he relinquished his New York City practice to another doctor (a refugee from Europe), got rid of extra pounds, blustered past the age requirement and enlisted in the Navy. He was a lieutenant commander, but I’m sure he treated hundreds who died, and undoubtedly he knew a few of them personally. When he came back from the war, he never spoke of it, but the cheerful, joyous person we knew was gone. I think he’d seen too much of the horrors that humans are capable of inflicting on each other. (Dr. Joseph Hodas served on one of several hospital ships that were part of the amphibious force charged with taking Japan’s Okinawa island. In that three-month campaign from April to June 1945, 4,900 sailors were killed and 4,824 were wounded.)
Submitted by Ellen Darvick, Ridgefield Democratic Town Committee

Bob (Robert Humphrey) Griggs of Bridgeport, CT, was just a few months older than my mother, who was 21 when the U.S. entered World War II. When prompted to reflect on those she knew who died, Bob was the person she usually mentioned. Before Bob was deployed, they had dinner together. My mother apparently flirted so charmingly over their first cocktail that her beau said, “When I return, I’m going to take you out again and see what happens when you have two martinis!” (Robert H. Griggs, a 2nd lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Force, piloted the bomber “Lonesome Polecat” that was lost, with all ten of its crew, over the Baltic Sea on April 8, 1944. His date of death was just a few weeks short of his 24th birthday.)
Submitted by Angela Liptack, Ridgefield Democratic Town Committee

Several years ago, my father, David Okrongly, and I tracked down his two great uncles, Edward and Leonard, both of whom died in Europe during World War II. My dad had heard stories of these men from his grandmother, Mary, who was the oldest of the 10 Bolinski children in this Milwaukee, Wisconsin, family. We found Edward and Leonard side-by-side, buried 4,000 miles from their home, in the Lourraine American Cemetery at St. Avold, close to France’s border with Germany. A lifelong military man, First Sergeant Edward J. Bolinski, 47th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division, was 38 when he was killed by a sniper in Normandy on July 15, 1944. The sergeant stripes on his uniform made him a target. His much younger brother, Private Leonard Bolinski, 15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, died on Christmas Eve, 1944, in a bloody battle near Soligsheim in northeastern France. He was just 24 years old. On our trip to honor these family heroes, my dad and I spent several days re-tracing Edward’s and Leonard’s final days before arriving at their markers on June 6, 2010—exactly 66 years after the Allies landed at the Normandy beaches on D-Day.
Submitted by Andrew Okrongly, Ridgefield Board of Finance