Connie was in the middle of a tough placement in the local hospital on the Falls Road which helped distract her leading up to the weekend of the Remembrance celebrations. Sunday November the 7th wasn’t particularly exciting though the weather turned out better than expected. Her intense schedule of studying and working at the hospital was nearly enough to stop her thinking about the arrival of the American Second World War veterans for the big parade. They created quite a stir, again, but this time as large groups of tourists. Some of them brought their wives and families and the hotels across Belfast were full to capacity.
The Remembrance parade had been a great success and lots of Belfast’s residents turned out to view the proud assembly of medalled veterans.
Her mother had been insistent about Sunday morning that Connie and the whole family attend eleven o’clock mass. No reference was made to the event down town, by priest, congregation or family. By the time the mass was over the parade was completed and Connie had missed the opportunity of viewing it, with the chance perhaps, of seeing the man she vaguely remembered from the hospital in New York.
When they got home her dad had put the radio on. The BBC was reporting on the Second World War Veterans parade in Belfast, and finished by informing the audience that a special book of remembrance had been opened in the City Hall to be signed by all those who took part. Connie’s ears pricked up on this part of the report and she immediately thought that if Paul Deehan had come then his name might be in the book. She had two lectures the next morning, but was free on Monday afternoon. Without saying anything to her family she decided to bus it down from the university after lectures, visit the City Hall and see if it was possible to view the remembrance book.
The Monday lectures seemed to drag on and on and it was difficult for Connie to keep both her mind and body engaged. When the three hours were up she practically flew out of the lecture theatre to catch a bus to the city centre.
When she arrived at City Hall many of the workers were sitting on the benches outside having their lunch and enjoying a well earned break from their work. She walked through the impressive entrance, into a large marbled entrance hall, where a uniformed man asked if she needed assistance.
‘I came to view the book of remembrance from yesterday?’
‘Of course, young lady, that’s the book on the table to the left of the staircase, the one with the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes on either side.’
She had thanked him and rather tentatively walked towards the table.
The book was open at the P’s and Connie noted one of the names Ronald Penney who had signed the book with the simple comment ‘Survivor of the greatest conflict the world ever saw. Praise be to God!’
She closed the black book and read the gold letter inscription on the front.
From a grateful city and its citizens,
Thank you for your courage,
In defeating the enemy.
We will always Remember You,
Our American Friends.
Connie ran her fingers over the gold lettering and thought what a different world it might have been for all of them if these men had not done what they had. She began slowly leafing through the pages with a mixture of emotions, part fear and part hope. She got to the Ds, and hesitated. After the Cs had finished the name at the bottom of the page was Davenport, followed by Delgado at the top of the next page. They were not strictly in alphabetical order so Connie kept running her finger down the names. Duncan, Dickerson, Dennis, Diaz…There was quite a list of names beginning with D and Connie was beginning to feel relieved as she turned the next page. Her eyes immediately homed in half way down the page. There it was.
‘Paul Deehan, New York, 8th Infantry Division. Always loved the people of Belfast. Great City. Thanks for the welcome.’
‘Always loved the people of Belfast!’ What exactly did that mean?
Connie thought she knew what it meant. Now she would have to find out for herself. She turned and asked the uniformed attendant how she could find out where the American veterans were staying. He told her that the secretary’s office upstairs, second on the left, had a list of everyone that attended the event. She thanked him and went up the marble stairs. A young lady, not much older than herself turned out to be very helpful. Not only was she able to tell Connie where Paul was staying but also that he had no family with him. He was due to return to the States the next day.
Connie wondered what she should do.
She could ring the hotel but didn’t know what she would say if she was put through to speak to him. She decided to take a bus and travel out to the new Stormont Hotel where Paul Deehan was staying.
As the bus approached the hotel Connie gazed at the imposing Parliament Buildings to her left, Stormont Castle as it was more familiarly known. ‘Not too many Catholics up there’, she thought, ‘what an interesting day this was turning out to be. In the City Hall for the first time, now seeing the Northern Ireland Parliament for the first time, and, maybe finding out from Paul Deehan his story of the Bandoleer, and, more importantly, about her mum.’
The receptionist at the hotel informed her that Mr Deehan had gone for a walk with some of his countrymen over to the Parliament grounds. They had left this bit of sight-seeing to their last day as it was just across the road.
The November sun was slightly warm on her back as she strode along the impressive driveway leading to Parliament buildings. Feeling warm she slipped her jacket off and with the index finger of her left hand flicked it over shoulder. Passing the formidable statue of Lord Carson she approached the grand steps of the building. Climbing the steps she felt really relaxed – the exercise had clearly helped. A group of tourists were taking photographs from the top of the steps but she did not recognise anyone in the group. When she got close enough to hear their voices she realised that they were from Scotland.
The place was so big that it was possible she could miss him!
The security man at the door informed her that the American party had been given an unexpected piece of hospitality by the Prime Minister himself.
’Having fought in the war he was honoured to receive them at such short notice. I believe young lady they are taking photographs at this very moment in the Chamber as the House was not sitting today. They shouldn’t be too long if you care to wait.’
Connie thanked him, went outside, placed her coat on the top step and sat down. Looking at the spectacular view across the city of Belfast and the surrounding countryside she thought ‘The Unionists sure knew how to pick the best site in the country for their Parliament.’
She was sitting enjoying the low sun with her eyes closed, her head back with her hair dangling loose when a soft American accent behind her said,
‘I really hoped I might see you again. I would know that hair anywhere!’
She opened her eyes and looked up at the smiling face of the man she now knew to be Paul Deehan.
He offered his hand to assist her and Connie stood up holding tight the proffered hand.
‘Yes, and you’re Connie Callaghan. You worked out then who PD was?’
‘My mum did, and yes, I am Connie. How nice to see you again. It’s been quite a while and I think we have a lot to talk about.’
‘Shall we walk around the grounds?’
They set off down the steps of Stormont chatting about how nice the weather was for the time of year and how good a trip it had been for Paul, meeting up with many of his former comrades and talking about some who never made it back.
Connie was trying very hard to be interested in all of this when Paul suddenly stopped,
‘I can sense there are other things you would rather be talking about. I’m sorry, I rattle on a bit don’t I? ‘
‘The Bandoleer – you sent it back. Why?’
‘Let’s sit down and I’ll tell you all you want to know.’
He took out a folded up Mackintosh and spread it out on the grassy slope in front of the Parliament buildings.
‘Eh, I don’t think they will like us sitting on the grass. I don’t see anyone else doing it.’
‘Well Connie I’m getting too old to worry about some official or other and anyway are they really going to tell a War Veteran to get off the grass?’
‘I suppose not. By the way how’s your shoulder?’
‘You have a good memory. It’s grand. That hospital was great. So how did you end up there?’
Connie related her story.
‘I suppose if that Senior Nurse had been a bit more accommodating we might have had this conversation before now.’
‘She was a bit of a battleaxe all-right, but she ran a good ward, very efficient and never gave anything away.’
‘I know – she wouldn’t give me your name or address or anything.’
‘Yea, same here.’
‘So how did you find out my name and address?’
‘That was simple enough. When I was being discharged I asked the janitor on your floor what your name was. You were easy to describe. He knew you right away, called you that ’smiling Irish girl’. I told him I wanted to leave a gift for you for looking after me and he said I’d get you at the student accommodation building. I went and told the concierge the same story. He wasn’t for giving me any details when one of your colleagues from the ward came in and she recognised me. Julie her name was.’
‘Julie was nice I liked her,’ and Connie smiled.
‘Anyway to cut a long story short I couldn’t make my mind up if it was right to send the Bandoleer back, but in the end I did. I just felt it belonged back here in Belfast.’
‘Was it so important that it had to be returned?’
‘I thought so. Your mother was very good to me and the Bandoleer saved my life and the lives of a number of my comrades.’
‘And….. How was my mother good to you?’
‘Well she made the whole business of going to war a lot more human, reminded me of what we were going to fight for, real people. Not the big political agendas of world politics, just people.’
‘Did you know she was married and had a family?’
‘Yes, I did Connie. Your mother was very open, she told me everything. We never did anything that either of us would have been ashamed of, if that‘s what you‘re asking. It was wartime. People were lonely, just wanting company. Her family were away from home, your dad was at sea. I brought the news to your mum about his ship being sunk. I take it your dad survived, or you wouldn‘t be here?’
‘Yes, he did. He came home the week after you told her. She told me about going dancing with you and she never told my Gran or my dad. In fact I felt my mum was a bit evasive when she told me about you.’
‘Your mum was beautiful and a very discreet lady. She was well aware at that time what difficulties would arise if people found out, never mind family, that she was consorting with a soldier and even worse the fact that she was a married woman. We were friends, just that. She made me feel human and very special. This was a time when not just me, but all the men that were going to Europe thought we would never survive. We were soldiers going out to kill an enemy and we were just ordinary guys expected to do extraordinary things.’
‘So what happened to you and the Bandoleer?’
‘Where do I start? There’s a lot to tell.’
‘You said the Bandoleer saved your life and those of your comrades?’
‘It did, really. I believe that. Our platoon was one of the last to hit the beaches in Normandy. The slaughtering of American soldiers was still going on but our guys were starting to make progress, although at a huge cost. I won’t go into the detail but I’m sure you must have seen some movies about it. We had landed at what was called Utah beach and it was a picnic compared to Omaha. We paid a huge price there too.’
Paul stopped for a moment and Connie saw a well of deeply felt pain cross his face.
His body trembled slightly.
‘Anyway we finally got off the beaches and started to fight our way through the French countryside to get to Cherbourg. It was slow work and we lost a lot of good men along the way. You just didn’t know where an attack would come from. The countryside was covered in hedges and small hills which provided plenty of cover for the enemy. Anyway I was carrying your mum’s bandoleer crossed over my chest with my US Army lightweight cotton one. I had been able to procure extra ammunition to fill the pouches. Feeling a bit uncomfortable with the extra weight I wasn’t quite keeping up to speed with most of the guys so I was close to the rear of our platoon. We arrived at a small village called Teurthéville-Bocage, which the Germans had vacated and approached this area of woodland set on slightly raised ground. Immediately we came under heavy and sustained fire from the woods and had to dive for cover. As I said, I was towards the rear and was lucky but a number of our guys were killed instantly. We were pinned down for about five hours and our ammunition was beginning to get low. The supply trucks didn’t always know where we were, because at this stage of the campaign everything was very much up in the air with nobody knowing exactly where our lines were or the enemy’s. Anyway, I could hear this guy Franco, another Brooklyn Babe like myself, screaming ‘Out of ammo, I’m out of ammo, where’s the’, pardon me Connie, ‘where’s the effing ammo’. The Germans realised that we were running low on ammo because we weren’t sustaining our returning fire and we were beginning to feel they could overrun us at anytime and then retake the village. If we got pushed back we might never reclaim the ground. Our Captain was shouting down the phone for airborne troops to support us which in the end did arrive. Things got really bad because we could see the German infantry begin to form together, presumably to charge our lines. I took off the Bandoleer and started to crawl towards the guys who were pinned down. The Captain screamed at me ‘Deehan where the hell are you going?’ I didn’t answer and just kept crawling to where Franco and the other guys were. When I got close enough I shouted that I had some extra ammo. I was about ten yards from them and couldn’t get any closer because of the German fire. I must have got a rush of blood to the head or something. I shouted to Franco show me where you are. He stuck his helmet on his rifle and held it up. I stood up and threw the Bandoleer as hard as I could and it landed beside them. After that I don’t remember what happened. The next thing I knew I wakened up in the 42nd Field Hospital with three bullet wounds.’
‘I seemed to make it a habit of waking up in hospital with a pretty girl. Her name was Karen. She was a member of the American Army Nursing Corps. She later became my wife. They had landed on the Beachhead a couple of days after us and she with the rest of the nurses saved my life. By the time I was brought in I had lost a lot of blood and it took a great deal of care to get me stable. Anyway, when I was finally sitting up taking a bowl of soup my Platoon Leader came to see me. After he had given me a row for my actions he told me that the extra ammo did the trick. It was enough to hold the Germans and gave time for the airborne support to arrive. He had the Bandoleer with him ’Franco didn’t want to give this up, said it was lucky, but I persuaded him. Belongs to you, wherever you got it.’ He wished me luck and hoped I would make a full recovery. I heard later he’d been killed during the taking of Cherbourg, he was a good man, a good leader.’
Paul Deehan sat quietly looking out across the city of Belfast.
Connie did not say anything but wondered at the courage of this man and the matter of fact way he had related his story. She couldn’t imagine what hardship and pain that he and his comrades had suffered. Yet, here he was, resilient and quite clearly proud of his contribution in the war.
He cleared his throat.
‘Sorry Connie. It’s been a while since I talked about any of that stuff. It’s just like it happened yesterday and it always brings something back that I think I have forgotten.’
Connie didn’t want to cause him any more embarrassment so she asked about his wife.
‘Karen. She was beautiful, a real live wire, great personality. When I was fit to travel I was flown back to Scotland and she accompanied me and other guys who were walking wounded. On the way we got to know each other pretty good. We were then flown back home to America and Karen went back to the front line. She saw some horrendous stuff during the rest of the war. We met up after the war and got married. It was a good marriage. She’s in a hospital now. They say it’s some form of mental illness which they can’t explain. The sad thing is, she doesn’t even know me. I used to visit every day but there was no sign of anything getting better, now I visit once a month.’
‘Do you have any family?’
He shook his head.
‘No. Maybe that’s a good thing considering my Karen’s state? I don’t know. It would be comforting though, to have had a daughter or a son that I could talk to about her. She has three sisters who all have family. I was an only child so maybe it was my fault that we couldn’t have children. We never did get tested. She always was so positive about it though, telling me not to worry. She would say to me, ’if it happens, it happens, but not having children means we have more time and energy for each other. Not many couples when they’re rearing a family get that.’ and she would give me her warmest smile and hug me.’
Connie put her arm round him, instinctively hugging him tightly.
‘Do you want to come home with me and meet my mum and dad and the rest of the family. My mum always thought you had been killed in the war. I know she was fond of you.’
‘Thanks. It really is a while since I’ve been hugged by a pretty girl, but would it not be a bit embarrassing if your mum has not told anyone other than you about me?’
‘She did say that an American had brought her news about my dad’s ship being sunk and I’ll simply say that I was at the City Hall looking at the remembrance book, which I was, and overheard you asking about a family called Callaghan.’
Connie looked him straight in the face hoping to see the answer to what she was now thinking. Even if he and her mother had had a relationship twenty years ago, if what he said was true then she could not possibly be his daughter.
‘But…. what about the Bandoleer? How will you explain that?’
‘I won’t mention it. That story belongs with me, my mum and you.’
He reflected for a moment and then said
‘OK. Let’s walk back to my hotel and we’ll order a taxi and take you home.’