What do we make of a kid like Morgan Rielly?
He’s 16 years old, president of his junior class at Westbrook High School, an honors student, plays soccer and tennis, and is active in too many other clubs and activities to list here.
But that’s not what sets him apart from his young peers on this Veterans Day.
“I have always had, as long as I can remember, a really passionate love for history,” Morgan said last week.
As he spoke, three World War II veterans — Phil Curran, Arthur Currier and his brother, Bill Currier — sat around the Rielly family’s dining room table.
All three men are from Westbrook. All three are fast approaching 90. And all three are still pleasantly surprised that anyone, let alone a kid who only this month got his driver’s license, would want to write a book about them.
It’s called “Neighborhood Heroes: Life Lessons Learned from Maine’s Greatest Generation.” And for those who worry that world-shaping events of another time seem lost on a generation that considers yesterday’s Facebook postings old news, it’s a welcome homage to the past by a kid with a very bright future.
“There’s an old African proverb, ‘When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground,’ ” Morgan said. “I felt like I needed to get this done soon. Not to rush it and do a poor job, but I needed to get as many veterans as possible.”
His sense of urgency was justified — of the 26 Maine veterans Rielly profiled in his book, at least four have since passed away.
“We’re a dying breed, truthfully speaking,” noted Arthur Currier, 87, who was but a year or two older than Rielly when he enlisted in the Navy in early 1943 and went on to earn 12 battle stars as a fire control technician 3rd class aboard the destroyer USS Connor. “We’re at the end of it — the end of the life cycle for most of us. And it’s kind of nice that people still remember.”
It all began when Rielly, at the age of 5, saw a neighbor missing half an arm walk by one day.
He asked his father, Brendan Rielly, what had happened to the old man. His father replied that their neighbor, John Malick, had lost his arm fighting on Guam in World War II.
“What was World War II?” Morgan persisted.
Fast forward to the summer before eighth grade, when Morgan spent a rainy day glued to his couch watching the 10-part HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers” from start to finish.
The up-close-and-personal portrayal of the 101st Airborne’s Easy Company, based on the book of the same title by historian Stephen Ambrose, “really caught my attention,” Morgan recalled. “I was obsessed by it. I read Stephen Ambrose book after Stephen Ambrose book.”
The following spring, still just in eighth grade, Morgan enrolled in an online high-school history course.
Assigned to interview a World War II veteran, he chose Loring Hart, the retired president of Saint Joseph’s College of Maine in Standish, who was a radio operator with the Army’s famed 4th Armored Division. (Hart died just last month at the age of 88.)
The rest, is, well, history.
“I didn’t want to wait until after college and graduate school to become a historian,” said Morgan, who’s now shopping his hefty manuscript to local and regional publishers. “I wanted to be a historian now.”
Imagine the faces down at the American Legion Manchester Post 62 in Westbrook the day the teenage boy walked in with his notebook and recorder and quietly began asking every World War II vet in sight if he could interview them and then tell the world their story.
One of them was Bill Currier. Like his older brother, he’d served on a Navy destroyer in the South Pacific, earning eight battle stars as a radarman 1st class. And like so many veterans of his generation, he’d spent most of his adult life never talking about the war.
“This all has more meaning to me than it did, say, when we were bringing up families and kids and trying to establish a career and all of those things,” Bill Currier said. “But I feel great talking about it (now) because of this young man … The way he presented himself at the Legion, I felt this is the guy I wanted to talk to.”
“It’s amazing,” agreed Phil Curran, 85, who left Portland High School as a junior and went on to become a radioman 1st class attached to the senior staff of Vice Admiral Daniel Barbey’s VII Amphibious Force in the South Pacific.
“I was really fascinated with what (Morgan) was doing,” Curran said. “And fascinated with the way he was going at it at his age.”
Some of the 26 stories are dramatic, while others capture the sheer drudgery of war. But from each of his subjects, Morgan distilled a theme — and ultimately a chapter title — to encapsulate what each veteran learned from the war.
The Currier brothers’ chapter is headlined “Recognize the Value of Other Cultures,” reflecting their dismay that black sailors — a novelty for these two boys from Maine — deserved none of the rampant racism they encountered throughout the South Pacific Theater.
Then there’s “Choose Your Friends Carefully,” which captures the moment a 17-year-old Curran, who lived on Peaks Island at the time, bade a tearful goodbye to his father at the Casco Bay ferry terminal.
“Don’t drink. Choose your friends carefully,” the father told his departing son. That and “don’t do anything you wouldn’t want your mother to know about.”
But of all the chapters, none left young Morgan more in awe — and at the same time more horrified — than the first. Its title: “Have A Positive Attitude.”
It’s the tale of Bernard Cheney of Machias, a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne who traveled from Lubec to North Africa to Italy to France to Belgium, where he was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge, and finally to the concentration camps of Germany, which he helped to liberate.
“We went in and walked in all these buildings, like these old chicken houses, and then as we got there, why we saw some hands sticking out under the sills,” Cheney told Morgan. “And we went in and found the conditions that were there. They were sleeping three or four, five. Bunks made out of barbed wire and everybody — you know, they were relieving themselves one on top of the other. It was just horrible. And then we found these boxcars full of people, opened them up and they had been there three or four days in the hot sun. They were skeletons to start with, you know, when they were shipped, and no water or nothing. Most of them were dead.”
Morgan didn’t find Cheney down at the local Legion hall.
Rather, he’d read a book by a soldier who served with the 82nd Airborne and wrote the man to ask if he had any surviving comrades in Maine. Yes, the aging veteran quickly responded, there’s my old war buddy Bernard Cheney from Machias. “And so I went to Machias,” Morgan said.
But “Have a Positive Attitude?” Where, amid the savagery of Hitler’s Third Reich, did that subtitle come from?
“You remember the things you can laugh about,” Cheney told his young interviewer. “Having a positive attitude I think is what keeps people healthy.”
Bernard Cheney died on April 19 at the age of 88. His obituary in the local newspaper included an old photo of Cheney in his Army uniform, smiling from ear to ear.
Meaning Morgan called it right — grinning at adversity was, without a doubt, at the heart of this old soldier’s story.
And this Veterans Day, thanks to one of Maine’s rising historians, that story lives on.
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: [email protected]