Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Matt's Last Letter Home

Jan. 13, 2014 --
   "Obbly-obbly-gattigo, why, you probly got a wobbly-obligo!" Like listening to the "B" side of an old 45 rpm record, I often glance at the flip side of old newspaper clippings. Last week John Caruso, my co-author on the forthcoming book "Semper Fi, Padre," or really it's more like I'm his co-author, showed me a faded clipping from a Hartford, Connecticut, newspaper that contained the text of his brother Mathew's last letter from Korea to his father, Michael Caruso. The flip side of the article contained the latter half of three comics of the day, one of which was one of my favorites, Pogo, by Walt Kelly. I have no idea what this particular strip was about, and not because the first two panels were missing either. In the first frame, which would have been the third of that day's strip, Howland Owl, with his wizard's cap, and Cherchy la Femme the turtle, with his pirate cap, seem to be reciting something musical in nature, as evidenced by the presence of a couple of musical notes. "So when Miami plays pianda on the very same veranda, why, you get a git what gotta-git-an-go!" In the next and final panel, the character Porky-pine the pig, leans in and says "What'd you say?" while Howland wipes sweat from his brow and Cherchy leans on what appears to be a musical instrument.
   The comic above Pogo contains the date 1-16 but not the year. It's likely 1950, which means it would have been barely a month after Matt Caruso was killed in Korea.
   The article is titled "Good afternoon/ A personal chat with Art McGinley," who was the sports editor of the Hartford Courant.
   "Dear Pop," Matt's letter begins, "Please don't worry about me for I am taking good care of myself. I am confident that some day I will come back to all of you.
   "I have an awful lot to live for -- there will be my wife and baby waiting for me when I get back to the States.
   "Of course I can't tell how long it will be before we are home again, but I do know that I will be one of the many guys aboard the ship heading back home when it is all over.
   "I have enclosed a couple of pictures taken by a photographer at Inchon just before we left for here. I wish you would send me one of yourself, for the only ones I have of you and the family are in my album back home.
   "I still am working for a chaplain, only this time it is a Catholic priest I am with. He really is a wonderful man and we get along fine. Every day when it is possible he says Mass for his boys and I have seen him give Holy Communion and administer the last rites under heavy machine gun fire by the enemy.
   "My job is to do the administrative and clerical work for him, write letters of condolence to the families of boys who have died out here, aid the wounded and assist him at Mass.
   "There have been plenty of times we have said the Rosary together in our foxhole. No sir, Pop, no guy could be his equal.
   "My wife is a wonderful person -- she has made me the happiest guy in the world."
   "Love, Mathew."

   Actually, the newspaper misspelled Mathew's name, printing the more common version with two t's. Matt Caruso died saving the life of the Father Cornelius "Connie" Griffin. As machine gun fire penetrated the side of the ambulance in which Father Griffin was administering the last rites to a dying Marine during the breakout from the Chosin Reservoir, Matt, according to most accounts, threw the chaplain onto the floor of the ambulance and shielded him with his body. Matt was killed and Father Griffin was wounded but survived.

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The Mathew Caruso Memorial Chapel at Camp Pendleton

August 26, 2013 --

  After growing up in New York and working for 20 years in New Jersey,
who knew I would one day be living in New Britain, Connecticut, just outside of Hartford?
   I certainly didn't know that when the Rev. Connell J. Maguire called and said he was a friend of Kay Brainard Hutchins, who told him I might advise him on how to get a book he wrote published.
   Kay was a member of what was then the Kassel Mission Memorial Association, and is now the Kassel Mission Historical Society. Her brother, Newell Brainard, a co-pilot on the ill-fated Kassel Mission of Sept. 27, 1944, survived the initial battle but was murdered on the ground. Kay herself was a Red Cross girl during the war. I interviewed her in 1999.
   Kay and Father Joe, who was retired from the Navy after 32 years as a chaplain, were in a writing workshop together. Before he became a priest, Joe had aspirations of becoming a playwright -- the playwright Brian Friel, who wrote "Dancing at Lughnasa," hailed from the same small town of Glenties in Ireland that Joe was from -- but the members of the group were so enchanted by the vignettes he would read that they encouraged him to write more so-called "shorts."
   Before Father Joe passed away last year at the age of 94, I published three of his books. In the second, he related a story from his time in chaplain school.

From "Foibles of Father Joe," by Connell J. Maguire
(copyright) 2010, Connell J. Maguire
Father McMillan taught us in Chaplain School in 1952. He was a buddy of Father Connie Griffin, and recounted for us this story about his friend.

Chaplain Griffin was with the Marines in the Korean War. His clerk was a young enlisted Marine, probably of Corporal rank, named Caruso. Father Griffin learned that his battalion was going up to the front. He also knew that Caruso’s wife was expecting back home. He had Caruso transferred from his staff so that Caruso would stay behind. Before the Battalion moved up, he ran into Caruso, who broke down and cried because, as he saw it, Father Griffin had fired him. So the chaplain relented and they moved up together.

Chinese “volunteers” had entered the fray and Marine casualties were heavy. They were pounded by artillery day and night. During a bombardment, Caruso touched the container of Holy Communion Griffin carried and said, “He is with us.”

They were not there long when one day Caruso saw an enemy set up a machine gun close by. “Father look out!” he shouted. He shielded Father Griffin with his body. Immediately, he was stitched with machine gun holes across his body, dead on the spot. Father Griffin’s jaw was shot off.

After Father Griffin returned to the U.S. he heard that the Caruso baby was born. I do not know whether he was physically or emotionally blocked from going to baptize the child, but Caruso’s wife brought the child to him because that was what her husband would have wanted

   I do not know whether the Caruso baby was a boy or a girl. He or she should be over 50 now, somewhere in New England if the grown child stayed near his parents' neighborhood. This I do know. People coddled and cuddled in luxurious living, selfishly indulging in sexual infidelity, claim the title of nobility. Their claim pales before the lineage of that Caruso child, offspring of a truly noble father.

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   I put this story up on my web site. One day Father Joe received an email from Larry Caruso, a nephew of Mathew Caruso, the chaplain's assistant. Larry said his uncle John, who was another of Matt's brothers, lived in Hartford. Larry said he'd never met his cousin, Daniel Caruso, Matt's son, who lives in California.
   Later this week I'm having lunch with John Caruso, who was Mathew Caruso's brother, and still lives near Hartford.
   Recently President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to a soldier who braved a "blizzard of bullets" to save wounded comrades in Afghanistan. Mathew Caruso, who was 20 years old, was awarded the Silver Star posthumously for throwing himself between Father Connie Griffin and a hail of machine gun bullets.
   Father Griffin lobbied to get the Medal of Honor for Matt Caruso, but somewhere along the line the cause was dropped. I hope it will be pursued again. At any rate, I hope to have more of this story soon. Caruso's Silver Star citation follows:

The President of the United States of America takes pride in presenting the Silver Star (Posthumously) to Sergeant Mathew Caruso (MCSN: 661958), United States Marine Corps, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity while serving as assistant to the Chaplain of the Seventh Marines, First Marine Division (Reinforced), in action against enemy aggressor forces in Korea on 6 December 1950. When the convoy in which he was traveling with the Chaplain was ambushed by a large hostile force employing intense and accurate automatic weapons and small arms fire, Sergeant Caruso quickly pushed his companion to the floor of the ambulance and shielded him from the enemy with his own body. Mortally wounded while protecting the Chaplain, Sergeant Caruso by his outstanding courage, self-sacrificing actions and daring initiative served to inspire all who observed him and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country. Born: Tarrytown, New York. Home Town: Hartford, Connecticut. Death: KIA: December 6, 1950.
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(This blog post is reprinted from Aaron Elson's Oral History blog