A war hero is memorialized in his home town -- well, almost
One day last winter, I was in a quiet neighborhood of Vallejo near Interstate 80. About 500 feet west of the freeway there was a little park, about a half-block in size. I took my lunch and went into the park to eat it. The playground equipment was deserted - children were in school. Graveyard
shift was sleeping, swing shift was running errands at distant shopping centers. Day shift was at work. The only things moving were the blurry shapes whizzing past on the freeway. The roses had been pruned down to stumps of cane sticking out of the damp earth. A sign said they were maintained by the Vallejo Rose Society.
[quoteright]At the center of the park stood a stone column with a plaque affixed to it. I walked over and read the inscription. GRANT MAHONY. That was it. No hint as to who he was. After I had finished my lunch, I crossed the street and knocked on several doors. Three or four people answered. I asked them if they knew who Grant Mahony was. Nobody knew.
My curiosity was piqued. Who was the enigmatic Mr. Mahony? What had he done to rate a park? I called the City Clerk's office. They didn't know. I called the City Manager's office. They didn't know either. I called the Recreation District. Sorry, we just maintain the park, we don't write history books. Finally, I called the President of the Rose Society. She knew something.
Somebody was playing suety organ-music in the background when I talked to her. She knew that Grant Mahony had had something to do with the American Legion, she said. The reason she knew that was because she had been elected Queen of Trades by the Grant Mahony Legion Post, let's see -- she went to the mantelpiece to check the trophy she still keeps there - back in 1953.
My next call was to the head of the local Legion Post. He said he vaguely remembered a Grant Mahony Post. It had been what they called a "specialty Post" - in this case, labor union. Specialty Posts have a high mortality rate, he said. In any case, he knew nothing about Grant Mahony himself. I called the American Legion State Headquarters in San Francisco. They didn't even have a record of such a Post having existed.
I finally called the librarian at the Times-Herald and asked for a list of citations listed in her files under the heading, "Mahony, Grant." Then I took my list over to the public library and started searching through the micro-film copies of the newspaper from 1941 to 1946, the period covered by all of my citations.
It turned into a nostalgia-wallow. Potroast was advertised at 25Â¢ a pound. BLOND B-GIRL HELD, 8 HUSBANDS. The D.A.'s salary was increased to $4000 a year. INFANT SWALLOWS ANT POISON, RECOVERS. You couldn't get butter or lard for weeks at a time. Boy Scouts were going from door to door, collecting tin cans for the war effort. Then
I found Grant Mahony's photo on the front page. He had just been awarded the DFC. I managed to put together a capsule biography from the Times-Herald stories.
Grant was born and raised in Vallejo, the son of a sheet-metal worker at Mare Island. He was 4H, Eagle Scout, went to Berkeley. When he graduated with an ROTC commission in 1939, he took flight training and was shipped to the Philippines.
He was in the Philippines when war broke out. He fought in the desperate rear-guard action that covered MacArthur's retreat to Australia. He covered himself with glory, doing twice as much as anyone else, taking risks no else would take. MacArthur had put him in for the DFC and his was only the second one awarded in the war -- the legendary Colin Kelley barely nosed him out.
He flew from Australia, then transferred to Claire Chennault's Flying Tigers. He became an ace early on. His "Dear Mom" letters were regularly printed on the front page of the Times-Herald. When he came home on furlough, the City of Vallejo gave him the brass-band treatment the entire length of Georgia Street. In those days, Georgia Street was the main shopping district. How it's moribund, populated by prostitutes by night and derelicts by day. The business has gone to shopping centers far from the center of town.
In 1944, Grant and three other young colonels - all in their twenties - carried out Operation Manhattan. Gliders full of mules and engineers were flown into the Burmese jungle behind the Japanese lines. They hacked out an airfield, and within 48 hours, it was a functioning bomberbase. Life was the stuff of literature. One of Grant's Manhattan-colleagues, Phillip Cochran, was immortalized by Milton Caniff in Terry And the Pirates as "Flip Corkin." On one of his home-leaves, Grant appeared on The Army Hour, a morale-boosting talk-show whose guests were nothing but gold-plated heroes.
Grant died a 24-carat hero's death. One of his comrades was too sick or worn out or scared to fly, and so Grant filled in for him. It was his third mission that day, and he must have been exhausted. He probably dozed off or became inattentive just long enough for the pilot of the Zero to nail him.
When the war was over, everybody pitched in to make a memorial. A memorial is a thing that preserves a memory. The Kiwanis, the Jaycees, the Athletic Friends of Labor, the City, the County, the Rose Society. They raised $1400 in contributions, enough to buy a halfblock lot. The Rose Society pledged itself to take care of the rosebeds in perpetuity.
The Legion's memorial to Grant was the Post that bore his name. But with the rapid turnover at the shipyard, the last member had drifted away to somewhere else within ten years, and the Grant Mahony Post closed its doors for good.
If Grant had lived in classical Greece, his memory would be enshrined in hexameter. His biography would have been embellished into an exemplary legend. But as it is, the home town where he was born and grew up, the city that adored him when he was alive, has completely forgotten him.It's not a case of mass amnesia. It's not ingratitude or fickleness. What happened to the memory of Grant Mahony is that it was scattered to the distant corners of a vast continent, swept away on a wave of post-war prosperity, which brought greater mobility, cars, new technology, freeways, distant job opportunities, general restlessness. Vallejo, which had survived the war physically, was destroyed sociologically by its aftermath.
I did a lot of asking around, and I finally found somebody who had known Grant personally. She had been in 4-H with him in the early thirties. She remembered Vallejo then as a quiet, pleasant place with a sense of permanence, where people had roots. She has just purchased a new home about 200 miles away and is moving there soon.
I went back to the park and looked at it again. The stubs of rosecane cast long shadows in the sallow afternoon sunlight. Children were swinging on the swings, laughing. From a block or so away, there came a susurrus of cars whizzing past on their way to Chicago or Cheyenne, taking with then little bits of what might once have been home towns.
If they had built the freeway just 500 feet more to the west, the little park would have been obliterated, and the only vestige of Grant Mahony's memory remaining in his home town would have been an enigmatic trophy on the mantelpiece of the President of the Rose Society. Â
Intellectual Pac-Man Gareth Penn sharpened his fact-gathering skills through seven years' experience as a reference librarian.Â "Standard reference works are full of error" is his summation of this job.
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