We always hear these stories about living next door to an unassuming person with a mysterious secret: one that makes you say, “I can’t believe it! I’ll never look at that person the same way again!” I’ll let you in on a little secret about me. This will be just between us, so don’t tell anybody, but I just might be the Keegan next door. While I don’t claim to have the same depth or breadth of knowledge as the great military historian Sir John Keegan, I just might have some interesting tidbits of information about the subject that I gleaned from, of all things, my research into my own family genealogy. I’ll share some of them with you.
It’s always amazed me the wealth of genealogical information a person can find just looking around his/her attic. My Great-Grandfather, Mike Stephany, served in the First World War. I found a lot of information about his service without leaving the house. I have the pair of binoculars he used while serving in combat. When I was a kid I felt privileged that I was the only person my own age who had an actual pair of them. It wasn’t until I got older that I began to really appreciate the genuine historical artifact they were. His unit number “313 F(ield) A(rtillery)” is stamped on the case. It’s a very interesting and humbling experience to hold something that he used while serving our country in combat.
While the binoculars are nice, the real mother lode is a book published in 1920 that my great-grandfather owned. It’ called A History of the 313th Field Artillery, U.S.A. This was an absolute treasure trove for me as a military historian/genealogist. The chapters were written by various officers who served in the unit. It provided a very graphic account of what day-to-day life was like for the men of the 313th Field Artillery. It’s still in print today if you want to check it out. There are several books with a similar title. Col. Charles Herron is one of the authors of this one. I’d recommend it to fans of Sir John Keegan’s The Face of Battle. It also features numerous pictures that show the lugubrious desolation of the French landscape during the Great War. Aside from the first hand information about military history, there is a section in the back that lists everyone who served in the unit. This is the part where I learned that my great-grandfather was promoted to Private First Class on the very last day of the war! (November 11, 1918)
Another artifact I have is my maternal grandfather’s, Jack McKeon’s, helmet that he wore during the Second World War. I also have his Purple Heart. When people see the helmet, they don’t need to ask me why he received it. The helmet has an entry and exit wound. The metal exterior is just as mangled today as it was when my grandfather was hit in 1944. I remember him telling me the story of why he still had the helmet. He said that when he was wounded the army told him to turn in the helmet so they could give him a replacement. He refused. Since the helmet saved his life, he insisted on finishing the war with it. When my grandfather said something it wasn’t open for discussion, so the army relented and let him keep the helmet. When the war was over and my grandfather received his discharged stateside, the ordinance officer told my grandfather to give him the helmet as it was the property of the U. S. Government. My grandfather answered by saying that army told him to turn in the helmet when he was wounded due to the damage. That convinced my grandfather that the army felt the helmet lacked value and didn’t have any need for it, anyway. He demanded to keep it. Today that helmet is sitting on my bureau.
There’s another lesson I picked up from my combination of military history with genealogy: I mentioned that my grandfather told stories. One of his favorite topics of conversation was his experience in the Second World War. I remember when I was a teenager who loved history, I’d walk the mile over to his house and listen to him tell me all about it. Looking back over that now, it’s amazing how something like history can being together people two generations apart. My grandfather also had a book about the history of the unit he served in during the Second World War. (He served in the 314th Regiment of the 79th Infantry Division for you history buffs out there.) I inherited it when he passed away twenty five years ago. I’ve read countless books on military history, but in all this time, I’ve never read that one. In retrospect, maybe I liked spending time with him more than I liked hearing his war stories.
I don’t claim to be the next Sir John Keegan—his blog is certainly more popular, ahem–, but I have learned a number of things about military history that most people don’t know simply by looking at artifacts in my own possession. If you’re interested in the subject, take a look around your home. You probably have a number of unique items with a story to be told. They could very well be things you see every day. (As I’m writing this from my father’s office I’m looking at my dad’s medals from the Viet Nam War. He has the South Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry and the Army Commendation Medal among others.) If you take the time to tell that story who knows: in a couple of years people won’t be calling you the Keegan Next Door they just might be calling the next military historian the you next door.