PFC John William "Jack" Phelan
3rd Army, 5th Inf. Div., 2nd Inf. Rgt., 2nd Bn., Co. "G"
Killed in Action 10 November, 1944
near Metz, France
-- John William Phelan --
My father was born on April 29, 1916, in Utica, New York, the third of six
children born to David M. and Mary Ann (Gaffney) Phelan. He attended the
Utica Free Academy high school and after graduating worked at a few jobs
before joining the Utica Police Department as a patrolman in 1939. He
married my mother, Mary E. Leddy, on April 14, 1941. They had known one
another in high school, but did not become sweethearts until some years
later. I was the only child born of this brief union.
One of three brothers to enter the service during the war, my father was
drafted into the U.S. Army in January of 1944. He completed his basic
training at Camp Croft, SC. Afterwards, he was shipped to Camp Upton on Long
Island, NY, then to England, and landed in France on July 16. He served as a
mortar gunner in a front-line unit of Gen. Patton's 3rd Army as the 3rd made
its "mad rush" across France. He had been awarded the Expert Combat
Infantryman's badge. On November 10, at a small village named Vigny near the
city of Metz, his platoon had stopped to regroup. He and three other
soldiers were standing about 10 yards from their commanding lieutenant when
a shell landed and exploded nearby, killing my father and the other three
soldiers instantly and wounding the lieutenant. The shell made no
characteristic sound as it approached. He was 28 when he died.
My Dad was buried in France initially, but later his remains were returned
home and buried with other family members in Mt. Olivet Cemetery near his
hometown of Utica. My mother received two very nice letters, one from his
commander, Lt. David Brooks, and the other from a buddy in Company "E" named
Ben LaGrassa, explaining the circumstances of his death as best they could.
As he was the only member of the Utica Police Department to be killed in the
war, the John W. Phelan Police and Fire American Legion Post was named in
I was three months old when my Dad died. We never had a chance to meet. We
lived with my Dad's parents at the time. I have several pictures of him and
I know he received some snapshots of me. My family has always been glad to
answer any questions I might have about him. Where I have really come to
know him, though, is through a collection of almost 200 beautifully written
letters that he sent, mostly to my mother, but also to other family members
and friends. I treasure these letters, for through them he has become a real
person to me and is no longer just a photograph. He was a kind, outgoing,
well-liked, sentimental guy with a wonderful sense of humor. He loved to
have a good time and take my mother out dancing.
The letters speak of many things. The beauty of the French countryside and
the occasional "plundered" bottle of French wine. An action he describes as
the "hottest days of my life." The "awful empty, all gone feeling" at
missing his "darling wife," family, and home so badly. His dreams of
returning home to a "beautifully peaceful, normal life" and of raising a
family. After receiving several letters filled with compliments, he writes
"If you keep saying such nice things to me, I may need a larger size hat.
We're not encouraged to be swell headed here, not by a damn sight." After
hearing the news that he had become a "papa," he says "You can imagine my
state of mind as in a manner of speaking, I walked the waiting room floor
for one solid month." He was so proud to learn that I had been named after
My Dad's absence has left a huge void in my life and in my mother's life.
Hardly a day goes by that I do not think of him. Throughout my life I have
longed to meet him, if only just one time. Maybe I will have that chance in
the next life. I often wonder what my life would have been like had he
lived. My mother and father wrote to one another almost every day. Left with
a baby to raise and having lost both her parents shortly before her husband,
my mother found the inner strength to go on. Growing up, I remember that she
always tried to fill in as both a mom and a dad, even trying to teach me how
to play baseball. She has never remarried.
My Dad's brother, Vincent R. Phelan, served as an Ensign in the U.S. Navy
during the war. His other brother, 2Lt. Edward Lawrence "Larry" Phelan,
served in the U.S. Army Air Corps as a flight engineer on a B-29 bomber. On
December 3, 1944, his plane was lost in the Pacific as it was returning to
its Saipan base from its fourth bombing mission over Japan. The B-29
formation was attacked by enemy planes. Neither his plane nor the remains of
the crewmembers were ever found. He was listed as Missing in Action. He was
24 and died less than a month after my father. He had enlisted while
studying engineering at the University of Detroit. He completed his basic
training in Boca Raton, FL, was commissioned a second lieutenant at the Army
Air Forces Training Command, Yale University, and received his wings at
Lowery Field, Denver. He left for overseas on October 16. Larry was outgoing
and energetic, always popular, a member of numerous clubs and organizations,
and so proud to wear his uniform. He had a sweetheart whom he met while
training on the B-29 at Boeing Aircraft in Seattle. They had put off any
plans for marriage because he felt his future was so uncertain.
I do not know if my father's friend, Ben LaGrassa, survived the war. I would
love to talk with him.
To my Dad, to my Uncles, and to All who have served our country, You Are Not
Forgotten! For it is through your selfless sacrifices that we are able to
enjoy our precious freedoms. And thanks to AWON for its warmth and support
and for its very special website that allows us to share our fathers'