by Sarah Teach
Almost 70 years past the end of World War II, our ties to that time remain taut. Many of us had parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents who fought in the war, and some may not have returned to the young families they left behind when they marched away to war. Others surely have lived the rest of their lives carrying unspeakable scars only to be scratched open when recollections are sparked from the deadliest warfare in history. And we mustn’t forget those who gave their health, mental well-being, and sometimes lives in the wars before and since then. It is for those lost, damaged, and changed lives that we observe Memorial Day each year. Nantucket has a few special ways to honor our veterans and our fallen.
Nantucket’s first brush with combat was the Civil War, during which 73 of the 339 Nantucket men who enlisted were killed in action or by illness. The Soldiers and Sailors Monument honoring them can be seen on Upper Main Street at a spot islanders refer to as the “Four Corners.” (That is, the intersection of Main, Upper Main, Milk and Gardner Streets.) Twenty Black men from Nantucket enlisted, but none of their names are on the monument because they all survived. To get a genuine taste of Nantucket’s role in this conflict, read The Civil War: The Nantucket Experience. Co-written by two island residents, Richard F. Miller and Robert F. Mooney, the book contains actual excerpts from the journal of a soldier from Nantucket. Some 30 years after his pen’s ink first soaked into the diary that he kept at war, survivor Private Josiah Fitch Murphey finally chose to share his inner thoughts with the public. In horrific detail, Murphey describes the war experience, from watching the man beside him in the hospital quickly bleed to death to witnessing a Nantucketer being forced to shoot a deserter at close range so as to ensure a fatal outcome. He explains the standard discomforts of wartimes, such as using the smooth side of a tin plate for a pillow and eating raw meat due to lack of time to stop and cook it. But there is also beauty and humanity to be found in Murphey’s tales. He tells how his corps spent a winter and spring within rifle firing range of Confederate soldiers, but no one from either side fired a shot. On occasion, they would actually wade to the middle of the river that divided them to trade coffee, tobacco, and even letters.
Just over five peaceful decades passed before Nantucket was once again hurled back into warfare. During World War I, Nantucket Island’s location made it an ideal Navy Reserve fleet location, bringing 300 men to the island. Nantucketers themselves were extremely patriotic and invested an excess of $1.5 million to the nation’s Liberty Bonds. Then in 1941, World War II took 400 souls from the island, including 15 young women, when the total population was only 2,700. The volunteers ranged from age 18 to 38, depriving the island of youthful vitality that it so desperately needed during an era of blackouts, rationing, and fear. Eleven islanders perished at war.
A number of Nantucketers served in the Korean War, including Army Private James Warren Coffin, whose life was taken on July 10, 1952. His remains were never recovered, leaving his family with no grave over which to grieve. Sacrifices were made not only by the veterans themselves but also by the broken hearts they left behind. Some Korean War survivors still live here, and you’ll find a few of their friendly faces over at the local VFW. If you ask with genuine interest, they might even answer some questions you have.
Whatever hippies could be found on the island in the 60s and 70s must not have been stoked about how far out the Vietnam War soldiers traveled. And anti-war sentiments had reason behind them: on June 5, 1966, Nantucket lost a 34-year-old Air Force Technical Sergeant named Antone Patrick Marks. He had served 16 years in the Air Force before an ill-fated ambush that happened as he was riding in a Jeep. Antone, the only casualty Nantucket suffered in the Vietnam War, is honored on Panel 8E, Row 11 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Just a few blocks from Main Street, you’ll find the Nantucket Town & County building at 22 Federal Street. In front of it, you will see two monuments, one of which is dedicated to those Nantucketers who served in both World Wars as well as the Korean War and the Vietnam War. The other monument honors Nantucketers who served in the First Gulf War.
But America’s heroes aren’t all names from the past, and Nantucket knows that. A number of Nantucketers have served and continue to serve in our country in Iraq and Afghanistan. From Memorial Day until Labor Day (September 5), several island museums are giving free admission to military families as part of the Blue Star Museums Initiative. Active duty armed forces personnel can just flash their military IDs and bring up to five immediate family members into the Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum, as well as all museums operated by the Maria Mitchell Association and the Nantucket Historical Association.
Also, Nantucket’s local Post 8608 VFW and Post 82 American Legion invites the public to join them in honoring all deceased veterans from all wars on Sunday, May 27. At 1 p.m., a procession will march from American Legion Hall to Steamboat Wharf for a short service. They will then continue to Prospect Hill Cemetery, and return to the American Legion Hall for refreshments. Memorial Day only comes around once a year, so take some time today to thank the veteran in your life for the sacrifices that she or he made for you, for me, for Nantucket, and for the rest of our nation.