USAAF 1st Lt. Thomas D. Cahill (Bombardier/Navigator)
USAAF T/Sgt. John W. Cahill (Radio Operator)
By Michelle Cahill
Tom Cahill and John Cahill (known as Jack) were my uncles. This is a brief overview of their lives and their family.
Both Tom and Jack were killed in action in Europe on bombing missions in World War II before I was born. I am writing this brief history of their lives based on family facts, family lore and information I learned about them in letters they wrote to their mother during the war… letters unknown to my generation, packed away for seven decades, only discovered this year, 2012.
Tom and Jack’s parents, Patrick Cahill and Mary Wardner, married in 1910 and began life together in the small town of Concord, New Hampshire. By 1925, the vibrant, loving family included nine children, all boys but one. The children in birth order were Maurice (pronounced “Morris”), Patricia, Frank, Jerry, Bob (my father), Billy, Tom, Jack and Mark. Lucky Patricia to have all those brothers! They adored her. Sadly, Billy contracted whooping cough and died in 1921 at the age of two.
Thankfully for my generation—thirteen of Tom and Jack’s nieces and nephews born between 1941 and 1955—my grandparents posed their children in birth order in many of their standing group photos. In those photos, using relative heights, we are able to discern who is who among those handsome boys. Our Aunt Patricia, the only girl, was beautiful and always easy to spot.
The children were great friends to each other, but all those boys made a lot noise. In one letter to his mother, Tom wrote about a loud night in the barracks with guys whooping and hollering, “Mom, it was the kind of screaming that in our house would result in a flying slipper from Frank!” It is so amusing for me to think of the uncles I knew, as respectful adults, screaming and throwing slippers.
The family owned a cigar manufacturing business and was financially comfortable. They lived in two different homes in Concord, initially at 43 Concord Street, later in a large brick house at 75 Pleasant Street. All the children attended Catholic school in Concord where the children from Maurice through Tom, graduated from high school.
After the stock market crashed in 1929, the cigar business weakened then failed in the early 1930s. Patrick’s health declined and he died in 1933. On her own, with diminishing finances, the children’s mother saw greater opportunity for her large brood in California. In the mid-1930s, she moved the children to Los Angeles where extended family had relocated earlier. Only Maurice, the oldest, remained in Concord where he was an accomplished bandleader. Tragically, in 1937, Maurice died in an accident.
The family loved Los Angeles, where they lived with their maternal grandmother, Ellen Dwyer Wardner, “Gram”, in her large house downtown at 2949 Van Buren Place. They continued to struggle to maintain financial stability. All of the children worked and contributed to the family bank account, which their mother and Patricia managed. Jack and Mark, the youngest sons, completed their education, as the others became young adults. They all enjoyed the warm West Coast climate, as well as the entertainment, beaches and other exciting opportunities in Southern California.
Frank and Bob were the first to marry, Frank to Peggy and Bob to Jackie. Bob and Jackie gave their mother reason to be called “Nana” when Patrick, my brother, was born in 1941. In 1943 Frank and Peggy added Mary Elizabeth to the family. Tom and Jack doted on “Little Pat” and Mary Elizabeth, sending them gifts and often mentioning them in their letters.
Music filled the home where many were musicians and all were music lovers. Patricia studied piano all her life, ultimately at the concert level, and eventually taught piano. Tom was a singer. Bob played bass fiddle in a dance band and composed music. Jack studied trumpet, trombone and piano, but later lamented that he had not studied to the level of his sister and brothers. In a letter to Patricia from San Antonio, Texas, in 1943, Jack wrote, “I’m dying to get in on this jam session here, but find myself as helpless as a rookie in the field of combat. You may personally administer your boot to the seat of my pants upon my return home. Remind me to take lessons on something.”
The family hosted its own jam sessions with many friends who were always ready to party at the House of Cahillshire, as Jack called it. A variety of bands would rehearse there, sometimes resulting in neighbors complaining to the police about the sound level. Loud, but beautiful noise I’m sure.
The music was interrupted a few years later when war began in Europe. By 1943, five sons had enlisted in military service: Frank, Jerry, Tom, Jack and Mark. The close family was torn apart, in different states, then different countries. The boys wrote home often to their mother and she saved every letter.
Through their letters, I watched Tom and Jack struggle through pre-flight training, at different locations around the country. They studied hard and hoped to see the world. Both were eliminated from pilot training, but made other choices that would ensure they remained airborne. Tom explained in a letter to his mother that he was disappointed “for about an hour,” then chose to pursue bombardier/navigator training.
Jack’s options were armament, gunnery and radio operation. He chose radio where the skills learned offered the most likely potential for peacetime employment. He mentions in a letter that, in Arizona for gunnery training, he was offered the chance to remain there as a gunnery instructor. He told his mother that he knew it would be safer than going into combat, but he would hate it. He quoted to her Tom’s agreement with his decision, “If you’re going to stick your neck out, you might as well have fun doing it.”
While Tom and Jack were in the service, they often sent home money for the family account, sometimes asking that part of it be used for payments on Patricia’s new Steinway baby grand piano. A Steinway had been her dream and they finally made that dream come true. She was a musical genius who would “bang out Beethoven,” as Tom called it in one letter to her. She played with or without sheet music, and if you could whistle a tune, she could play it, any key, any tempo. Though she loved classical music, she also played sing-along songs for friends and family.
Tom and Jack loved going new places around the country during training and the letters they wrote to their mother were funny and touching. They liked some locations more than others. Jack’s favorite was the small town of Emporia, Kansas, where the townspeople were kind and welcoming, and there were lots of parties and girls. Tom felt most at home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he studied bombing and navigation and had family of New Hampshire friends nearby to visit. He earned his commission in Albuquerque.
It is monumental to me, after all these years of knowing nothing about them, to know so much now, even little things. Tom weighed 159 and Jack 145. Tom’s favorite food was chocolate cake and he hated beer. Jack hated hot dogs but ate most everything else… lots of everything else. On Corsica, Tom took the camp dog Jocko on bombing missions and to church. Jack snuck bread out of the mess hall to feed the ducks at the lake during pre-flight training in Emporia.
Tom was proud for months during training that he had never been airsick. When he did finally lose his cookies on a bombing/navigation training mission over Albuquerque, the event was perfect material for one of his funniest letters. Little things… but to me these things give life to the uncles I never knew.
I was surprised how openly they spoke to their mother about their fears, struggles and failures, as well as girls, parties and adult beverages. It was very clear what a wonderful relationship they had with her. At war, separated from her for the first time, they missed her tremendously, and she them, of course.
They were happy and confident young men, and under the circumstances at that time, going to war was what they wanted to do. I cannot begin to imagine the intensity of the pain for their mother and the rest of the family when they died.
Before I found Tom and Jack’s letters, my image of them was vague and shadowy. They were black and white portraits on the wall. Now revitalized by their letters, my thoughts of them are bright, colorful and cheery.