HOPKINTON — The box stashed in a closet for years revealed details about Larry Minnehan’s experience.
Stuff his children knew nothing about.
Inside were letters, correspondences from Minnehan to his sister back in New Jersey during World War II. Letters before the Germans captured him. Letters after he had become a POW, telling his family he wasn’t missing in action, nor was he dead. Letters of his escape near the end of the war. Letters of optimism, of fading hope.
“The going has been pretty rough, but it could be a lot worse,” read one letter from late 1944. “We have them on the run now and it looks as if it might be over by Christmas.”
Peter Minnehan of Hopkinton brought the contents of this box full of history lessons to Rep. Annie Kuster’s downtown office Tuesday, an informal show-and-tell during a formal presentation to honor Peter’s father.
Larry died in 1980 at the age of 56. Peter found the box of letters about 20 years later, and that was about 20 years before he filled out paperwork so his father could be properly honored.
A physical therapist, Peter had treated Kuster’s father, himself a POW, shot down during the war. He suggested that Peter take the time to complete paperwork needed for these honors, and Rep. Kuster assisted in connecting Peter to the right people.
Here’s where so many of us can connect to the storyline, about a veteran who had to wait too long to receive his Purple Heart and POW medal. The familiar plot about the veteran who preferred not to relive his experiences, and the children, most often baby boomers, who weren’t all that curious to begin with.
They regret not asking. It’s never too late to learn.
“We knew he had been in the war and we knew he had been captured,” said Peter, before accepting the medals honoring his father. “But we were kids of Vietnam and we didn’t care about hearing war stories, and he was from the Greatest Generation, so he didn’t want to talk about it.
“I’ve been questioning my siblings and they didn’t know anything either.”
Peter was joined by three of his sisters — Ellen Minnehan, Carol Minnehan-Lee and Jeanne Peters — and Carol Davis, Larry’s oldest niece. They all traveled down from Maine, their home state once Larry settled there in 1972, after leaving Jersey and his job in middle management for Bell Telephone.
They had varying versions of what their father endured, bits and pieces that had slipped out through the decades, heard by one child but not necessarily by another.
For example, Jeanne Peters mentioned that her father had found safety after escaping from the POW camp in Germany. “He was hidden by a family in Belgium,” she said.
“They hid in the barn,” added Davis.
Davis added that her uncle and other prisoners were forced to clear railroad tracks, putting them in danger because the Allies were engaged in a never-ending bombing campaign to derail German transportation.
Carol Minnehan had heard about the soup her father and other POWs had been served, consisting of a bowl of warm water that had barely been touched by an old piece of chicken.
And had Larry escaped through the help of that family in Belgium, as Davis contended, or did he and his buddies return from a work detail and roll down a hill to safety, eventually meeting up with the advancing Allies, as Peter thought?
Larry was captured on Jan. 4, 1945, a member of the 6th Armored Division that fought to smother the final German counteroffensive and ran into heavy enemy fire near the besieged town of Bastogne.
“He wrote that he was marching up a corridor to Bastogne,” Peter said. “He was saying how proud he was that they cleared towns out. He said in another note that he was captured and they walked him from Belgium to Germany.”
A letter discovered in that box and read aloud by Peter to the gathering in Kuster’s said, “My buddies and I escaped in the confusion and we were caught by the Allied drive. It was a great day, believe me.”
Larry came home after the war and eventually opened a cabin resort for skiers in Maine. He also had a small cross-country business. He smoked Pall Mall cigarettes like a chimney and in fact suffered four heart attacks before a fifth one ended his life in 1980.
And that box we discussed? The one with part of a man’s life documented, then packed away in a closet before Peter found it and chose to immerse himself?
Once found, Peter stored them in a loose-leaf binder, in chronological order. He brought the binder to Tuesday’s ceremony. Kuster presented him with his father’s Purple Heart, a medal given to those injured in battle and awarded to Larry because of the severe malnutrition he was suffering upon his release. Peter was also given a POW medal.
Both were packaged in their own boxes. The binder and old photos sat on a table. One section of a letter, read by Peter, described Larry’s liberation, giving a glimpse of a tired soldier passing on information.
But not too much information.
“I cried like a baby at the first sight of the Yanks,” the letter read. “The rest will try to forget and pass on as just a bad dream.”