Veterans Day: Remembering Augustus

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“Two Suburban Men Killed Overseas, Parents Informed,” read the January 3, 1919 headline of New Jersey’s Newark Ledger.

That woefully understated sentence still shapes my family nearly 100 years after it was written. The two “Suburban Men” were young soldiers, and “Overseas,” was, more specifically, World War I.

One of them “Michael A. Flynn of Washington Street, Belleville,” was my grandfather’s younger brother.

Michael A. wasn’t really Michael A. at all. He was born Michael Joseph Flynn. At the age of 11, while the other boys handed the bishop visiting St. Peter’s Church cards inscribed with saints’ names, “Mikey” as he was known, had other designs for his own Confirmation name.

John Joseph (left) and Michael “Augustus”

He’d apparently decided that Augustus Caesar, a soldier and the first emperor of the Roman Empire, was more his type of fellow, and handed the bishop a card inscribed “Michael Augustus.”

The Flynn family, assembled in the pews, “Didn’t know he’d done it until they heard the bishop announce his name to the congregation,” my father recently told me.

It was no surprise then that a decade later, as soon as he turned 21 in 1917 he enlisted. He signed up simply as Michael Augustus Flynn, and officially took a soldier’s name with him to war.

As a member of the Second Division’s Fifth Machine Gun Battalion he’d gone over the top in battle more than a dozen times, which should have killed him, quickly.

He fought in Chateau-Thierry, Belleau Wood and Champagne. On one occasion he’d nearly suffocated when the dugout protecting him and a group of doughboys collapsed under the direct impact of a German shell and he was buried beneath several feet of dirt. They’d then been dug out themselves, and lived.

When that first true Veteran’s Day arrived with the Armistice of November 11, 1918, my great grandfather, then Belleville’s Chief of Police, and his wife, the former Mary Ann Conroy, had good reason to believe their three sons were alive.  Their youngest Joey, too young for the War, was at home. Mikey was in a hospital but alive in France.

My grandfather, John Joseph Flynn, was in the army but still in the United States. He’d enlisted in 1914, the year World War I broke out in Europe. It was still three years before America was in the War and had its first troops in France.

John was then too young to enlist so had lied about his age and name. He renamed himself, uncreatively, John Brown, age 21.

The choice of names by the two young Flynns was reflective of their far different natures. Family lore has it that Mikey would always try to drag his older brother John out to dance with the parish girls at church dances. John rarely joined him, and Mikey rarely left the dance floor.

My grandfather was stationed at Fort Slocum on Davids Island in the Long Island Sound. The army spotted the talent he exhibited as a baseball player during games at the fort and assigned him to a traveling team that played against military and professional teams along the East Coast.

With his younger brother in France by 1918, John was especially eager to be sent across the Atlantic to fight, but the army refused. They wanted its talented young soldier at first base, not in Europe.

So that November day in 1918 was one of relief, although short of happiness. Chief Flynn and Mary Ann had lost one of their teenaged daughters, Theresa, earlier in the year to the influenza pandemic that  extinguished tens of millions of lives before extinguishing itself in 1919.

Their relief was fleeting.

In the Argonne Forest, in the last desperate battle of the War, Mikey was severely gassed and was hospitalized until late November, after fighting had ceased. In December, while being transported across France, he was killed in a hospital train accident.

His father telegraphed the War Department for details of the accident. No clear answer surfaced, but the speculation was that the train accident that killed his son might have been caused by still-sabotaged tracks from the War.

It is hard to imagine how much heavier was the blow to his parents after knowing the war was over, and thinking their son spared.

Roughly a decade after declaring himself Augustus inside St. Peter’s, Mikey was laid to rest just outside its walls. A plaque in his name, honoring him and another St. Peter’s boy killed in the war was inlaid in the cemetery’s wall. Two memorial trees were planted outside the entrance to the school where he’d once danced.

The trees still stand and the plaque remains, although its inscription has long since eroded away.

For years the government sent a small check to my great grandparents for the loss of their son. The compensation only served to set the former Miss Conroy to tears.

Chief Flynn again contacted the War Department, this time with a plea to stop sending the checks. “My grandmother thought it was ‘blood money’ and would cry every time,” my father told me. They continued to arrive.

My grandfather John was honorably discharged in April 1919. The specifics of his discharge papers included the army providing him a train ticket directly to Chattanooga, where he joined the city’s Lookouts, a professional baseball club that sent its best players to the New York Giants of the major leagues.

John was starting in leftfield for the Lookouts on opening day, 1919, roughly ten days after his discharge. I often wonder how alone he must have felt standing there, hundreds of miles from home and having lost a brother and sister within the past year.

In 1931, his baseball career over and now a policeman, John honored his late brother by naming his only son, my father, Michael Joseph.

The same restraint that kept John off St. Peter’s dance floors probably kept Augustus out of my father’s name.

His first daughter was named Theresa.

My dad served during the Korean War, assigned to the Marines at North Carolina’s Camp LeJeune. Not surprisingly, a favorite picture I have of him from that time has him fielding a ground ball in a Marines baseball uniform.

He was discharged in 1954 and by 1959 my older brother Michael Joseph was born. My own son, Neal Michael, now himself 22, is the youngest Flynn carrying the name.

Michael Augustus isn’t forgotten, nor his sacrifice, although his memory inevitably obscures with time.

Like millions of other veterans, and those currently serving at home or “overseas,” his sacrifice and story deserves renewed clarity today.