Reader's View: The silent witness of a helmet

November 9, 2013 

My son Colin Mansfield will graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in May.

As with all who served, he endured an age-old tradition called boot camp — where new recruits have their civilian parts disassembled and their newly issued GI parts assembled.

It’s impossible to gain an understanding of military small unit tactics if one has never gone through boot camp.

Yet, do not for a minute think that this lessens the sincerity of those civilians who applaud from the sidelines. They are not alone. Today’s veterans must also applaud from the sidelines and admit something:

How could 22-year-old men save the world in 1945?

Stephen Ambrose showed us they were brothers fighting for their brothers. Many returned home and chose not to talk about it. These silences led to frustration, which then became harshness toward their family members, causing deep strain on all.

The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates the number of World War II veterans at 5,032,591. It also projects about 414,000 deaths a year among World War II veterans, making the rate of WWII veterans who are dying to be 1,135 per day.

We are losing the greatest generation — yet, the impactful legacies of such strong soldiers are living on vibrantly through their families and their stories.

Allow the stories of two small-unit WWII veterans — an Army medic and a Navy seaman — to underscore my point.

Anthony J. Malone was from Middletown, Conn. He was a rare breed — a soldier who joined the peacetime U.S. Army in 1938 between the wars. He was issued a WWI uniform and a doughboy helmet that looked more British than American.

In his helmet, Tony Malone penned his first two initials and his last name. The leather headgear bore the markings “A.J. Malone, Co ‘H’ 16th med. Reg’t, Ford Devens, Mass.”

He trained to be a medic. Tony Malone was a soldier with no war.

Until Dec. 7, 1941.

Men ran to enlist, standing in line for hours. Tony Malone was already there. His wartime duties would take him to places that history books of today speak of in awe: North Africa, Sicily, D-Day, and ultimately to Hitler’s lair. His helmet went with him.

The Navy seaman was my father, Bill Mansfield, from Grant’s Pass, Ore. He joined at the end of WWII, seeing no combat. As the war ended, he joined the U.S. Army Air Forces and was deployed to Korea during that conflict.

Like Sgt. Malone, Chief Master Sgt. Mansfield became anonymous to the pages of history but not to the small groups he commanded.

In 1971, as a teen, I received a Christmas gift from my father — an old Army doughboy helmet with a handwritten name in it: A.J. Malone. Thus began a journey of intersecting two WWII veterans’ stories. This helmet also reconnected a son to his father, bringing about a journey of healing and a unique friendship.

When WWII ended, Malone discarded his helmet. Unbeknownst to Sgt. Malone, it became a symbol of an era gone by and the beginning of a legacy for generations to come in Chief Master Sgt. Mansfield’s family.

His helmet traveled undetected for 64 years until 2009, when Boise High School students researched and found Malone. He had passed away eight years earlier — one of 1,000 that died on a particular day.

My father passed away on another day in 2012, equally anonymous and yet equally impactful on the lives of his small band of brothers.

Malone lived through WWII with his small unit — they protected him and he them. His heirs lived to see his legacy continue through the silent witness of a helmet.

Mansfield lived to see healing be a part of his personal relationship to his estranged son. They formed a deep friendship.

His legacy lives on through a West Point officer who will be sworn into the U.S. Army in 2014.

Dennis Mansfield is the author of “Finding Malone,” a story of healing and forgiveness (Endurance Press 2013). He is a member of the West Point class of 1978.

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