The brother didn’t come home, but the Army trunk finally did

Charles McGovern’s older brothers, Bob and Jerome McGovern of Washington, both died fighting in the Korean War. Charles has kept their memories alive by keeping mementos and photos of his brothers, so when a woman called saying she had a trunk that belonged to Jerome, it was a mystery how it got to Rome, Ga. (John Kelly and Jayne Orenstein/The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist May 26, 2013

For a dozen years, the old green Army trunk held all those things that horse owners categorize under the multipurpose term “tack”: bits and bridles, reins and blankets.

The trunk sat in the barn of Bud Duke, who for years ran a little corner grocery store in Rome, Ga. Then it sat in the barn of Bud’s friend and riding companion Marjie Neville, who also lives in Rome, a town of about 36,000 near the Alabama border.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Last year, Marjie decided to switch from four legs to two wheels, from riding horses to riding motorcycles.

She didn’t need the tack, and she didn’t need the trunk.

“I was going to have a yard sale,” she told me when I called her last week. “When I was dusting it off, I got to seeing the name was really clear on it: ‘Jerome McGovern.’ Anyway, I thought the Internet, such as it is, I’m just going to look it up.”


Charles McGovern of Columbia keeps the memories of his brothers Bob and Jerome alive with a web site devoted to their stories. 1st Lt. Bob McGovern and 2nd Lt. Jerome McGovern were killed within days of each other in Korea in 1951. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

She typed “Jerome McGovern” and was amazed at what appeared on her screen.

“Lo and behold that Web site came up,” Marjie said.

She’d found a Web site devoted to Jerome McGovern and his brother Bob, two young men from Washington who went off to fight in Korea. The Web site had the story of their lives and the story of their deaths.

“I read he got killed just two weeks before I was born,” said Marjie, 62. “Both those brothers got killed just a few weeks apart. It’s just a sad thing.”

She sent a message off to www.mcgovernbrothers.com.

“She wanted to know if I was related in any way to Jerome McGovern,” said Charlie McGovern, the 81-year-old Columbia resident who created the Web site. “I said, yes I am.”

Charlie and I were sitting in the basement of the house he shares with his wife, Walli. On the wall behind his desk was an American flag that flew in his brothers’ honor in Afghanistan and another that flew over Camp McGovern, a U.S. Army base in Bosnia.

The McGoverns were casualties in what some call America’s forgotten war.

“I remember coming out of a friend’s house, and the paper was laying there and it said something about the Korean conflict or Korean war,” Charlie remembered. “That’s when we got the first inkling.”

Charlie was 4-F, unsuitable for service because of a problem with his ears. The oldest McGovern boy, John, had served aboard a bomber in the Pacific in World War II, something he didn’t talk about much then and still doesn’t. There were two sisters, too, Jane and Elizabeth. They all grew up in a house on New Hampshire Avenue NW, across from Rock Creek Cemetery.

“Bob and Jerome were both very, very military-minded,” Charlie remembered.

Wooden rifles slung over their shoulders, they had mock drills in the alley behind their house, leading other neighborhood boys in formation.

“We had about 70 or 80 young guys. Bob was the one who started that. That was absolutely amazing.”

Bob was killed first, on Jan. 30, 1951. He was leading Company A, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division up a slope, hurling unexploded grenades back at the North Koreans who had thrown them at his men. He killed seven enemy soldiers before being mortally wounded.

On Feb. 10, 1951, Jerome was cut down while leading Company I, 9th Infantry Division, up a hill.

For their heroism, Bob was awarded the Medal of Honor, Jerome the Silver Star. The brothers are buried together at Arlington National Cemetery.

Before Jerome shipped off to Korea from Fort Lewis, Wash., he sent a letter to the family telling them that a trunk full of his possessions was on its way to Washington. It was clothes mostly, hand-me-downs he thought might fit Charlie. The trunk never arrived and was forgotten in the grief over the brothers’ deaths.

Then last year, Marjie looked up the name stenciled on the side. The trunk — originally purchased from the Seattle Luggage Co. — is in Charlie’s basement now.

The green paint is faded. The corners are nicked. The inside of the lid is flecked with the torn corners of photos and clippings, the same sort of things with which Jerome once filled his scrapbooks when he dreamed of being a soldier.

“We had a friend who said she’d restore it, make it like a new trunk,” Charlie said. “I said, ‘No. You’re destroying the history of the trunk.’ ”

As for that history, there’s a 50-year gap in it. No one is sure how the footlocker ended up in Rome, Ga. The man who sold it to Marjie’s friend Bud died a few years back, taking its provenance with him.

Now Charlie uses the trunk to store the physical reminders of his brothers’ lives: photos, letters, mementos, condolences. Sometimes he wonders who would want all that stuff when he’s gone.

“I just don’t think people like that should be forgotten,” he said.

Charlie hopes that on this Memorial Day, Americans do more than grill meat and shop for bargains. He hopes they’ll think of why we have a Memorial Day in the first place.

I asked him how he remembered his brothers.

“Good guys, died young,” Charlie said. “I just hope it was worth it.”

To see a video of Charlie McGovern and the trunk, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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