Another in a series
of occasional articles.
Kyle Conley saw only glimmers of his grandfather. There was a medal he noticed when he was 11 or 12 -- a Purple Heart. There was a black-and-white photo of a handsome man in uniform. There were yellowed letters in an attic box.
These were pieces of family history that he did not dwell on as a boy in the Virginia suburbs. Once, his grandmother eyed him fondly and said: "You remind me most of Jack." He wondered a little.
The notion of his grandfather returned in a soft flash of memory when Conley was 32 and lying in a bunk at Parris Island, S.C. He was covered with a green wool blanket, in a darkened barracks, at a military boot camp -- a wartime enlistee himself.
He had by then joined the Marine Corps, becoming one of the most unlikely recruits in his boot-camp class, where much inspiration had come from Sept. 11, 2001. It was not just age that separated Conley from the other men. Now he was part of a two-career marriage, with a pregnant wife, a young daughter, a mortgage payment and an upscale job in Washington.
"Why are you here?" he was quizzed by more than one drill instructor.
There were many answers to that question, but they all started with that singular September morning when thousands were killed in Washington and New York, and Americans lost an innocence, a sense of invulnerability. Had that day not happened, Conley would have gone on as a senior associate for PricewaterhouseCoopers and finished the thesis for his second master's degree without giving a thought to the military.
Yet now that he had signed up -- now that he found himself in a boot camp where orders were shouted and spit, and obedience was expected on command -- Conley found himself, in the few quiet moments that he had, thinking back across the years. Not to his own childhood but to the America of 1944. To his grandfather's war.
Happiness, Then Heartache In the early 1940s, Jack Farley had been blessed by good turns.
Farley had grown up in a well-to-do family in Rochester, N.Y., and followed his father and older brother to Yale University. When he graduated from Yale in 1939, he went on to Harvard for his MBA.
In spring 1941, with two Ivy League degrees, he landed in Detroit as an executive trainee for Ford Motor Co. Not long afterward, on a blind date, he met the love of his life, Marjorie Kaufmann, a sorority girl from the University of Michigan.
She was impressed, she recalls, by his good looks, his warm humor, his waltzing on the dance floor. Fine-featured and boyish-looking, Jack swam and skied and rode horses. He aspired to rise in the business world. It was 1941, and they were soon engaged, so right did it all seem.
Then came Dec. 7.
They were on the mezzanine of the luxurious Statler Hotel in Detroit, where they planned to have dinner, when they heard a loudspeaker announcement: "The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor." Jack and Marjorie looked at each other, stunned, then teary-eyed. They drove to Marjorie's parents' home, where the four sat beside a radio in silent shock.
It was not long before men all over the United States were lined up at recruiting offices, volunteering for the war that the United States declared Dec. 8, 1941.
Jack at first thought he could do his part at Ford, where he was assigned to a war-industry division that produced Pratt & Whitney airplane engines. He and Marjorie married early in 1942, and later that year they had their first baby. But the infant boy died after 2 1/2 days, and their expectations dissolved in heartache.
By then, many of the couple's friends were fighting overseas. The question of whether Jack should go too was never far from his mind, his wife said. One day Jack came home with a magazine story about John F. Kennedy's service in the war.
"I have to go," he told his young wife. "My friends are dying. Anybody can do what I do at the plant. Do you understand?"
His wife said she did, but by now she was pregnant again. The day of their daughter Stephanie's birth in 1943 -- ordinary at the time -- is now indelible: Sept. 11.
History Takes Hold Twenty-six years later, Kyle Conley was born outside Munich, the son of Jack Farley's Sept. 11 baby.
The family did not stay overseas long after Kyle arrived. His father, then an Army captain working in health administration, completed his three-year tour of duty and the family relocated in 1970 to the Washington suburbs.
Kyle grew up admiring his father's old uniforms and concocting battles with green plastic Army men, but otherwise gave the military little thought. His boyhood loves were soccer and football, which he played with his friends almost daily, and the Dallas Cowboys, which he cheered with fervor.
The middle child in a trio of brothers, Conley was always independent-minded and bright, the son of two Georgetown graduates who valued education. His father went on to earn a PhD, and his mother, a nurse, earned a law degree. For Kyle, academics always came easily. One of his strongest subjects was history.
As a junior, he won his high school's history award. He had a mind for dates, for events that compelled change.
At 17 he found himself as close to history's unfolding as he had ever been. He was in Brussels, accompanying his father, Dean -- out of the military and working as a health management consultant -- on a trip to a NATO conference.
Once the NATO meetings ended, father and son decided to explore their European surroundings. They traveled to the hospital near Munich where Kyle had been born, and to Dachau, the Nazi concentration camp, which Kyle had asked to visit.
Their first stop, however, had been Margraten, in the Netherlands near the German border.
There, on a cool gray afternoon, Kyle stood in an expanse of stark white crosses. Talkative by nature, he was now quiet, transported to another time, absorbing the sheer enormity of war's toll. He kept his hands in the pockets of his sweat shirt.
This was hallowed ground for allied soldiers. These were men who fought beside his grandfather.
'My Thoughts Are With You' Jack Farley signed up at a recruiter's office in Detroit in 1943. He had a deferment because of his war-industry employment. But by now his older brother was in the Army. His best friends had joined the Navy as officers.
He wanted to do his part.
It did not go exactly as he expected. The Navy was glad to take him as an officer -- until doctors discovered he was colorblind. He was disqualified, his wife said, and ultimately was processed through the Army, which did not want him as an officer.
The Army made Farley a private.
He went off to boot camp for 17 weeks at Fort Blanding, Fla., and his 21-year-old wife and infant daughter moved nearby, finding a room in a converted dormitory at the University of Florida so the family could savor whatever time was possible: a day, a night, a meal, an hour.
That spring, there was a life-threatening case of measles that delayed Jack's departure, and then the Army's request that he have new glasses. But the couple was always aware that Jack was headed into combat and that every day Western Union wires reported the nation's dead.
Finally Jack kissed his wife and held her tightly in Grand Central Station in New York, in a farewell shared by hundreds of other GIs and their wives and girlfriends.
"Just a note to let you share the overwhelming joy of the first letter from Jack. He is somewhere in England and writes cheerfully of thatched roofs, green landscapes and heavy mist."
-- Jack's wife, Marjorie, writes
to her sister, July 10, 1944
Over a box in the attic when he was 18 or 19, Kyle Conley knelt and read several letters his grandfather had written -- a link to Jack's thoughts, his travels, his experience of war-torn Europe.
In the box there also was a letter from the office of President Herbert Hoover thanking Jack, then 12, for sending a pencil drawing. There was an album of wedding pictures, and a photo of a young couple seated on a bike gazing happily into each other's eyes.
Then the black-and-white photograph of a young man in uniform.
Conley would come to bear a striking resemblance to the man in the photo as he grew older.
The box was stowed away in his parents' McLean house, and moved from the attic to a closet. It stayed there as Conley went off to University of Virginia and studied economics. In his senior year, the Persian Gulf War was underway.
Kyle gave no thought to joining.
He went to work, taking a job in quantitative analysis, and earned a master's degree in statistics. In 1997, he married his college sweetheart, an ecologist. Kyle landed a job downtown at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and the couple bought a lovely house in Arlington.
By September 2001, the Conleys had a daughter named Sarah, and Kyle had done the course work for a second master's degree. Like his grandfather before him, he had been blessed by many good turns.
"Although my letters are few and far between, my thoughts are often with you and it is constantly a comfort for me to know that Margie and the baby have a home such as yours to be in. Next best to having our own home is the knowledge they are with you until the time comes again. I pray daily that this day will not be too far off."
-- Jack writes from France
to his wife's parents, Aug. 4, 1944
Within weeks of crossing the Atlantic, Jack was swept into the tumult of war. Designated as a replacement soldier, he was sent toward the front in France, as part of the 29th Division.
The 29th Division, as it happened, had been part of the vanguard of the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944, and had taken staggering losses. It had stormed the beaches of Normandy under heavy fire from German troops -- U.S. soldiers dying as they scrambled off boats, before they even hit the shore.
The fierceness of combat did not let up as the 29th made its way through German defenses and across the brutal hedgerows of the French countryside, where enemy troops hid among dense thickets of brush and trees.
The hard-won advances continued through the battle for St. Lo, and in the first six weeks of war, the 29th's dead and wounded numbered nearly 8,000 of the 14,000 troops it started with, said historian Joseph Balkoski, who has specialized in the division's history.
But the unit had orders to move on, and so replacement soldiers such as Jack Farley arrived. By August, the 29th liberated Vire after another close-range battle and went on to the Brittany peninsula, to the port city of Brest, fortified with giant coastal guns and concrete blockhouses and being held by thousands of German troops.
Jack was by now part of his division's 115th Infantry Regiment. There were rumors circulating among his weary comrades that the war was almost over, and the immediate battle would not be difficult.
But Brest did not fall easily. It took many more lives and combat that lasted 24 days, until Sept. 18, 1944. "You fought for every inch of ground," one veteran said.
The 29th had a brief rest, then boarded trains bound for Germany.
Trading Dreams for Duty Just before Sept. 11, Kyle Conley had set a new goal. An athletic sort who pushed himself to finish not just marathons but 100-mile runs, he decided to train to swim the English Channel. He had swum a 4.4-mile span of the Chesapeake Bay four times.
He had dreamed of taking on the channel since seventh grade.
But that Tuesday, he took his young daughter to day care and was crossing the Roosevelt Bridge into Washington when he noticed a huge plume of black smoke rising from the Pentagon.
He turned on the radio. It was 9:41 a.m.
In the days that followed, Conley thought of the military as never before. It seemed the best way to make a difference. He could no longer feel good about a goal such as swimming the English Channel.
"I felt a little selfish, gearing myself to a goal that was only meaningful to myself," he said.
He was disappointed that political leaders only seemed to urge Americans to shop and spend tourist dollars. There were more useful ways to help, he thought -- "a huge untapped will."
Changing his own life was no simple thing, he knew. His daughter was not yet 2. The financial setback would be considerable, with his salary as a newly enlisted Marine not nearly in the same league as his Washington paycheck.
His wife, Alexis, was stunned by the idea. Her instinct was to protect her home and family. Not only that, she had never imagined her husband as a Marine. He was 32, elaborately educated, already a father.
He and his wife talked through the idea. After work. Over dinner. Before bed. In telephone calls between offices. Alexis Conley worked at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, for a contractor, and was on a part-time schedule after the birth of their daughter. Amid their discussions, Alexis learned she was pregnant with a second child.
Kyle believed it was selfish not to contribute -- to think only other people should risk their lives. For a time, Alexis believed it was selfish for Kyle to leave his family. The couple came to agree that Kyle should join as a reservist -- meaning nearly six months of training away from home but then returning to much of his old life until he was called up.
As a reservist, he could not join as an officer, he was told.
He went in as a private.
Fighting and Friendship For Jack, there was no gradual adjustment. One moment, he was at the margins of battle, and the next day he was part of a division nearly always in the action.
There were only brief lulls in war -- lunches of K-rations in abandoned houses, days when they found eggs in farmyards and fried them in their helmets.
Jack was in the company of soldiers who had been through unspeakable combat -- grenades exploding around them, tanks shaking the earth, an endless blast of mortar and machine guns. They dug their foxholes deep, so threatening were the pitch-black nights.
They did not always welcome the newcomers.
Many of the more experienced soldiers could not bear to lose another comrade. "You would make new friends," one veteran of the 29th, Joseph A. Joseph, recalled, "and they would get killed right in front of you. A lot of the guys would not get close to the replacements."
Jack found friendship in spite of this, particularly in a soldier named Pete Blackburn, with whom he shared a foxhole in October. Both men were radio operators for the 1st Battalion. Both had young wives and toddlers back in the United States. When they talked they conjured memories of home, even if they did not often get the chance to write.
Together they sweated through enemy artillery barrages.
Nearly 4,300 miles away, Jack's wife awoke one October night from a terrible sleep in suburban Detroit. She cried out, she remembers. The image in her mind was too real, too frightening: Her husband had stepped on a land mine.
Coincidences, Contrasts In boot camp, Kyle Conley was sick with pneumonia, in bed for a day, with time to think. It occurred to him that Jack had been delayed by illness too. He reflected: This is not the only similarity.
Both men stood out as better educated than most in the enlisted ranks. Kyle read widely -- Faulkner novels, Barbara Tuchman historical volumes, Scientific American magazine. He loved learning as had his grandfather, who appreciated literature and symphony and theater.
At boot camp, Kyle was dubbed "the old man" and teased about his Washington salary. He came to appreciate "the advantages I was blessed with growing up." He imagined that his grandfather encountered some of the same realizations and jokes.
There were other odd coincidences. Only after joining the military did Kyle realize with certainty that, like his grandfather, he was colorblind.
On Feb. 3, 2003, Conley wrote to his grandmother from boot camp: "Thoughts of Grandfather Farley and his time in the Army have been running through my mind. . . . Times were different, and he and I are different in many ways, I'm sure. However, I'm also sure that my experience so far has some great similarities to his."
But his grandfather was nearly certain to head into combat -- and faced a good chance of dying, Kyle points out. By contrast, Conley had no sense of how the war on terrorism would progress, or whether he might face similar risks.
'A Murderous Fire' By late October 1944, the 29th Division had advanced toward the German border and seized the fortified towns of Hatterath, Birgden and Kruezrath. Across the front, day and night patrols ventured out regularly to gauge the vulnerabilities of Nazi forces.
On Oct. 29, Jack was assigned to a large raid from Birgden, where his unit was based, to Waldenrath, where enemy troops were holed up.
The plan, according to accounts later written by fellow soldiers, was to approach the town in the early morning darkness in a sweeping arc, take prisoners and withdraw quickly.
Jack was in high spirits that day, the soldiers said. He borrowed a friend's carbine, thinking that his heavy M1 rifle, combined with his radio equipment, might slow him down too much. As he left, he joked that he might not return the borrowed weapon.
Pete Blackburn, his foxhole companion, started out with him that night. Blackburn was assigned as radio operator for one platoon from B Company and Farley was assigned to another. Their paths diverged as the mission began -- Farley with assault troops and Blackburn assigned with those working in support.
It was a dark night, with no moon. As the leading troops approached barbed-wire entanglements, a German land mine exploded. Then another. The Germans responded with flares that illuminated the night "as bright as daylight," Blackburn wrote in a 1945 letter -- and in that clarity they unloaded "a murderous fire" on the men of Jack's platoon, using machine guns, mortars and artillery.
Blackburn radioed Jack.
There were more explosions. Jack called out in code, asking for stretcher bearers. His platoon commander was severely wounded.
Blackburn called to him again -- sure from the sound of Jack's voice that Jack also had been hit.
He never got an answer.
That night and the next day, search parties were sent out but no one found Jack's body. He was counted as missing. For more than four months, his wife struggled to hope that he had survived.
On March 7, 1945, the official news arrived in a Western Union telegram. The British, who had taken over the area where the raid had happened, had discovered Jack's grave.
"The secretary of war asks that I express his deep sympathy in your loss. . ."
It was September 1945 when she received what was left of Jack's military service -- broken eyeglasses and the small, metal-plated Bible in which she had inscribed: "To John A. Farley, from his admiring wife Marjorie."
Now he is buried in that vast field of white crosses that Kyle visited when he was 17 -- and where he dwelled on the words "John A. Farley . . . 115th Infantry . . . 29th Division."
Past and Present Blur With a possible invasion of Iraq looming, Kyle Conley is a full-fledged Marine, waiting to hear whether his Reserve unit will be activated and deployed, as it was during the Persian Gulf War. Meanwhile, he works long hours at his Washington office and pores over newspaper stories about war policy and world events.
One weekend a month, he pulls duty as a member of Bravo Company of the 4th Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, based in Frederick. If the unit gets orders for Iraq, Conley says he is ready to go.
His family tries not to dwell on this.
Kyle's mother, Stephanie Conley -- the Sept. 11 child who never knew her father -- remembers her own childhood, with a loving stepfather but lingering questions about her own father. The family spoke little of Jack, out of concern for her stepfather's feelings.
Now there are Kyle's children to think about, she says. Kyle's daughter is 2. His son was born just six days after Kyle returned from boot camp and just hours after the family celebrated Father's Day.
The Conleys named him with Jack in mind. His first name is Sean, an Irish form of John. His middle name is Alden, as it was for Kyle's grandfather. In the house where Sean Alden is growing up is a new portrait of a young man in uniform -- his father, another generation willing.