A supplemental story for Soldiers’ Stories – A Collection of WWII Memoirs book series.
Written by Seimon Pugh-Jones
Gillian regularly took a short walk accompanied by her dog Buster from her home to the old American war cemetery on the hill. The Lisnabreeny Memorial overlooking Belfast was a resting place for 147 American GIs who gave their lives to secure freedom for Europe; however, not all who are listed were combat casualties. Some had survived the fierce battles in the air and on or the land and had been looking forward to returning to America to resume their civilian lives. Such is the story of one such soldier whose name graces the monument.
Gillian’s regular visits eventually numbered well into the hundreds. As each visit concluded, Gillian read all the names aloud, each name inscribed upon the marble monument before her. Over time, the names became familiar to her. Perhaps it was this familiarity with strangers from the past who now seemed like friends which gave rise to Gillian’s deeper curiosity. Who were the people who were being so honored in their eternal resting place? Were their sacrifice decades ago just a footnote to a history largely forgotten?
Gillian had more than just a passing interest in the Yanks. Her dear friend Teddy had been a GI in World War II. He had been born in New York City to parents from Northern Ireland, and he had returned to Belfast as a young boy, an expatriate American citizen. As the war heated up in Europe, Uncle Sam stretched his arm across the Atlantic and tapped Teddy on the shoulder to give him notice to report for duty in the armed forces of the United States.
Teddy answered his country’s call to serve an infantryman in the US Army’s 42nd Infantry Division. It was a fighting force nicknamed the “Rainbow Division” comprised of soldiers from 26 different states. As the war drew to a close, Teddy was present during his division’s liberation of Dachau, a Nazi forced labor camp outside of Munich, Germany. Later, as part of the Army’s effort to save priceless artworks and other cultural items confiscated by Hitler’s war machine, he supported the Army’s “monument team” as they retrieved and safeguarded pieces of fine art from locations including hidden underground storage facilities such as mines and caves. As Teddy’s friend, Gillian listened to the stories he told on her Thursday night visits. With them was Teddy’ nephew Brian. Soon they became the best of friends.
On 12 November, 2023, Gillian stood before the memorial. It was cold and windy, a typical Emerald Isle Day. This time she was part of a delegation, alongside the local British Legion. As the bagpipes played their cadence, the faces of 147 soldiers passed in review before her mind’s eye, with Teddy, now appearing as his younger self and looking smart in his uniform, marching with them.
That evening, with the day’s memorial events behind her, and after a short, contemplative drive home, Gillian tried to relax. She brewed a cup of tea and sat down at her computer to unwind. As she scrolled through photos of the day’s event and images of her memories of Teddy, she decided to share pictures and a video with her friend Seimon Pugh-Jones.
Seimon was a historian from South Wales with similar interests in WW2 and a particular specialty in American servicemen in the UK during the war. Seimon had an unusual connection to the United States. He had experienced many inexplicable and coincidental events centered on the Cornhusker State and the city of Omaha, Nebraska.
Gillian aroused Seimon’s curiosity with the photos she sent. He took a look at the American Memorial on the internet. He opened the page with the list of names. He clicked on the first name on the list. To his amazement, there on the screen in front of him was another random coincidental connection with Omaha, Nebraska. There before him on the computer was image of a spectacled American serviceman identified as Private First Class (PFC) Milton E. Gooldy, born in 1917, and aged 28 at the time of his death in October 1945. Milton, whose hometown was Omaha, was a graduate of the University of Wyoming. He had been employed as an engineer by the US Army Corps of Engineers District Office in Omaha before he was drafted into the US Army.
When he completed basic training, Milton served in the 282nd Engineer Combat Battalion. The 282nd saw action in the liberation of France, in Luxembourg, Belgium, and, finally, across Germany. Having survived all of this, PFC Gooldy died in Scotland on October 29, 1945, of a fractured skull and dual hemorrhage, while en route to a school of municipal engineering in Northern Ireland. PFC Gooldy was buried first in the Lisnabreeny Former American Military Cemetery in England. The cemetery closed in 1948, and his remains were exhumed and transferred. He is buried now in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Omaha, Douglas County, Nebraska, USA.
“I was totally bowled over and couldn’t believe what I was reading,” said Seimon. “A Nebraskan who was memorialized on a weather-beaten hill overlooking Belfast.” Within minutes after his discovery, Seimon wrote to his friend David Bighia, a US Army veteran and fellow historian who lived in Omaha. He knew the cemetery; it was twenty minutes away from his home. There was no need to ask. David immediately set out for the cemetery. He joked that “he kept his horses not far away,” and it wasn’t a problem to stop and find Gooldy’s gravesite. His message read, “The cemetery’s huge, but I’ll keep on looking.” And he did. A short while later, through modern technology, Seimon received a call, some pictures, and a short video.
David had found the headstone! Nestled on a gentle slope in a section of the cemetery for veterans, and despite being totally hidden from view due to erosion from the slope above, it was visible when the debris was cleared away. It was unmistakably PFC Gooldy’s final resting place. After a brief discussion with Bighia, the cemetery caretaker agreed to reset the stone. He disappeared for a short while and returned with a spade, some additional dirt, and grass seed. Moments later, Seimon received more pictures of a member of staff cleaning the reset grave marker. Quite possibly, it was seen for the first time since disappearing beneath the encroaching Nebraska soil and sod decades before.
Shortly thereafter, the familiar name of a man Gillian had never met but had come to know through the recitation of his name appeared before her on her phone as she lay in bed preparing to go to sleep. She was viewing the image files of the Gooldy gravesite Seimon had sent.
Comforted by the pictures of the washed headstone, fresh flowers and marked by an American flag, Gillian closed the files, turned off the lamp on her bedside table, and closed her eyes. A gentle smile of contentment and amazement appeared together with an inner understanding that after all it wasn’t “coincidence” really, just God’s way of remaining anonymous. On this day, it certainly seemed so.
A story of coincidence. A story of remembrance. Never forget.