Members of the American Legion veterans organisation are due to come to Johnstown later this month to honour an Irishman who fought with the US Army in World War I.
Michael K. Holmes is last recorded in Ireland in the 1911 Census, when he was 22 and living in his family home at Baunmore.
Now, a ceremony is due to take place on October 27 to bring his memory home at long last.
The process began when the 1911 Census was released and Peggy Murray started looking for information about her father’s family. She came across several names she recognised but one she did not: Michael K. Holmes.
When the Cork woman asked her family members still living in Johnstown about Michael, she was told that he had emigrated to America and was later conscripted into the US Army, only to be killed in France in the war’s last days.
“The story that came through from America at the time was that he was killed just before the Armistice on November 11 (1918) and his body had never been found,” Peggy said. “The story was that he was driving an officer and they were standing next to the Jeep and a shell landed and the two of them were blown up, although we have no confirmation of that story.”
A memoriam card was sent from American to his mother at the time, though.
It was a slow search as Peggy tried to find out more about Michael, an uncle of her late father, Billy Ryan, who moved from Johnstown to Cork in 1950.
After extensive searching online, she eventually came across the American Battle Monuments Commission’s website, which lists “Michael K. Holmes, missing in action or buried at sea.” She also learned that his name is inscribed on the Wall of the Missing in the Meuse-Argonne cemetery in France.
She contacted the National Personnel Records Center in the US but was told that a fire in 1972 had destroyed the records from Michael’s time in the army. So it seemed that that would be the end of her search, until a Nationwide episode aired last November highlighting the work of Major Ron Howco, an American man living in Mayo who helps Irish families to repatriate the bodies of family members who served overseas and who are buried in unmarked graves, for example.
Although he couldn’t help Peggy in her search for more information about Michael, he put her in contact with a man in the States named Pat Gorman.
“We wrote to him and, lo and behold, he wrote back and said he would trace some of Michael’s records – because even though his main records were destroyed, for anybody who was actually killed serving in the American army, the National Archives keep a file on them,” she said.
They were able to retrieve Michael’s file and although it didn’t contain much information, “it was something,” she said.
In the end, though, they would get much more.
The US military traditionally sends a grave marker when a body is being repatriated, but in this case there was no body. Nonetheless, Mr Gorman enquired about the possibility of getting some kind of marker for Michael’s family – and as a result they were sent a bronze plaque with his name, his regiment and the dates of his birth and his death; an American flag; and four presidential certificates with Barack Obama’s signature on them.
The official date of his death is October 27, 1918 – and October 27 has also been chosen for the ceremony at which the bronze plaque will be put in place. It will be laid at the grave of his parents, William and Margaret, in Clomantagh Church graveyard, where the ceremony will also take place.
In addition to the family, the ceremony will be attended by Mr Howco and some Irish members of the American Legion. Peggy’s son Kevin is serving with the United Nations in Uganda but will also be able to attend the ceremony as he will be back in Ireland on three weeks’ leave. He has also been given permission to wear his full dress uniform for the ceremony.
“Quite a lot of the family went to America” at the time, Peggy said, but many were lost track of as they went first to England and then to Canada, before landing in Bayonne, New Jersey. “When he went there were no telephones, and writing a letter probably took weeks – if they even got around to writing letters – so there may have been very little contact from him after that,” she said.
Now, however, he is getting his homecoming at last.