Back Stories: When War Heroes Come Home

In honor of Memorial Day this month, editor Mel Allen takes a look back at three profiles in New England courage.

By Mel Allen

May 17 2021

Mel Allen
I do not remember how I found the book with the names of all the Medal of Honor recipients. This would been in 1981, because the first of my three profiles began then, a series we titled “Portrait of a Hero.” I did not want to ask the three men — Ed Dahlgren, Larry Joel, and Michael Daly — to talk about what they did in war. Anyone who has known a family member or close friend who saw combat understands the deep silence that enfolds those memories. To receive the Medal of Honor almost always means they would have saved many lives, while almost always seeing many others die. So no, I did not want to write about their war stories. Those belonged to them. What I wanted to ask them was what their lives had been before the war. And what had happened after — after the White House ceremony, after the inevitable parade and the newspaper interviews. What was it like to be called a war hero when life rolls on and the battles grow distant in the minds of so many?

“Portrait of a Hero,” September 1981

I met Ed Dahlgren first in Aroostook County, Maine. He was a soft-spoken man who had spent a career inspecting potatoes after returning home from some of the fiercest fighting across Europe in World War II. He rarely spoke about his war. It was all in his citation, which told of how he saved his platoon by singlehandedly attacking German machine gunners who fired on his men from houses, and how he charged into the houses and captured 20 enemy troops. He was Maine’s most celebrated war hero. When I saw him, he never mentioned PTSD; the recognition of post-traumatic stress disorder had only arrived in medical consciousness a few months before we met. Instead, he told about not being able to hold a cup of coffee for years because his hands shook. Of needing to be quiet. Of sleepless nights. Or nights filled with dreams that he was back at war. He died in 2006, and six years later his daughter Susan wrote a book about her father, In the Shadow of a Mountain. In it, she detailed how PTSD had affected her father and their family. How the life he led as a respected seed potato inspector and a civic and veterans affair leader was one of the most heroic things a man could ever do.

“Only Afraid to Show Fear,” May 1983

When I interviewed Michael Daly in Connecticut, I was struck by how his life’s course had seemingly been ordained by his being the son of one of the most decorated soldiers in World War I, Paul Daly. Michael had landed in Normandy on D-Day as a 19-year-old. In Nuremberg, only days before the war’s end in Europe, he had raced ahead of his troops to silence machine gun fire that was coming from the rubble of buildings. The next day he was shot in the face. My story began with the central truth of his life so many years after his war. On Memorial Day in Fairfield, Connecticut, when the parade and the speeches are over, Michael Daly drives along Long Island Sound and later heads north to towns where nobody knows him, and he does not come home until dark. “He really mourns,” his wife, Maggie, says. “Everybody else is having picnics, but he’s alone, mourning.”

“The Battle Within,” March 1982

Larry Joel’s story has never left me. After his valor as a medic during a 24-hour battle in Vietnam in 1965, when half of his battalion were killed or wounded, he became one of the most recognizable faces of a war that was already dividing the nation. He was the first living Black soldier to receive the Medal of Honor since the Spanish-American War. Before Larry Joel, a Black soldier received the honor only after dying on the battlefield. We talked over several days, sometimes months apart. “I haven’t talked about the medal,” he told me, while sitting in the small apartment he had in his sister’s house in Bridgeport, Connecticut. “Too many bad experiences earning it, and too many bad experiences living with it. I’ve been wanting to talk about this a long time. But I haven’t been ready.” He had been a career soldier, and on the day of the fierce battle he was 37. He was wounded twice during the fighting, and afterward he spent weeks in hospitals. The army made him a celebrity. “I went on tour — Denver, Chicago, Cleveland: schools, hospitals, recruiting appearances. Every time I looked around I was called to the White House for some function. I was in Chicago and a reporter took me to the family of Milton Olive, a GI who’d thrown himself on a grenade. His parents showed me his room. They showed me his trains — he was just 19. They showed me his cameras — he was training to be a photographer like his father. It looked like they had his room all set up waiting for him to come home. The reporter asked us to take a picture together. I had my medal and they had their son’s medal in their hands. He was killed in the same war I was in and he was my son’s age. The word ‘posthumous’ goes right through me.” His life spiraled. Being called a hero was a torment to him, when he had seen so many others not come home. He drank. And drank more. His family life dissolved. The only place he felt he belonged was back in Vietnam, and that is where he returned. When we talked, he had been retired from the army since 1973. He was working as a VA counselor in Hartford. He was not well. He was 53 and looked every year of it. He walked slowly. He was proud of what he had done as a medic, but a deep sadness came out during our time together. Not long after Yankee published his story in March 1982, a television movie producer called from New York. He invited me to the city to discuss turning Larry Joel’s story into a movie. We met in a midtown Manhattan restaurant; he brought his assistant with him. After a few pleasantries he surprised me with his first question: Was Joel under the influence during the battle? I was stunned. He wanted to know if Joel’s extraordinary courage was aided by his being intoxicated. Even as I write these words, all these years later, it is difficult to understand. The movie never happened. Larry Joel died on February 4, 1984, of complications from diabetes. He was only 55. Among the honors after his death: There is a Joel Auditorium at Walter Reed Medical Center, and clinics at Fort Benning and Fort Bragg bear his name. At Wake Forest University in his native Winston-Salem, North Carolina, athletes play at the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum, known only as the LJVM Coliseum. When I reread the story I had written, I had the strange feeling of being in two places at the same time. I knew how, after his death, his name once again was spoken with reverence. But I also was back in Bridgeport the day after Christmas in 1982 and he talked about what he hoped for his future. “I tell myself it’s going to be better,” he said. “I saved a lot of people’s lives once. Now I’ve got to help myself.”

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