Excerpt from Yankee Magazine May 1983
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.”
There are not many people left in Fairfield who remember when Michael came home in the rain clutching his Medal of Honor. It was the 24th of August in 1945. There was a huge parade, and he sat beside his father, Colonel Paul Daly, in an open roadster. Both men had been badly wounded, the Colonel by shrapnel that nearly severed his sciatic nerve, Michael by a bullet in the face. A few weeks later — on Michael’s 21st birthday — the Colonel got his 12-year-old son, Gilroy, to drive him to every bar in town. At each stop he put a roll of money on the counter and shouted, “This is on Michael!”
Paul Daly was born on the Fourth of July, 1891, in Harlem when it was still country and you needed a coach and four to go to market. He was a magnificent horseman with the same unbridled spirit as the horses he sought to tame. No school held him long. He was kicked out of them all, including West Point. But in World War I, in the 18th Infantry of the First Infantry Division, he found his genius for combat. Later one general would write a book about the First Division and inscribe it “To Paul Daly, the bravest man I have ever known.”
On July 18, 1918, near Soissons, France, with his battalion surrounded, he successfully assaulted the Chateau of Buzancy, a German stronghold, and boldly demanded its surrender. “I am on the heights of Buzancy with 90 men and one officer.” the message said. “I have just captured 210 officers and men of the enemy.”
He came home a hero with the Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, and three wounds. He would practice law. but his heart lay elsewhere. He referred clients to other lawyers, then, duty done, would skip off to the track. He married beautiful, red-headed Madelaine Mulqueen. Their first-born was a daughter named Madelaine; their second, a son who died in infancy. On September 15, 1924, Michael was born. Paul Daly adored him, but his dignity rarely allowed him to show it. Yet he shared with Michael his great love — the breeding of thoroughbreds for stamina, heart, and courage.
Michael grew up in the Southport section of Fairfield in a country house at the end of a long pebbled drive. Folks in town called it “Daly’s Chateau.” “We’re not rich, but we’re privileged,” his father said. The Dalys were Fairfield’s storybook family, set apart in spite of themselves.
“We were always late to church,” Michael says. “My father led us down the aisle. and we always sat in the front pew. and you could see the heads turn, hear the whispers, ‘It’s the Major.’ I flushed with embarrassment.”
His father would lead the Memorial Day parade on horseback. At the end of the Fourth of July day-long party, his father always set off a tremendous fireworks display. “It was his birthday,” Michael says. “I always thought all the celebration was for him.”
Father and son galloped bareback through the fields together, then went on foot through the woods “hunting for Indians.” Seeing smoke in the distance, his father would whisper it was Indians burning villages. Much later Michael would realize it was only smokestacks in the town below.
His father bought horses that were considered untrainable and turned them into fox hunters. “We always had temperamental horses throwing us off. We weren’t supposed to cry. We weren’t supposed to show fear. We were supposed to get right up on the horse again.” Michael says.
At night his father read aloud. “He rarely said the word ‘courage,’ but he read so often about knights that I knew ‘The Song of Roland’ by heart,” Michael says. Sometimes Paul Daly told his favorite story about himself. He was on reconnaissance across barbed wire into no-man’s land. It was a dark, moonless night. He broke through the wire and completed his mission. Turning back he couldn’t find the gap he had so laboriously broken through. Soon it would be light and he would make an easy target for the Germans. He said a silent prayer to the Blessed Lady. “He said he saw a bright star,” Michael says, “one he hadn’t seen before. He followed the star and there was the gap.”
He taught Michael military history by reenacting great battles in the garden. “Every June 18 was Waterloo. We dug trenches in the soil and put our soldiers and artillery in place and my father would shout, ‘French cavalry on the right!'”
Once, during the Depression, Paul Daly heard a noise downstairs. With his ivory-handled sword in hand, he crept down the stairs and pricked the intruder on the leg. Then, always the gentleman, he applied iodine and bandages and sent him away with a bag of food.
Just before his 13th birthday Michael went away to Georgetown Prep in Washington, D.C. A blue ribbon horseman, a budding basketball star, lanky, hot-tempered, he had little regard for school regulations. “I was full of myself,” he says. “I got by living for the next game.”
Michael graduated in June 1941, not yet 17, too young to go to West Point as his father wished. He went instead to Rhode Island’s Portsmouth Priory, a strict school run by monks, where his escapades continued. During one such adventure his father phoned to say good-bye. Fifty years old by then, he had been asked by his old First Division friend, Lieutenant General Alexander Patch, to join him in the Pacific. Michael, discovered absent from school, was dismissed. However, a family friend interceded and Michael received his West Point appointment, entering the Academy in the summer of 1942.
“I was a spectacular failure as a cadet. One night I was late for guard duty. I also hadn’t locked my rifle. I mistook the trigger for the locking mechanism and I fired a round through a building. The same night I was sitting on the running board of a car when the inspector of the guard came by. I set a record for demerits that night.” He flunked math and would have had to repeat the year. He resigned, and in the fall of 1943, when his father was sent to North Africa with General Patch, he enlisted in the army.
He went to England in the spring, joining the 18th Infantry of the First Division, his father’s old outfit, three days before D-Day. He was 19 years old. Michael landed at Omaha Beach in the second wave. “There was tremendous confusion. Men from the first wave were still trying to get ashore. We couldn’t see the people firing at us. I heard bullets whine overhead, but I didn’t know what they were. It was not a question of overcoming my fear, but of trying to control it. My father used to say there’s no such thing as bravery. What people called bravery was being raised so you’re more afraid of showing fear than fear itself.”
He pushed on through the hedgerows to Saint-Lo, and he had his first Silver Star by the time he reached Paris. In September, while his father was in the south of France with Patch’s Seventh Army. Michael was wounded at Aachen. He recuperated in England, and when he returned, General Patch sent for him. Patch’s only son had been killed, as had Paul Daly’s nephew. “He asked what kind of assignment I’d like. He implied I could be his aide. I said I wanted to re-join the infantry.”
He joined Company A, 15th Infantry, Third Infantry Division just before Christmas during the fighting along the Colmar Pocket in eastern France. He was with battle-hardened soldiers who had fought in North Africa through Sicily, into Italy, and now through France. But they quickly learned to respect the young Second Lieutenant.
“We were having a terrible time,” recalls Burton Barr (today Majority Leader of the Arizona House of Representatives), who served as Michael’s assistant battalion commander, “but here was this gangly guy, always where you could see him, not hiding his height, an easy target, as though he believed wherever he stood would protect him. He never told you about himself, but you wanted to follow him. He was a truly brave man.”
Meanwhile Paul Daly was commanding the 198th Infantry of the 100th Division when a mortar caught him near Biche. He came home in great pain, forced to sit all day on the couch, chafing that he let himself be hit. He received a letter from General Patch about Michael’s actions during the fierce Alsace-Lorraine fighting. “Under heavy fire, with many of his men hurt, he grasped victory from almost certain defeat.” By April Michael was a First Lieutenant, a company commander, with three Silver Stars.
On April 16 he entered Nuremberg where, in the impenetrable rubble that was once a great city, the SS troops were holed up. Later friends would ask him why he risked dying when he half expected the next radio message to say the war was over. They asked why he didn’t just pull back and wait. And he could not really answer except to say, “You don’t win unless you occupy. And this was a great crusade we were on.”
Burton Barr remembers: “It was early in the morning. We were told to advance. A machine gun opened up from atop a railroad embankment killing some of our men. He told us, he ordered us to take cover. He ran towards the machine gun. Bullets were kicking up all around him, but he kept firing and he killed the three men. He continued on alone, ahead of us. Six Germans were in the rubble of a house firing rockets. He stayed there and killed them too. Later, by a park a burst of fire killed our sergeant. There were three of them, and he got them. There was another fight that day, another machinegun crew. He protected us.” Reports said that Michael had killed anywhere from 15 to 22 soldiers. “I don’t remember very much of that day,” Michael says quietly. The next day he was shot in the face.
“We’d just come through a park, getting ready to attack the old city,” Barr related. “As usual, A Company was to lead the attack. He was leaning on my shoulder, talking to me. There was a crack and Mike spun around. I’ll always remember… He took a pencil out of his pocket and stuck it down his throat to keep his windpipe open, did it as calmly as can be.”
“I thought I was finished,” Michael says. “I’d seen enough face wounds. I remembered to be still. But it was like there was a pillow over my face. I knew I was suffocating.” A tracheotomy saved his life. The next morning, Nuremberg surrendered.
He was sent to a hospital in England, then came home, a Captain, to a hospital in Framingham, Massachusetts, where he learned to talk with a nerve-damaged throat. When his sister Madelaine came to see him he whispered that when he was in a tight spot he had thought of Roland.
On August 23 he received the Medal of Honor from President Truman. He came home on a Friday night in a pouring rain. Banners hanging all across town said, “Welcome Home, Captain Michael Daly.” The band played and an open roadster took him and his father to the high school auditorium where he told the cheering crowd in words perhaps few understood, “This is the swellest thing that has ever happened to me.”
Convalescence was lengthy. He developed pleurisy that sent him to a sanatarium in Colorado for six months. Finally home, he couldn’t sleep. He closed up the bars, drinking Scotch, and refused to go back to college. His father did not pressure him. But an old friend of his father’s reacted. “He said, ‘Why don’t you go to work?’ The tone of his voice was like a cement block dropping on my head,” Michael recalls.
The next day he went to work for an oil company. Eventually he began his own business selling oil, gas, and air filters to oil companies. He married Maggie Wallace when he was 35. She was divorced with two children, was an avid gardener, allergic to horses, and a close family friend. They built a house set amidst a broad green field and stone walls half a mile from his father’s farm.
The first child to come was a daughter, Deirdre. Then Michael’s son, who is named after him, was born mentally retarded. “Mickey has done more for me than I have ever done for him,” Michael will tell you, even though “the problems with no endings are the hardest.”
For Deirdre, it was as though she had two fathers. There was the one who played basketball with her, and went on business trips, who was kind and serious and romantic. And there was the one she could never know – whose medals, and those of his father, were in a velvet-lined case. One summer she traveled to France. “I knew I could never understand that part of his life,” she says, “but I had to try.” She went to Omaha Beach where the white crosses blinded her with their terrible beauty. She thought of her father always alone on Memorial Day and had a vision of an animal tearing at its own wound to destroy the pain. She never felt so close to him as on the night she slept on Omaha Beach. And when she came home she and Michael talked.
“I used to wonder why my father used to look back so much, even more as he got older. Now I understand,” Michael told her. “It’s probably the one time in life when you’re willing to sacrifice everything for the guy alongside of you. You never have that again. You forget the carnage and the sadness and you remember this one thing — you had a cause greater than yourself.”
Paul Daly never fully recovered from the war. His limp got worse, but he continued to ride. Year after year he went to the dwindling reunions of the 18th Infantry, First Division. In his last years he would take his walker to the pasture to watch his grandchildren ride. He died on June 10, 1974, Father’s Day weekend, when he was nearly 83. There was a three-day Irish wake for the Colonel who was laid out in his living room in uniform with a flag draped by the coffin. It was a diverse group of mourners who cried and laughed and ate and drank — horseplayers and Democrats and veterans. Friends said that the Colonel would finally get to ask Napoleon why he had blundered at Waterloo.
Late last summer Michael Daly returned to Germany for the first time since World War II. At 58 he was slender with serious gray eyes. He had been invited by the young Commander of Company A, 15th Infantry, 3rd Infantry Division, his old outfit, “to boost morale.” They gave him the Audie Murphy Suite, but he woke before daylight, uncertain whether he had slept at all. “Faces came hack to me,” he said. He dressed quickly and walked across the parade grounds to a small Memorial Park where plaques were set in boulders. He stood there alone watching the sun streak the sky until he could hear faint stirrings in the distant barracks. He was remembering, fighting against forgetting, fearing that if the memories dimmed he would become a stranger to himself.
He gave a speech at an officers’ banquet. He was asked to wear his blue embossed Medal and he did. He had always wanted to give a speech like this, to soldiers: so often the speeches he gave at home seemed not really understood. No speech he had given before, he felt, would mean as much as this one. He spoke about the infantry and the men he had lost, and at times his voice cracked. Towards the end he quoted the Antarctic explorer Captain Scott who wrote to his son from his deathbed, “Courage is the thing. Everything goes if courage goes.” As he finished the men stood and applauded.
“Remember us,” he told them, “as long as you can.”