November 11th will mark the ninety-ninth anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I. Even though America entered the conflict late, declaring war in April of 1917, the “Great War” had a profound impact locally. At least a hundred and twenty-three local men died in the conflict. In his fascinating book Greenpoint Doughboy, author Peter McHale describes the life and death of one of his great-uncle, John McKay, a graduate of St. Cecelia’s Parochial School who lived on Meeker Avenue and joined the famous New York Irish Regiment, “ The Fighting Sixty-Ninth.” McKay tragically became one of the more than 116,000 Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice.
Peter McHale is a fascinating man who is not a professional writer. He is a professional airplane pilot and former United States Navy pilot who was fascinated by his family’s history in Greenpoint, and the tale of his great-uncle’s death. McHale did not begin his research into his great-uncle’s life with the intention of writing a book. However, at some point he decided to publish his great uncle’s story and Greenpoint history is richer thanks to his efforts.
The book deftly tells the tale of the two McKay brothers who entered the war in different divisions. The brothers are studies in contrast. John is a paragon of virtue and a true hero, while his brother Archie is the family’s black sheep and a ne’er-do-well with a serious drinking problem. Archie made it home, but traumatized by the war, he went Absent Without Leave and descended into bouts of binge drinking. Archie’s story is a poignant reminder that even those who made it home suffered for their service to the country.
I recently came across an old article about the dedication of the World War I monument in McGolrick Park. It mentioned John McHale’s name and after reading Greenpoint Doughboy, when I see the statue I will always think of the brave young man from Meeker Avenue who died heroically fighting for his country.